Lincoln’s Oldest Park Began as a Cemetery
Updated: Jun 24
Cooper Park, located on 12 acres just south of Park Middle School, was originally an unofficial cemetery. Before the town of Lancaster was even an idea, Native Americans supposedly buried their dead on the site. After the village of Lancaster was founded by Elder Young in 1863, residents used the same stretch of land as a cemetery. The grassy area was also used as a pasture for cows that freely roamed the fields. The area was included in the original plat of Lancaster drawn in 1865. Two years later, the town was officially incorporated and renamed Lincoln. The area used for burials was left vacant as a result of undeveloped plans. After attempts to plant trees failed and drilling to supply water only brought up salt water, the Ladies’ City Improvement Association secured Jen Jensen to develop designs for a city park in 1900. His style of winding paths were exhibited in the final construction.
The park was dedicated as Lincoln Park, but later took on other names such as F Street Park and City Park before finally being named Cooper Park after the Cooper Foundation raised $35,000 in 1951. The money donated provided updates, which included a picnic shelter, playgrounds, upgraded baseball field, and an ice-skating rink. The name of the park officially changed to Cooper Park in 1954.
Eventually, the city of Lincoln and the Lancaster County Health Department decided the area was becoming too much trouble and as a result, Wyuka Cemetery was created in 1869. The Capital Commission originally provided 160 acres of land near the asylum. However, when the county commissioner inspected the site, Salt Creek had flooded the area. Deciding the site would not work, the state sold the land and bought 80 acres on O Street, where Wyuka Cemetery remains today.
The bodies from the cemetery originally buried at the site that would later become Cooper Park were removed and relocated to Wyuka Cemetery. Residents of Lincoln had continued to use the area as a cemetery until 1881. Unfortunately, locating bodies was difficult because the graves, for the most part, were unmarked and records of burial locations were nonexistent. Most of the bodies were moved, but several remained. Even as late as the turn of the century, workers would uncover bodies while digging holes for sidewalks.
The oldest grave marker in Wyuka Cemetery belongs to Hughenia Morrison with the date of October 1869. Today, 60,000 people are buried within the grounds.
Although I have yet to hear any ghost stories associated with the area once used as a cemetery, the idea of moving bodies and having some be left behind, provides the base for an eerie tale. Today, Cooper Park is surrounded by some of the oldest homes in Lincoln and is used frequently by visitors and middle school students who take classes only a parking lot away. Hopefully, all of the people who were once buried there have found their final place of rest.
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