There are those cemeteries that are world famous-Paris’ Pere Lachaise and Buenos Aires’ Recoleta. Then there are those that are located in abandoned or derelict areas, forgotten through the passing of time.
But somewhere in-between these two groups exist cemeteries that while they may not be famous on a global scale are certainly historic institutions and legends in the area they’re in.
Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Cemetery would be considered one of those.
I first saw the Allegheny Cemetery when D and I had to park extremely far away from the restaurant we were going to in the city’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. During our rather long walk along Butler Street, the main drag in Lawrenceville, we passed by a massive green space which we soon discovered was a cemetery. Its historical significance and appeal was apparent from the street which is no surprise considering that Lawrenceville is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.
It was founded in 1814 by William Foster, father of the famous composer Stephen Foster who himself was born there in 1826 and is also buried in the cemetery. Unlike many more “modern cemeteries,” those established within the last 50 years, places like Allegheny Cemetery are historical treasures. It was incorporated in 1844 and is one of the oldest cemeteries in the United States, encompassing 300 acres today.
The Butler Street gatehouse was part of the cemetery’s original design and dates from the 1940s. Although its purpose has greatly changed from when it was first founded, it still today acts as a portal between the frenzied life outside on the streets and the calming oasis of tranquility inside of the gates.
Allegheny Cemetery is the final resting spot to more than 124,000 individuals. While it does contain the remains of famous persons including Stephen Foster and Negro Leagues’ baseball great Josh Gibson and the unknown remains of soldiers who fought in the French and Indian War, the majority of its graves are of just average people including two infant daughters of a local couple who had died in the 1850s. We also came upon the grave of a Civil War veteran; while this man was no Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant, wars would neither be waged nor won without the nameless, average soldier.
As the cemetery is 168 years old, there are many graves in which the writing on the tombstones is no longer legible; my mom commented that some of the weathered writing resembled Hebrew, which it truly did. While there were some graves we saw that contained the remains of individuals born in the early 19th century, the tombstones had clearly been replaced, most likely by living descendants; they were simply in much too pristine a condition to have been the original. But then there were those stones that appeared to be the original ones with no on left to care for them. It’s sad to think about families dying off and yet it happens.
There was one grave that actually contained what appeared to be a daguerreotype on its base. Although some tombstones contained elaborate epitaphs (many related to the Christian Revival Movement of the 19th century), I had never before seen a grave with a permanent picture affixed to it. With the style of the photo and the appearance of the gentleman, it looked to be from around the mid-19th century. I don’t believe that cemeteries are morbid places and yet when I saw the image of the man whose grave I was standing over, I did feel a slight eeriness.
And then of course there were the elaborate grave sites, almost what I would call excessive, especially those that were mausoleums. While it’s hard to imagine anyone being buried in a miniature house, Pittsburgh was, after all, a city where men became millionaires almost overnight, otherwise known as robber barons. The term refers to the questionable and illicit dealings in which figures like Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie amassed their wealth. I only discovered this after I visited, but Harry K. Thaw, once husband of the “girl on the velvet swing,” Evelyn Nesbit, and murderer of her lover, Stanford White, is buried at Allegheny Cemetery. He was a native of Pittsburgh and his father, William Thaw, Sr. was a businessman whose fortune allowed his maniacal son to constantly skirt the law.
While we didn’t see all there was in the cemetery, what we did see was peacefully beautiful in addition to history in its best preserved state. Although Pittsburgh’s history doesn’t date as far back as that of Boston or Philadelphia, it still is pretty incredible to see the graves of perhaps what were some of its founding residents. The neighborhood of Lawrenceville has greatly changed over the years, today going through urban renewal and regentrification, but it’s easy to imagine the cemetery as having always remained the same. Horses were replaced by automobiles, millinery shops with tattoo parlors (there is certainly an abundance of the latter in Lawrenceville today), and restaurants that serve cuisines which would have been unheard of a century ago (Mexican, Thai, and Turkish). Allegheny Cemetery has always been a resplendent spot of greenery, of rolling hillsides and individuals who are interred in one of Pittsburgh’s loveliest areas.