Tag Archives: Laurel Hill Cemetery

Eliot Underdown

Underdown -1

Witmer Stone never had any children, but he had a paternalistic influence on many young men who were members of the DVOC and the AOU. One colleague wrote that Stone’s “knowledge, wit, and kindliness made him beloved to the beginners and the seasoned ‘wheel horses’ alike.”

Eliot Underdown took a strong interest in birds in his youth, and in 1923, at the age of 16, he joined both the DVOC and the AOU. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania, and worked under Stone for two years in the Academy of Natural Sciences’ (ANSP) ornithology department before moving on to the Field Museum in Chicago. One of the more poignant moments in Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature comes courtesy of a letter Underdown wrote to Stone from Chicago, thanking Stone for all he did to help Underdown in his ANSP days. Eliot also wrote that he followed the example set by Stone’s “modesty, and temperance of criticism of the work of others.” One gets a strong sense of the affection Underdown had for Stone, and of the effect that Stone’s kindly and patient personality had on the younger men fortunate enough to work with him.

Underdown was the son of Henry Underdown, DVOC treasurer for 32 years, and the cousin of another DVOC stalwart, the late Alan Brady. Eliot died too young, breaking short a promising ornithological career. He is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia; unfortunately, his grave is unmonumented.

In this photo of a DVOC outing from the late 1920s, Underdown is at center, facing right:

Underdown -2

Private Archibald G. Benners

For Memorial Day, I’d like to remember a DVOC member (mentioned in passing in The Fascination of Nature) killed in World War I in the fighting at Belleau Wood, France in the summer of 1918. In 1913, when he was 15, Archibald Wright Benners had joined the DVOC with his father, lawyer George B. Benners, with whom Archie collected birds and eggs. (Stone later mentioned George’s pet ravens, Never and More, in Bird Studies at Old Cape May.)

Stone wrote a nice Cassinia tribute to Archie in 1918 that was presumably based on information given to him by George (on second page here). I suspect the Cassinia article’s factual accuracy in its depiction of Archie’s military career, however, in light of a WWI memoir I stumbled across on the Internet (the magic of Google never ceases to amaze). Don Paradis, a gunnery sergeant, met Archie Benners on the transport ship to Europe, and described him as a spoiled rich kid and an alcoholic who had drank and flunked his way out of a military institute and two officers’ training schools. Some of Paradis’s details are incorrect, but (without going into a dissertation) some other things I found seem to corroborate his basic narrative of Benners.

So, was Archibald Benners the pampered lush portrayed by Paradis, or the upstanding, heroic soldier depicted by his father in Cassinia, or something in between? I don’t really care. What I know for sure is that he was mortally wounded at Belleau Wood and died a month later in a hospital near Paris. He paid the ultimate price serving the U.S.A., and for that we are all grateful – to him and to all the other veterans we remember today. Benners is buried in the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery at Belleau; there is also a cenotaph in the family’s plot at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, the same cemetery where Stone is buried:

Cenotaph at Laurel Hill-2

This New York Tribune photo of Benners puts a handsome young face on one more casualty in the horrifically long list of them from WWI:


The ANSP Archives houses a note that the Benners family sent to Stone after their son’s death. IMG_7054ed2

Thanks to Russ Dodge for photos and info on his fine “Find A Grave” web page


Lovely Laurel Hill

Witmer Stone is buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, also the final resting place of fellow Academy ornithologists John Cassin and Eliot Underdown.


I visited on April 25, a glorious spring day, and am pleased to report that Witmer reposes in a spot that does not lack for ornithological interest. Twittering Rough-winged Swallows (later seen investigating potential nest sites in a cemetery retaining wall) and Chimney Swifts swooped low over the Stone family plot, hawking insects. Some lingering Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets and White-throated Sparrows would soon be continuing on their way north, and a handful of Yellow-rumped Warblers were the vanguard of a warbler pageant that will soon be taking place in the cemetery’s lovely old oaks and conifers.


Raptors were the stars of the show. A Red-tailed Hawk soaring near Stone’s grave probably has a mate with a nest nearby:


A pair of adult Bald Eagles was also soaring over the cemetery, on their way to and from who-knows-where:


Particularly interesting was a male Kestrel that turned a statue into an unwitting falconer:


The same or another male was later perched on one of the almost unlimited number of “kestrel perches” in Laurel Hill:


There is an obvious abundance of perches for these birds in a cemetery, but what they are finding to prey on in April is not so obvious to me. This guy was certainly too big for them to tackle:


The clucking Robins attendant at each Kestrel sighting suggests what these small falcons will be feeding on in a few weeks when the cemetery starts filling up with plump, clueless young Robins just off the nest. The Kestrels may well be nesting in a hollow in a cemetery tree, or in a nook or cranny in one of the many adjacent factory buildings.

Whether your interest is birding, history, dendrology, or simply an appreciation for a lovely spot out-of-doors, a trip to Laurel Hill Cemetery will fill the bill splendidly. Don’t forget to stop and pay your respects to Witmer and his kin over in Section P. There is also an overlook on the west side of the cemetery that takes in a long stretch of the Schuylkill River, and is one of the most spectacular vistas in Philadelphia. Here’s the view to the south, with Memorial Hall (built for the 1876 Centennial Exposition) in the distance:



Stone Trees

Many trees familiar to Stone are still with us, and provide a living link to his world. We can start with this huge oak (I saw it in winter, so didn’t have much to go on as to species) next to Stock Grange, where Stone spent many youthful summers (on all photos, you can click to enlarge):

Stock Grange

Not far from Stock Grange, in the Doe Run Presbyterian Cemetery, a huge White Oak stands near the graves of many of Stone’s Stock Grange ancestors, including his naturalist great-aunt Mary Steele:


Here’s a massive old oak in Wister Woods, where Stone and the Brown brothers spent much of their time while roaming the wide-open spaces around their Germantown homes:

Wister Oak II

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Stone Trees