Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island | Local Treasure

For more than a century and a half, Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island, has been a resting place for many of the state’s most notable citizens, and a source of serenity and beauty for all who enter.

By Aimee Tucker

Oct 02 2014

swan point cemetery grave

Among Swan Point’s many early graves is that of Nathaniel Dana, an ensign with the Rhode Island Grenadiers during the Revolutionary War.

Photo Credit : Jesse Burke
swan point cemetery grave
Among Swan Point’s many early graves is that of Nathaniel Dana (left), an ensign with the Rhode Island Grenadiers during the Revolutionary War.
Photo Credit : Jesse Burke

Set back slightly from Providence’s busy Blackstone Boulevard recreation path, a pair of granite boulders offer welcome to an unusual garden. Inside, a network of paths beckon, twisting and curling for miles over gentle hills and past mature trees with views of the bordering Seekonk River. Handsome, quiet, and calm, it’s a public space without a visible public, but that’s to be expected. Founded in 1846 and home to generations of Rhode Islanders, this 200-acre expanse, known as Swan Point, is one of the nation’s oldest garden cemeteries.

Also known as rural cemeteries, garden cemeteries like Swan Point, inspired by the English garden movement, were a style of burial ground popular during the latter half of the 19th century. Designed for both the living and the dead, they were the original public parks, using thoughtful planting, meticulous landscaping techniques that complemented the natural contours of the land, and an even arrangement of markers, which could range from simple headstones to grand family mausoleums. Like Mount Auburn in Cambridge and Mount Hope in Bangor, Maine, the garden-style influences at Swan Point are evident in its dozens of specimen trees and flowering shrubs and the neat paths that surround the carved obelisks and angel monuments in perfect harmony.

Beyond the beautiful, the ceme­tery also offers an in-depth view of the past. Here, soldiers, industrialists, merchants, and suffragists rest alongside Rhode Island School of Design founder Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf and famed Providence horror-fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft. Twenty-three Rhode Island governors “reside” at Swan Point, including General Ambrose Burnside, whose long and flashy whiskers are credited as the original “sideburns.” He’s also one of the cemetery’s 600 Civil War soldiers. Another is Major Sullivan Ballou, a Smithfield native who died following the First Battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1861. The heartfelt letter he penned to his wife, Sarah, in the days leading up to the battle, expressing an honest meditation on patriotism and death, was featured in Ken Burns’s award-winning 1990 documentary The Civil War. For many, the letter’s eloquence made its reading the most memorable moment in the series.

Unlike some other garden ceme­teries founded during the same era, Swan Point has thrived throughout its nearly-170-year history under careful leadership and community support, growing to more than three times its original size and earning a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Modern advancements, including the handy electronic kiosk that prints a map for visitors in search of specific gravesites, help guide visitors—yet the enduring gift of Swan Point’s lovely setting remains its ability to provide comfort and peace, whether momentary or eternal, to all who enter.

Swan Point Cemetery
585 Blackstone Blvd., Providence. Visitors are welcome to stroll the paths and tour the facilities during hours of operation, but note that no photography of gravestones is permitted at any time, out of respect for the privacy of lot owners. For a complete list of cemetery regulations: 401-272-1314;