Historic Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. Photo by Steve Grundy
Steve Grundy

Historic Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. Photo by Steve Grundy

Halloween at Oakland Cemetery

I didn’t really know what to expect when I arrived to take part in one of Oakland Cemetery's famous Halloween Tours. I’d enlisted my husband and a couple of friends to take the plunge with me –would people be jumping out to try and scare us? Would we just be trudging around, looking at some of the more famous graves? We were all eager to find out!

The Halloween season is the only time this historic cemetery is open after dark (usually the gates close at sundown), so we were lucky to get the chance to experience it! Our first impressions were good – the gates in the dark certainly set the scene – it was a creepy, gloomy sight. Lights had been placed around the cemetery to illuminate the path we were supposed to walk to the bell tower where our tour would start. It was dark, quiet and, dare I say it, a little scary!

We made our way to the bell tower and began our tour, but we were still unsure of what was going to happen. We slowly started walking around the illuminated walkway with a little trepidation until we came to our first stop, the grave of the Winship family. Mary, the matriarch of the family, was waiting for us to arrive.



Dressed in her fur and hat, Mary went on to tell us about her life. How she married Ernest Woodruff, an influential businessman in Atlanta who was the president of the Trust Company (now known as SunTrust) and involved in many other businesses in the city, eventually taking over The Coca-Cola Company from Asa Candler. His sons, Robert W. Woodruff and George W. Woodruff went on to run the company for years. Later the brothers gave $105 million to Emory University, eventually giving $230 million, and the Winship Cancer Institute was born. I realized this was a family, hugely involved in Atlanta’s history, leaving a legacy that makes the city what it is today.

We now realized how the tour was going to pan out – there were six stops where we would hear from some of the cemetery’s most famous residents, each teaching us a little bit about their family history. There would be no ghosts jumping out at us to try and scare us – phew! Instead we were about to meet another five very influential people in the city of Atlanta. Julia Bower was next: She was standing next to a pink Christmas tree; drinking a gin – this set the scene for her family story of "pure, Southern drama" – she definitely brought the tour to life!

An actor on Historic Oakland Cemetery's Halloween Tour. Credit: AJC/Jamie Gumbrecht
An actor on Historic Oakland Cemetery's Halloween Tour. Credit: AJC/Jamie Gumbrecht

As we stood listening to the stories, every so often a train would pass by, adding an extra sound and dimension to our tour. I always think the sound of a train in the dark is a little bit creepy, and it definitely added to the atmosphere! It was time to move on again to our next piece of history. What we didn’t realize was that we were heading into the Confederate part of the cemetery. We were told to sit on straw bales where we were greeted by an unknown soldier from the Civil War. This part of the tour was a tribute to all the citizens who lost their lives fighting at war, particularly during the U.S. Civil War. We were told how all the soldiers who died in local hospitals were laid to rest here, along with those who died at battle and could be identified as being from the local area. Their souls are represented by the statue of a lion in the graveyard. We moved on and walked between the rows and rows of small, white tombstones, each representing a soldier who died during conflict. Some had names; other stones simply said "unknown soldier."

Our tour continued and we met Jefferson Cain. He was the engineer of the locomotive "The General" – it was stolen while he was eating at the Lacey Hotel in Big Shanty! He was part of The Great Locomotive Chase of 1862 – his final piece of advice to us was to always make sure we turn off our car engines and take the keys with us when we get out!

An actor on Historic Oakland Cemetery's Halloween Tour
An actor on Historic Oakland Cemetery's Halloween Tour

We also met Agnes Harriet Woody. She told us how she was technically the cemetery’s first resident. Her husband owned a farm and buried her in its grounds when she died. Later he sold 6 acres of the farm, including the area where she was buried to the City of Atlanta and Oakland Cemetery was born!

On our final stop, we were introduced to Dr. A. W. Calhoun. He was a head doctor who treated people who had problems with their ears, nose and eyes. He also served on a local school board and was responsible for introducing immunizations in schools, saving hundreds, if not thousands of children’s lives.

While the tour wasn’t exactly what I was expected, I really enjoyed it! I was expecting ghostly characters and events that were supposed to scare me simply because it was a Halloween Tour, and Halloween is usually linked to scary, ghostly happenings! Instead, I felt like I’d gotten a glimpse into my city’s history and was happy to meet some of the famous residents who made Atlanta what it is today. I can’t wait to visit Oakland Cemetery again to see who else resides there and how they influenced Atlanta.

For more information on Oakland Cemetery and their many tour offerings, click here.

This post is part of the “Haunted Georgia” series. Keep checking back during the days leading up to Halloween for more! Click here to view our “Haunted Georgia” Pinterest board.

Published: October 2013