This spring on the Montour Trail I snapped a photo of a wild turkey carcass still suspended in a tree. It is a reminder that not only was Les Nessman right, Turkeys do indeed fly to get to their nightly roost, occasionally that roost is their final resting place. While most dead Pittsburgh turkeys come hurtling down at night, the rare bird remains for us to see as we pass.

There are many reasons why Pittsburgh is a unique and compelling city. Pittsburgh's dead also have unique and compelling stories to tell, as I found out conducting research on German immigrants to the area. Perhaps it is simply the geography that has the greatest influence on both the living and the dead.  The combination of ancient mountains towards the western lea of Pennsylvania, plenty of water provided by the numerous rivers, and the natural rock resources of the earth have given us coal, iron, steel, and today a hilly landscape that affords few tracts of flat earth. 


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This lack of wide swaths of flat earth contributes to fewer highway lanes, fewer sprawling car dealerships, and fewer malls and big-box stores. 

It also means that space it at a premium and we often build upon that which was here before, even when we build upon the dead. That makes sense in the downtown area. For example, the corner of 6th ave and Smithfield was formerly a cemetery, now it is a Brooks Brothers.

Immigrants in the 19th century found that neighborhoods were often defined by geography. A hill or river strictly delineates a neighborhood and when it came to burying the dead, you often buried locally. While some cemeteries have been maintained, many cemeteries in the Pittsburgh area have simply been 'converted' into other uses or have been left to be discovered by construction equipment. It shouldn't be surprising then that in 1987 an expansion of route 28 uncovered 727 bodies from a defunct cemetery right on the north shore of the Allegheny river. In fact, there are numerous forgotten cemeteries in the Pittsburgh area.

Often cemeteries that have been disinterred were converted into athletic facilities for some reason. The Cowley Athletic field of Troy hill is a good example of this. 

Sometimes the woods simply take over. An older resident of Troy Hill told me that bodies were also buried at this wooded location

Through property acquisition and expansion, these forgotten cemeteries find new purposes, perhaps to be discovered later. The University of Pittsburgh acquired the grounds to a cemetery years back.  Where are the bodies? Only the back-hoe knows. 

If you live in Pittsburgh, it is interesting to look at these old maps to see where your neighborhood burial ground was or still may be. You will be surprised to find how common it is to have a forgotten cemetery in your back yard or that the graveyard has been repurposed.  Beyond starting your own neighborhood archeology project, a must for any resident or visitor of Pittsburgh seeking to bring out the dead is truly the best kept secret we have: St. Anthony's Chapel.  St. Anthony's Chapel houses the second largest collection of relics in the world behind the Vatican. There are 4,000-5,000 relics there, among them the complete remains of Saint Demetrius, the skull of Saint Theodore, and the tooth of Saint Anthony of Padua.

I found most of these treasures in my own back yard by comparing old maps to current maps, a fairly traditional research practice. While I limited myself to the exploration of German immigrants, one could apply this method to any immigrant group in the city. I collected my locations online and share the research with others. Have fun bringing out the dead.

14 Responses to “Being Dead in Pittsburgh”

  1. Blaine says:

    The moniker Zombie Capital Of The World is more apropos then one would expect.

    Very interesting, Thanks!

  2. RedShirt77 says:

    I have looked through some of the same old maps of Allegheny City(now the northside) and found it really interesting. The level of detail is pretty amazing. You can track the owners of estates that are now burned out husks of their former selves.

    I came to Pgh not to long ago and it renewed my love for the town but what was painfully obvious was the housing glut and how many homes are rotting on the vine in the city.

    I think the city would be greatly helped by an organized method of reducing housing stock while saving much more of the historic character.

    • Agies says:

      Part of the problem is that a lot of the available housing is in areas that are considred undesireable, and the housing in desirable areas is often over priced.

  3. Anonymous says:

    A second on the typo – but I found this article inspiring. I have a hobby interest in this sort of thing, and I am going to search for overlays as suggested by post #1. Last summer I was helping do house foundation work in the old Fourth Ward here in Ann Arbor, MI and the backhoe came across an old bottle dump. The operator would set the bucket load aside and as it settled all the old bottles would appear. We collected them just to keep them out of the backfill. Got 6-8 milk cartons full without even trying.

    Also, I have heard of folks doing more serious detecting based on old maps – looking for the areas that used to be swimming and recreation places in the 1800′s – 1900′s. Apparently there is a decent chance of finding old jewelry, coins etc. in these long-abandoned spots.

    One last thing – I have heard that often with old cemeteries, burial grounds, etc. efforts are made to keep the property somewhat sanctified or protected ground; that is, a church might acquire the property. It looks like it happened on the Troy Hill map. I was told here in Washtenaw County there is a modern cemetery that was built as part of a land deal with the Native Americans – the property would not be given over under treaty except if promises were made to keep the area sacred, so it was deeded to the county as a cemetery. In the back corner of the property is the ‘Old Indian Burial Grounds’. Could be just an old-timers yarn, but the location, off an important old Indian trail turned settlers route makes sense to me, so who knows?

    Thanks!

  4. Drew from Zhrodague says:

    Interesting. As I sit here, I can look out over St. Michael’s old German cemetary. It’s a good thing zombies roll downhill, or we’d be screwed. Yup. My house is still indexed on the maps from 1906.

    We used to have a geographic meetup for those local to Pittsburgh. Interested folks can contact me via drew at zhrodague.net, and we’ll resurrect it. You watching, Derrick?

    Also nice to see Pitt using Mapserver, a package near and dear to my heart.

  5. Dan Zwirn New York says:

    I grew up in Pittsburgh. Going to some of these historic places is a great way to get familiar with the city.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Wasn’t it Mr Carlson who thought turkeys could fly?

  7. hdon says:

    @editor: The summary on the BoingBoing front page reads, “you never know quiet what lies underfoot.” The end of first paragraph reads, “remains for us to see as pass.” Two paragraphs in the main view of the article are repeated verbatim, although the echo (snicker) includes a hyperlink not in the first.

    Can’t believe you didn’t mention the Allegheny Cemetary. I’ve read it’s the largest cemetery *anywhere* in the United States within the limits of any major city. Although I don’t see that fact anywhere on Wikipedia, I suppose it’s not the greatest thing to be known for. It isn’t even allowed to take your pets for a walk in that place :(

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegheny_Cemetery

  8. Anonymous says:

    The cemetery located under the Pitt campus was under the field house built in the 1970s. The bodies were reinterred at Mount Royal Cemetery in Shaler Twsp. Such an odd coincidence — my ancestors were buried there and I was just talking about it last night with a friend from Pittsburgh.

  9. Paul Coleman says:

    This is a great read…except you have 2 repeating paragraphs starting with “Immigrants in the 19th century…”

    Back on topic, there’s gotta be a group out there that spends time overlaying old maps on Google earth using the .kml format.

  10. BastardNamban says:

    I’m from Pittsburgh, and it is indeed the city of zombies. We have more churches per square mile than any other city in the US, if I remember right. And with that many churches, there are bound to be that many separate cemeteries for the parishioners who all wanted their own land for their own church.

    I’m still amazed all the goths are in sunny california. We have more dead bodies than dead leaves in fall here, you figure with that many cemeteries and death, you’d have more goths, and I’ve hardly seen any here.

    Excellent mention of St. Anthonys- I’ve lived here my whole life and never knew the greatest collection of relics outside the vatican was in my own town! I will definitely go check this out now.

  11. mofembot says:

    I lived in Pittsburgh for 12 years and loved it. There have been some enormous changes over the years. One of the neighborhoods I lived in was Four Mile Run (“the Run,” aka “Lower Greenfield). What was indeed a 4-mile valley was cut down to about 1.5 miles with the building of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel in the early 1950s. Elderly residents still complain about the wholesale destruction of this largely Slavonic blue-collar neighborhood.

    Calvary Cemetery in the Greenfield neighborhood has some very interesting headstones, among which is a “tribute” to an adulterous husband portraying him and his paramour.

    • Elliott C. 'Eeyore' Evans says:

      4-mile run (and “9 Mile Run” closer to where I live) was not named for its length, but for its distance upstream from the point.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I’ve always felt it odd how much land is dedicated to storing boxes that used to contain corpses. I think re-purposing the land after an appropriate amount of time is very sensible … after a generation or 2 after the last buried ex-person anyway.

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