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As Madisonians died and were buried at Forest Hill, deceased family members were often exhumed from the village cemetery and moved to family plots at Forest Hill.


Orton Park Cemetery

The first permanent white settlers came to Madison in April 1837. When William Nelson, who had come to help erect the Capitol, died later that year, and Samuel Warren was killed by lightning the next, they were laid to rest on what was later named Bascom Hill. In the decade that followed, others were buried in scattered locations on the outskirts of town – what is now North Carroll Street and Proudfit Street, and on Dead Lake Ridge (the site of St. Mary’s Hospital). Finally, in 1847, an official village cemetery was established on Block 180, far east of the settled parts of town, a four-acre square bordered by Spaight, Rutledge, Few and Ingersoll streets. The cemetery only contained 246 burial plots, and the village did little to maintain it.

The Cemetery is still an open unfenced common, undistinguished from surrounding grounds by either mete or bound. Scarce an erection of any description marks the spot, if we exempt the grassy hillocks on the surface. Not a tree rears its head from the consecrated spot, nor a willow droops over the remains of silent sleepers – and the new-made graves are often defaced by the tread of cattle and other domestic animals. What a commentary on the taste and public spirit of our citizens! The excuse for this, we suppose, is that a proper fence for this enclosure will cost a few dollars, and to raise these will cost some trouble.

Wisconsin Argus
September 12, 1848

It soon became obvious that one small city block was inadequate to meet the needs of the growing town. Within six years local papers were calling for a new cemetery, and the site of Forest Hill was selected, bought, and put into use by 1858.

As Madisonians died and were buried at Forest Hill, deceased family members were often exhumed from the village cemetery and moved to family plots at Forest Hill. The first such case occurred in September 1859. In June 1866 the city council prohibited any more burials in the village cemetery, and a decade later ordered the remaining bodies moved to Forest Hill. Because cemetery records had not been kept, and because the grave markers, often made of wood, had deteriorated, the identity of these people was often unknown. They were buried at Forest Hill in unmarked graves – section 26 alone holds 144 unknowns.

Late in December 1877, the village cemetery was sold to John Schlimgen and Anton Steinle for $1,105. They originally planned to convert it into a beer garden. After a public outcry, the city bought the block from the two. Harlow S. Orton, who had become Madison’s fifteenth mayor in 1877, cast the deciding vote in favor of purchasing the land to create a park. In 1883 the park was named after him.

Orton came to Madison in 1851 to serve as Governor Leonard Farwell’s private secretary. Farwell was too busy developing his land holdings in the city to bother with governing, so Orton performed many of his duties. Orton was a member of the assembly in 1854, 1859, and 1871, and was judge of the ninth judicial circuit from 1859 to 1865.

A Democrat, Orton opposed going to war against the Confederacy. In April 1861 he announced that he “fully disapproved of the Administration’s decision to fight the South and he planned to go on with his law practice and not get caught up in the whole affair.” He wrote his brother John: “I fully and totally and emphatically disapprove of the course that seems to be indicated by the Administration, to fight the South. I say seems, for only God and Lincoln know what he does intend to do... The catch phrases ‘enforcement of the laws,’ ‘punishing treason,’ and ‘possessing the forts and places’ are merely flippant and meaningless uses of words. It is war, war, war and nothing but war, upon fourteen sovereign states of the Union of eight million of people, by the other twenty states of 20 million people... This will destroy all hope of Union forever, and probably result in destroying all government, North and South...” As late as 1863 he was the featured speaker at meetings that attacked Lincoln’s conduct of the war. As described by the Weekly Wisconsin Patriot on January 31:

“Never, in the annals of Madison, has such an immense indoors audience listened to such a masterly, eloquent, powerful speech as that delivered by Harlow S. Orton for the Democratic club of this city at the City Hall on Saturday evening. Every nook and corner of that large hall were jammed to their utmost capacity. The gallery was as full as it could be – every seat was occupied, and hundreds stood in the vacant places between and in the rear of the seats – all attention, all anxious, interested listeners – all absorbed – all electrified by the speaker’s powerful logic and irrefragible facts. It was a proud time for the Democracy, to be defended by one so able, and by facts so plain, simple and irresistible.”

Orton was dean of the UW law school from 1869 to 1874, and served as associate justice of the state supreme court from 1878 until his death in 1895