In the 1800s cemeteries were not always just places for burials. Many were beautifully landscaped parks that were popular as tourist destinations. Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, was founded in 1838 as one of America’s first rural cemeteries. By 1860, there were 500,000 visitors a year, rivaling Niagara Falls as the countries greatest tourist attraction. Even earlier, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was founded in 1831 as “a natural setting for the commemoration of the dead and for the comfort and inspiration of the bereaved and the general public.” The grounds provided a place for reflection and for the observation of nature. In the 1850s, with little land set aside for public use in Chicago, private cemeteries charged a fee to picnickers and did a booming business. The Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia is another fine example, of the romantic Victorian style landscaping.
In the Lehigh Valley, we are most fortunate to have The Historic Easton Cemetery located at the northern end of Seventh Street - much closer and very accessible. Through the efforts of Rep. Robert Freeman, the cemetery received a grant that provided funding to create a self-guided walking tour of the grounds. Booklets are available on the porch of the Superintendent’s House and the cemetery is open from 8:00 a.m. until dusk.
The Historic Easton Cemetery encompasses about 86 acres of rolling hills and paved roads. The boundaries include Bushkill Creek on the north and east, and the Easton Heights Cemetery on the west. It is one of the largest green spaces within the Easton city limits. The cemetery is a non-profit corporation that has been in existence since 1849. As Rev. Uzal Condit described it in 1889, “The grounds have been laid out in plots, carriage ways, and foot paths beautifully adorned by ornamental shade trees, shrubs, and flowering plants. The spot is very beautiful by nature and made more so by art.”
In 1832 the city of Easton had 3700 inhabitants. There were somewhere between five to six hundred dwellings, with most located south of Northampton Street and east of Fourth. The streets were dirt roads. Except for a block or two on Third, or Pomfret, Street, there were no side-walks. At frequent intervals on all the streets were small hotels which were chiefly saloons. There were 33 retail stores, five weekly newspapers and 5 churches. Easton was the county seat and thanks to the rivers and canals, it was a thriving city.
As was common practice at the time, the Easton area was dotted with small family plots and churchyard cemeteries. As the population grew, space became a problem. By 1849 there were six cemeteries within the city limits of Easton. Heirs of William Penn donated the land for the first public cemetery, located on Mount Jefferson, 5th and Church Streets. Members of the Third Street Reformed church were buried there. When the Easton Area Public Library was built on this site, all but two graves were moved to what is now the Easton Cemetery. Close to the entrance is the well-marked grave of William Parsons, who along with Nicholas Scull, laid out the town of Easton in 1750. To the far left of the library is a low iron fence that surrounds an Indian grindstone, marking the grave of “Mammy” Morgan, a local legend.
Another early cemetery in Easton was one at the Lutheran church on Ferry Street, between 4th and Bank Streets. When crowded conditions caused it to be closed, most of the bodies were also removed to Easton Cemetery, including that of George Taylor, a leading iron industry entrepreneur of the 18th century and signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1855, a fitting monument was erected in front of the chapel. “The Express” newspaper noted that this was the first public monument erected to the memory of any of the signers.
Another early cemetery was located at the Episcopal Church on Spring Garden Street. When the original church was demolished in 1869 to make room for a larger structure, most of the bodies were removed to Easton Cemetery. The few remaining gravesites can still be seen today in front of the church. Still in its original location at 5th and Lehigh Streets is St. Bernard’s Catholic Cemetery. The first Hebrew burial ground was near the synagogue at Sixth Street on land donated by heirs of Michael Hart, the first Hebrew settler in Easton and the first storekeeper of the town. Later the congregation used a lot between 12th and 13th Streets. In 1887 the lot on 6th Street was sold and the bodies were moved to the other space. A few years later the congregation purchased space in Easton Cemetery.
Dr. Traill Green was instrumental in promoting the need for a new cemetery, both from health and from development needs. The new place should be somewhere outside of town - in the country, but still accessible for the citizens. He met with leading citizens of Easton to find space that would be picturesque and sanitary! The first 35 acres were purchased from David Wagener, a local farmer, at a cost of $6000! The final tract of land was added in 1870.
Armed with a petition containing 123 signatures, a committee of 12 men plus an architect began the Easton Cemetery Corporation. Unfortunately, the architect, who was also a civil engineer, did not take into account the amount of rock that is below the surface. In the old days workers had to blast through rock in order to dig a grave, often shattering windows in the nearby houses. Some of the houses that you see on Seventh Street today were the result of efforts to raise money for the cemetery through mortgages.
When the cemetery first opened there was a work crew of 30 who responsible for about 50 acres. Today, a much smaller staff maintain 86 acres and 29,000 headstones! No small job. . .
The original entrance to the cemetery was a wooden bridge across Bushkill Creek. David Wagener also used the bridge for his farming and he agreed to share in any repair costs. He even agreed to contribute $50 towards the construction of a new bridge, provided he and his heirs could use it.
Over the years this area was damaged by floods, necessitating the need for a new bridge. Estimated costs for a new bridge were very high. A local engineer, John McNeal, found an iron bridge in Brooklyn that was just about the right size although it did have to be cut to fit. It was owned by the United States Government, but luckily for the cemetery it was for sale and at a considerably lower cost. The iron bridge you see today along the Bushkill Creek was put in place in 1918, and is now known as The Blue Bridge, part of the Karl Stirner Arts Trail.
In 1882 a new entrance to the cemetery was created by extending Seventh Street from Northampton Street to the cemetery grounds. This turreted gate was built by Trenton Company in 1882 at a cost of $4650. The center opening was designed for carriages and the two side openings for foot traffic. There are wrought iron gates set in each opening. In the early years, plot holders had to get a key from the superintendent to visit the cemetery grounds. Visiting the cemetery became so popular that people had to get a ticket from the superintendent and often on Sundays there would be line of horse- drawn carriages and people on horseback waiting to get in.
It wasn’t until 1913 that automobiles were allowed (it being thought that they would scare the horses) - and only on weekday mornings, with a permit. By the next year there were no time restrictions. The early roads were dirt but by 1891 there were over two miles of roads paved with macadam and nearly four miles of gravel paths. All the side drainage ditches retain their original (1849-1850s construction period) Allentown limestone. Walkways are currently lawn covered and retain their original crown-graded profile.
The Superintendent’s House was built in 1900 from a design by William Michler, a well-known local architect. It still serves as a residence for the superintendent as well as the cemetery office.
Just inside the entrance gate is a statue of Dr.Traill Green, a tribute to the man who served as President of the Cemetery Board for more than 40 years. It was crafted by Henry Lewis Raul and dedicated on Decoration Day, 1911. If you look closely at his eyes, you think he is watching your every move! His grave is located along the road to the right.
As early as 1865 the need for a non-denominational chapel was expressed, but it was not built until 1876. The stone used in the construction came from the grounds of the cemetery. The sanctuary was lined on the north and south walls with sets of four gothic arched stained glass windows. The chapel provided space for families who might not have another place to hold services to bury their dead. It was used for about a century, with the last services held in 1979. Recently grants have enabled much needed repairs including repointing the stone, replacing the slate roof and a front door, adding electricity and heat, and painting the interior.
Landscaping the grounds was very important. In one year alone over 124 horse chestnut and sugar maple trees were planted with many surviving today. Maintaining these trees can be a problem thanks to Mother Nature and the age of the trees themselves. Thanks to a grant from the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership, the cemetery was able to catalog the trees and develop a master plan for their care and attention.
On October 25, 1990, the Easton Cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its design, landscaping, architecture and funerary art. The monuments are very special. As described by Uzal Condit, “There are many costly monuments on which the skill of the artist has been freely bestowed, and which help to give a melancholy pleasure to those who spend an hour in meditations among the tombs.” The funerary artwork shows examples of decorative styles that include Greco-Roman Revival, Gothic, Victorian, Arts Craft, Art Deco and variations of Central European and Mediterranean folk traditional designs. In the older section (1849) grave markers are made from white marble, Vermont granite, sandstone, local red shale fieldstone, cast concrete, steel, cast iron, zinc and terra cotta. The cemetery’s primary monument material changed in the late 1800s from marble to Vermont granite. Some family plots are designated by wrought iron fencing, but much of this fencing was donated to World War II scrap metal drives.