Old Urbana Cemetery (Leal Park)

Old Urbana Cemetery, now known as Leal Park, was the first burial ground for early settlers, slaves, soldiers and travelers. It was located at the intersection of present-day Race and University Ave. along the banks of the Boneyard Creek. The first burial on record in Old Urbana Cemetery was the interment of the wife of Isaac Busey in 1833 [1]. After this, the burial ground was used by other settlers in the community of both high and low social standing and those travelers laid to waste by the wrath of war or nature as they passed through.

Life in Champaign County in the fifty years following this first burial in 1833, was brutal. Living in Central Illinois then would have been the life of a pioneer: exposed to the elements, isolated and working hard to produce the food and infrastructure needed to survive. In the very earlier period of settlement, it was considered a long life if you endured five years. T.R. Webber, an early settler, remarked on health conditions in the area that “pale men and women and ague-ridden, pot-bellied children were the rule and healthy constitutions the exceptions” [2].

The burials in Old Urbana Cemetery were unorganized: lots were not planned out or routinely cared for; it was utilitarian in function, a conveniently located burial ground used at a time when life for settlers was the hardest and death inevitable. This cemetery was used as public property; all burials were allowed and required no payment for interment. In this sense, Old Urbana Cemetery was a egalitarian space in a way that the later, more organized, cemeteries in the area are unable to be due to administrative oversight and costs for burial. But all of this is not to say that Old Urbana Cemetery completely wiped away social differences after death. One woman whose grandmother was buried in the cemetery recalled a memory from her childhood: “It was explained to me that Negroes were buried around the edges, white people in the middle, and that Indians were 'way down deep because they had died a thousand years ago” [3]. Immigrants, from both the eastern United States and other countries, who died passing through the area would have been buried on the edge of the main burial ground without a permanent grave marker, making it difficult to determine how big this burial ground actually was [4].

In 1850, Chief Shemanger, a Native American leader, was buried in the Old Urbana Cemetery. He was traveling with members of his tribe to Washington D.C. to see president Millard Fillmore when he fell sick. Chief Shemanger was cared for at the Dunlap House, which was then located in downtown Urbana and used as a tavern. After he died, his tribe members buried him in the Old Urbana Cemetery, cutting a path through the undergrowth to the Boneyard Creek so that he might have water to drink, and placing a bottle of milk, bread and butter in his grave so that he might have food to eat on his journey [5].

The burial ground continued to be used actively until 1856, when it was readily abandoned by those families who could afford burial plots in the spacious and more modern Mount Hope Cemetery. The Old Urbana Cemetery land passed through the ownership of members of the Busey Family from its abandonment in 1856 until 1903 with occasional burials. A number of soldiers were buried in the cemetery during and after the Civil War. In 1903, Col. Samuel and Mary T. Busey, who also founded Woodlawn Cemetery in 1907, deeded the burial ground over to the city on the condition that it be used as a city park [6].

At this time, the burial ground was in a state of disarray. The area had never been laid out into plots, but now it was completely overgrown and had broken and missing grave markers. The graves that could be identified with ancestors still in the area were relocated to other cemeteries, mainly Mount Hope Cemetery. More than 125 graves were moved, but it is estimated that thirty to forty remain on site, consisting mainly of travelers, soldiers and the poor [7]. The markers of the unidentified graves have been laid flat and covered with dirt. It was hoped, as reported by local historian Joseph Cunningham, that the beautiful park grounds would be more of an honor to the forgotten dead than a neglected cemetery [8].

For a while in 1903, it was suspected that the burial ground was haunted. Residents living in the area reported seeing a ghostly figure roaming the abandoned cemetery. One night, the ghostly figure, accompanied by two companions in a mask, followed a woman home at which point it became apparent that these ghosts were not otherworldly. Soon after this incident, there appeared a threat in the Urbana Weekly Courier warning the ghosts that local residents had “taken down their shot-guns” and were prepared to lay the ghosts to rest [9].

According to several reports, skeletons have been unearthed in several construction projects over the years, including the widening of University Avenue and the construction of the Lincoln Lodge Motel. Leal Park is currently a green space with a small walking trail. A Greek Revival Cottage, one of the oldest structures still standing in Urbana, was relocated to the park and now serves as administrative offices.



303 W University Ave, Urbana, IL 61801