Cemeteries: Places for the Living

Though his name might not ring a bell, buried outside of a church in the Washington County town of Amity lies the man once thought to be the author of the most influential book in the history of the United States. But a visitor might just walk by his headstone without notice. It reveals only that Solomon Spaulding died on October 20, 1816 at the age of fifty-five. A taphophile, or someone who loves cemeteries, may recognize Spaulding as a man once thought to be the author of the Book of Mormon..

Cemeteries are the last place many people want to spend a vacation. Still, the numbers of tourists visiting cemeteries and searching for the graves of people like Spaulding continues to grow every year. And they visit cemeteries for other reasons.

Concerts in a Bronx, New York cemetery draw thousands of jazz fans to hear the sounds of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Visitors to Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston can rent an audio cassette guide of the grounds and wander through the past at their leisure. Lawyers and Congressional aides regularly meet for coffee in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery and last year more than 5,000 people toured Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery, stopping by the graves of Elliot Ness, John Rockefeller and President James Garfield.

Cemeteries from New Orleans to Buffalo are like books with magnificent stories to tell, and Western Pennsylvania’s are no exception. Stories like Spaulding’s are ones that “tombstone tourists” relish.

In the early 1800s, Solomon Spaulding set out to write a fanciful history of ancient races showing that American Indians were descended from one of the ten lost tribes. Though he never saw his book published, he called it “The Manuscript Found.” Later, when the Book of Mormon was unveiled by Joseph Smith in 1830, early accounts say Amity residents familiar with Spaulding’s tale were struck by the resemblance. Believing the Book of Mormon and The Manuscript Found were one and the same, Cephas Dod, a minister in Amity, purchased a copy and inscribed inside, “I fully believe that this Book of Mormon is mainly and wickedly copied from it.” Years later the Mormon Church published Spaulding’s work to show the two were not related.

Spaulding’s story is but one of hundreds that lie waiting to be discovered in Western Pennsylvania’s cemeteries. Another began to unfold in the 1930s.

The site of a revolutionary massacre near Saxton had been known in 1929 when an American Legion Post decided to erect a monument to some of the areas earliest settlers. But in January of 1933, when the workers came to make improvements to the site, they began to unearth the remains of ten soldiers killed there on July 6, 1780.

The Revolutionary era patrol led by Captain William Phillips was headed for Fort Bedford when they sought refuge in an abandoned cabin. As the story goes, the Captain Phillips awoke early to find the cabin surrounded by Indians. A battle ensued and the cabin was soon in flames. Private Phillip Skelly fired a bullet which passed through the cheeks of Chief Bald Eagle, breaking several teeth. The patrol soon surrendered.

The captives were marched about a half mile from the house when they were tied to trees and shot with arrows. Their bodies had already begun to decompose when they were found by a group of settlers and buried in shallow graves, only to be discovered again in 1933.

GravesOther tales don’t need to be uncovered. In addition to the graves of the first air ace in World War II, Colonel Boyd Wagner, and John G. McCrory, the founder of the McCrory 5-and-10 store chain, a section in Johnstown’s Grandview Cemetery contains the bodies of many of the 2,209 victims of the 1889 flood, including eight hundred who were never identified. When the diverse population and bustling economy of late nineteenth century Johnstown was hit by a wall of water from the broken South Fork Dam, one of the worst calamities in our nations history was written into the books.

After the flood, a central monument and individual markers were purchased to honor the victims. It was dedicated in1892 in the presence of about 10,000 people. Long after everyone who remembered the flood was gone, the event remains deeply embedded in Johnstown’s psyche.

More than a century before the Johnstown Flood, in 1795, a Russian Prince came to Western Pennsylvania for the first time. Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin was ordained as a Catholic priest shortly before he was assigned as the first pastor of McGuire’s Settlement. Gallitzin changed the name to Loretto and encouraged other Catholics to join him. Father Gallitzin and the Church brought together urban congregations and the mountain parishioners, helping to insure the future of the new nation by maintaining settlements in the Allegheny Mountains.

Gallitzin'sThe remains of Father Gallitzin are housed in an attractive tomb on Saint Mary’s Street in Loretto that already draws visitors each year. Although Gallitzin died in 1840, the present monument wasn’t erected until 1891 when his remains were relocated from outside the chapel house where he had ministered.

Loretto wasn’t the only area in Western Pennsylvania to be inhabited early on. A cemetery in Sinking Valley also dates to the eighteenth century. Peter McMullen, who founded Saint Luke’s Cemetery, arrived in the summer of 1784. When McMullen died, he deeded that part of his plantation as a burial ground for “Roman Catholics and no others.” Revenue from McMullen’s cemetery was sent to Father Gallitzin.

Some of Altoona’s first residents who came in search of employment in emerging industry have roots in Sinking Valley and Loretto. The triad of cemeteries in the East End of Altoona–Saint John’s, Saint Mary’s and Oak Ridge–reflects the ethnic and religious diversity of the people who migrated to the city. No longer isolated on vast farms, cultures came together and ethnic enclaves formed in neighborhoods and inevitably in cemeteries. Hundreds of years from now, historians will be able to tell a lot about people in industrial America from the cemeteries. While people group in a neighborhood according to a racial or ethnic culture, they also group according to a religious culture. And so cemeteries remain divided in these terms, as well as by race, class and in rare instances, politics.

Chinese GraveSaint John’s and Saint Mary’s served Catholics while Oak Ridge served Protestants. Likewise, Oak Ridge is adjacent to Eastern Light Cemetery, an area which custom holds was reserved for African-Americans. Some groups which never grew to a significant size in a particular area, such as the Chinese or Turks in Altoona or Johnstown, were not able to form ethnic neighborhoods. Nor do they represent distinct areas in this region’s cemeteries. Stories told about the Johnstown Flood show members of many different ethnic and racial groups from Middle-Eastern to African, most of whom are buried in Johnstown’s cemeteries.

Some took measures to keep racially pure cemeteries. The Harmonites, a religious group that founded several towns including Harmony and Economy in Western Pennsylvania, had imported Chinese workers to help run a mill. As the Chinese died they were buried in a hilltop cemetery and local historians point out that when the last had died their bodies were removed from Beaver Falls and “faithfully and religiously transported to far-off China.” In terms of class, the Chinese and the African-Americans were on top of a hill for a reason. In these more rural burial areas they were given the least accessible plot of land. Yet in more formal urban cemeteries such as Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh, the higher spaces were reserved for the mausoleums of industrialists, and the plots on steep hillsides and in valleys were left for often poor ethnic and racial minorities.

While a picnic, a jog or even a wedding in a cemetery might be less out of the ordinary than it was a few years ago, now isn’t the first time cemeteries have been used by the living. Before 1830, cemeteries were located almost exclusively on church grounds, which quickly reached capacity. The crowding combined with sanitary concerns lead to the establishment of formal burial grounds on the edges of cities.

As the industrial revolution progressed, cities like Johnstown, Altoona and Pittsburgh grew around the once rural cemeteries. Cemeteries became an oasis of natural scenery in otherwise gloomy and congested cities.

Today many cemeteries are still beautiful places. While some use them for a picnic or as a place to take wedding photographs, tombstone tourists go looking for the graves of interesting people. Efforts to promote the interesting burial grounds around the U.S. have increased tourism and even stimulated interest in local history.

Marketing our cemeteries in order to attract tourists to Western Pennsylvania can also provide a means for raising the money needed to preserve these historic treasures. Often the victim of neglect and vandalism, many have been forgotten and left to decay. Some have been surrounded by commercial development and are unable to provide the security andmaintenance necessary to ward off vandals who steal stained glass, urns and figurines and sell them to restaurants and gardeners, unaware or ignorant of their origins.

There’s more than enough about the cemeteries of Western Pennsylvania to make them a stop on the heritage trail. In addition to those mentioned, Western Pennsylvania Cemeteries are the final resting place of some famous people including Charles Schwab, Hedda Hopper, General Braddock, JohnBrashear and Andy Warhol. Allegheny and Homewood Cemeteries in Pittsburgh contain monuments to prominent families including Frick, Mellon, Horne, Benedum and Heinz.

Beyond famous people, other burial grounds are filled with intrigue. A cemetery in Gallitzin is filled mainly with children who perhaps died in an epidemic. Several of Albert Gallatin’s wives are buried on his Southwestern Pennsylvania estate. And a visit to a Harmonite cemetery will seem curious, as the religion forbade the use of grave markers.

Cemeteries are a permanent museum dedicated to a past very near to us. If you are still leery of spending too many living hours this close to death, heed the words of astronomer and lens cutter John Brashear. Inscribed near his tomb inside Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh are the words “We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

A few of the notable people resting in Western Pennsylvania’s cemeteries:

Joshua Barney, U.S Naval hero, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Stephen Foster, Composer, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Edward Braddock, Major General, Farmington
Henry Clay Frick, Industrialist, Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Errol Garner, Jazz Musician, Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Josh Gibson, Baseball Hall of Fame, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Henry J. Heinz, Industrialist, Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Hedda Hopper, Columnist, Rose Hill Cemetery, Altoona
David L. Lawrence, Pittsburgh Mayor, Calvary Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury, Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Galbaith Perry Rodgers, Aviation Pioneer, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Rosey Rosewell, Voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Lillian Russel, Actress, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Harry Thaw (Killed Stanford White), Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Pie Traynor , Baseball Player, Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Honus Wagner, Baseball Player, Jefferson Memorial Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Joshua Barney, U.S. Navel Hero, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh
Charles Schwab, Steel Magnate, Schwab Mausoleum, Loretto
Lt. Col. Boyd “Buzz” Wagner, WWII Air Ace, Grandview Cemetery, Johnstown
John G. McCrory, Merchant, Grandview Cemetery, Johnstown
Father Demetrius Gallitzin, Catholic Priest, Loretto
John Brashear, Astronomer, Allegheny Observatory, Pittsburgh
Andy Warhol, Artist, St. John the Baptist Cemetery, Bethel Park

Contact Information:

Grandview Cemetery
801 Millcreek Rd
Johnstown, PA 15905
(814) 535-2652Homewood Cemetery
1599 S Dallas Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15217
(412) 421-1822

Allegheny Cemetery
4734 Butler St
Pittsburgh, PA 15201
(412) 682-1624

Allegheny Observatory
Riverview Park
Pittsburgh, PA 15214
(412) 321-2400

Rose Hill Cemetery
1207 12th Ave # 207
Altoona, PA 16601
(814) 942-1152

St. Michael’s Church
321 St Mary St
Loretto, PA 15940
(814) 472-8551

Jefferson Memorial Cemetery
401 Curry Hollow Road
Pittsburgh, PA 15236-4636
(412) 655-4500

Also visit www.findagrave.com

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me