Peculiar Pittsburgh

Why it feels like there are so many cemeteries on Pittsburgh’s North Side

Peculiar Pittsburgh answers readers’ queries about local burial locations.

Some of the North Side graves found by reader and question-asker Juliet Martinez

Some of the North Side graves found by reader and question-asker Juliet Martinez

Courtesy of Juliet Martinez
MJ Slaby

Once she started noticing them, they seemed to be all over the North Side.

“We’ll drive through Troy Hill and every two minutes, we’re passing a cemetery,” said Incline reader Juliet Martinez, who added that seeing cemeteries on drives with her children has almost become like a game of punch buggy.

There are even two cemeteries between her house in Observatory Hill and the bottom of the hill.

So she brought her question to Peculiar Pittsburgh, where readers ask The Incline to investigate regional oddities:

“As I drive around the North Side, I see an overabundance of cemeteries. Why does it seem like the North Side is roughly 60% cemeteries?”

It turns out that the answer is not unique to Pittsburgh — or the North Side, for that matter — and has a lot to do with land use, geography and changes in the way people were buried in the mid-1800s.

The ‘rural cemetery movement’

The earliest cemeteries were typically next to places of worship, said Marilyn Holt, library services manager for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania department. Case in point: Pittsburgh’s oldest burial ground — founded in the late 1700s — is Downtown between First Presbyterian Church and Trinity Cathedral.

In fact, these aren’t cemeteries at all. They’re graveyards and church yards, said Jennie Benford, director of programming at the Homewood Cemetery Historical Fund. Graveyards and church yards are part of another entity while cemeteries stand alone.

The first cemetery opened in 1831 in Massachusetts as a response to overcrowding in cities, kicking off the U.S. rural cemeteries movement, Benford said. Pittsburgh’s first cemetery, Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville, opened in 1844 and was the sixth cemetery in the country, she said.

These new burial places were on the outskirts of cities and had a park-like setting with people spending afternoons and Sundays wandering the grounds.

“It was a new way to deal with people who have died. You moved the burial grounds outside of the city limits,” Benford said. “Also because the city is evil, and God is in nature, [it was] a green space to get closer to God.”

But even before this new movement, churches and other groups moved burial grounds out of the city as land became more attractive for other uses. In some cases, that meant moving bodies several times.

Many North Side burials started in flat areas and as space in the lowlands became more desirable, burials were moved to places like Troy Hill, Holt said.

The neighborhood was home to several early graveyards including St. Mary’s and the relocated graves from “Nunnery Hill” in present-day Fineview, Holt said.

At the time, the North Side was Allegheny City, from 1840 until it was annexed by Pittsburgh in 1907.

Allegheny City moved its dead to the edges of the North Side, while Pittsburgh moved graves to the East End, as the city expanded in that direction, Holt said.

Holt only knew of one instance where bodies were moved from Pittsburgh to Allegheny City. Bodies buried at Smithfield Street were moved to Troy Hill in the mid-1800s and then in the 1880s, they were moved back to Pittsburgh’s Homewood Cemetery.

Holt said newspaper clippings from this time include announcements of burials being moved, allowing families to intervene and move relatives to family plots in newly created cemeteries.

But it wasn’t all an exact science. John Canning, vice president of the Allegheny City Society, said that sometimes the moved bodies were all marked with one common gravestone instead of by individual name, or entire graveyards were forgotten.

One of the more famous examples in Pittsburgh occurred at the former Voegtly Church or what first started as the First German United Evangelical Protestant Church. The church, founded in 1833 and its corresponding graveyard was in Allegheny City’s flat east side. A few decades later, the congregation moved its cemetery to Troy Hill.

Then, in 1987, hundreds of graves were discovered unmoved and under a parking lot (the church had already been demolished) during a highway construction project that would link I-279 with Route 28. According to the Post-Gazette, there were 727 graves still there that no one knew about.

Two years after Allegheny Cemetery opened in Lawrenceville, Mount Union opened on the North Side in what was then farmland in Reserve Township, as part of the rural cemetery movement, per the Union Dale Cemetery website. Eleven years, later Hilldale opened directly across the road. The two combined in 1867 creating today’s Union Dale Cemetery.

While the large cemeteries from this time including Allegheny, Union Dale and Homewood have staffs that maintain the grounds and run the cemetery, many of the smaller graveyards don’t have oversight or maintenance staffs. Holt pointed to the Western Pa. Genealogical Society‘s Cemetery Directory is available in the Pa. Department as one resource. However, in many cases, the records of graveyards and church yards are lost to the years.

So, are there really more cemeteries on the North Side?

“If you’re driving down Brighton Road, you can be overwhelmed by the visual impact by how much space that is [for] Highwood and Union Dale,” Canning said.

But he said he doesn’t think it’s necessarily more than other areas of the city.

There are quite a few cemeteries on the North Side and in the North Hills, and many of them are really, really small — even two or three cemeteries side-by-side, said Ron Deiger, COO and senior vice president of Union Dale.

The tiny graveyards can be explained by churches moving their burials out of the city, he said, adding that in some cases, one graveyard is occupied by several churches of the same denomination.

While it might feel like there are a lot of cemeteries on the North Side, the total land is actually probably less than other parts of the city, Deiger added.

Holt agreed, saying the North Side is also more compact, making drivers feel like they’re passing more cemeteries more often. 

Deiger pointed to this Allegheny County map showing cemeteries across the county. In the map, Pittsburgh is purple, and the yellow cluster represents Union Dale. Other cemeteries are marked in varying colors.

Map of Allegheny County cemeteries

Map of Allegheny County cemeteries

ArcGIS / Screenshot

Who’s buried on the North Side?

As she wondered about the cemeteries in her neighborhood, Martinez took some time to look at small ones near her house and noted that some of the graves are at least 100 years old. And she asked — who else is buried on the North Side?

One famous example is Brashear Association namesake John and his wife Phoebe Brashear, who are entombed at the Allegheny Observatory.

And at Union Dale, Deiger said he’s worked there for more than 30 years and is always learning new information about the people buried there.

Sometimes people start telling stories about their great-great-grandfather while attending a service or they stop by with documents to share, he said. The staff then starts trying to verify the stories.

Union Dale keeps a list of notable people buried there on its website. The list includes:

A statue of George Ellsworth Smith at Union Dale Cemetery

A statue of George Ellsworth Smith at Union Dale Cemetery

Cbaile19 / wikimedia commons

Also on the list is the answer to another question posed to Peculiar Pittsburgh from reader Jean Martin — “At Union Dale Cemetery there is a mausoleum with a statue of a man in a frock coat on the roof. Who’s the guy?”

He’s George Ellsworth Smith also known as “Pittsburg Phil.” Per Union Dale, he was a leading horse race bettor of his day, starting a career in betting around 1880. By 1885, he took his skills to Chicago where he earned the nickname “Pittsburg Phil,” a combination of Pittsburg and Philadelphia.

Smith spent his days studying horse racing, and died of tuberculosis in 1905 at 43 years old. He was buried at Union Dale in a mausoleum he  commissioned for himself seven years before his death. His mother later added the statue. In 1916, the winner of the Kentucky Derby was named in his honor — George Smith.

Another grave of note not included in the list on the cemetery’s website, and likely one of the oldest on the North Side, is one of Deiger’s favorites — a headstone of a Revolutionary War drummer boy who was relocated to the then-Mount Union cemetery.

Look for it in Division One of the cemetery, he said.

Want some more? Explore other Peculiar Pittsburgh stories.

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North Side