In 2015, Chuck Colton learned about the Old Saltsburg Cemetery for the first time. He remembers sitting on the steps of the historic Saltsburg Catholic church when a friend asked if he’d ever visited the old burial ground on Salt Street. Chuck didn’t even know there was a cemetery there. He’d always had a soft spot for cemeteries, though, having grown up mowing the grass at cemeteries where his ancestors are buried. Chuck decided to go check it out.
The city of Saltsburg lies amidst the rolling green hills of Western Pennsylvania’s Indiana County. The cemetery was laid out between 1817-1820. It occupied a piece of land behind the proposed Presbyterian church that was under construction at the northern edge of town. In 1832, just before the church was finished, it caught fire and burned to the ground. The local newspaper reported how the firestorm burned many wooden grave markers behind the church. A new church was built in its place, and the cemetery grew. It became the final resting place for hundreds of early Saltsburg residents and over time, became excessively crowded.
In 1868, a new and larger burial ground opened nearby. Now known as Edgewood Cemetery, town officials urged residents to move the remains of their loved ones and reinter them in the new cemetery. Some did, but many graves remained in the old burial ground. Over the decades, the Old Saltsburg Cemetery fell into decay and disrepair. The congregation built a new Presbyterian church just down the road and tore the old one down. The Old Saltsburg Cemetery became neglected and overgrown. Trees, creeping myrtle, and poison ivy eventually choked out the headstones, and graves inside the cemetery seemingly disappeared. Headstones fell over or broke, and many became damaged or covered in lichen, making the inscriptions illegible.
A road-widening project in 1954 had a negative impact on the old cemetery. State officials widened the narrow road that ran adjacent to the cemetery. During construction, workers reported unearthing graves and moving headstones as they graded the area with a bulldozer. At the time, the disturbance of the cemetery was not reported in the local newspaper. Again, the neglected cemetery fell into disrepair.
Chuck recalled approaching the cemetery, located right behind the fire hall, for the first time. “I walked up to a white privacy fence, opened the gate, and peered inside. Most of the headstones were lying flat. There were thick woods with trees growing everywhere. Poison ivy was covering some of the graves. I suddenly had a feeling that I needed to do something about it, but I didn’t know where to start.”
Chuck decided to attend the Saltsburg borough meeting and ask borough officials about maintaining the cemetery. They showed little interest at first, but a reporter covering the meeting published a story about Chuck’s request, and soon people were talking! Chuck received dozens of phone calls from residents who had stories or historical information to share. Others offered to help with the cleanup. Before Chuck knew it, he was organizing a cemetery restoration project.
Chuck’s sister Terri started an Old Saltsburg Cemetery Facebook page as a way to disseminate information and get volunteers and supplies. They scheduled their first community cleanup day and hoped for the best. The cleanup day arrived, and Chuck was thrilled to see dozens of volunteers show up. The township sent two big trucks, tools, and city workers who volunteered their time on a Saturday.
Chuck’s professional career in metallography taught him the importance of photo documentation, and Chuck photographed every detail in the cemetery. He carefully recorded the location of each unearthed grave and headstone. As public interest grew, Chuck and Terri organized an “Adopt a Grave” program. People wanting to help restore the cemetery can adopt a headstone and help cover the costs of repairing, cleaning, and resetting the old headstones.
Along the way, Chuck even discovered some people in his family tree buried in the Old Saltsburg Cemetery. Using a copy of the old church records, old newspapers, and other sources, Chuck is trying to document each person buried in the cemetery. He utilizes Find a Grave® to create memorials for each grave, spending hours searching through historical records to attach biographical information to the memorial. He even takes the time to make family connections and links parents and siblings. Chuck has talked to grateful descendants who have discovered ancestors buried there, thanks to his efforts.
To Chuck, each grave represents a life lived – and a life that should be remembered. He treats the cemetery grounds as sacred and feels that it is his stewardship to do all he can to keep this history from becoming lost. Chuck has many favorite stories he’s discovered during the cemetery revitalization, but two that come to mind are Aaron Wyatt and Maria Hawkins.
The headstone of Civil War soldier Aaron Wyatt was perched precariously on a steep hill in the southwest quadrant of the cemetery. On April 15, 1861, when President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to enlist in military service, twenty-seven-year-old Wyatt soon left his wife and two young sons to travel to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he enlisted as a private in Company C, 4th Regiment Pennsylvania Cavalry. Later he received a promotion to First Sergeant and saw action at some of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles, including Antietam and Gettysburg. Wyatt received battle wounds at Gettysburg, but it was typhoid fever that killed him on November 8, 1863, at a hospital at Warrenton Junction, Virginia. In 2017, volunteers carefully restored Wyatt’s headstone. His grave stands proudly alongside two other soldiers buried in the cemetery.
A second discovery that touched Chuck’s heart is that of Maria J. Hawkins. Maria was born in Indiana County in 1834. She was one of nine children born to Adam Elrick and Jane Scott Marshall. When Maria was just 12, her father died, leaving her mother Jane with eight children and one on the way. At age 19, Maria married Shepherd M. Hawkins and became the mother of three young children. In 1858, 24-year-old Maria died and was buried in the Old Saltsburg Cemetery. Chuck found Maria’s headstone lying flat and covered with lichen. He carefully cleaned it, revealing beautiful detail not seen for more than 150 years. Chuck created a Find a Grave® memorial for Maria. It includes images of the headstone before and after restoration. While resetting Maria’s headstone, Chuck discovered something touching and surprising. Buried beneath layers of dirt and vegetation was a tiny headstone for Maria’s baby daughter, also named Maria J. Hawkins. Mother and daughter were laid to rest next to one another, leaving Chuck to wonder if the baby’s birth may have been related to the mother’s death.
Chuck knows that his cemetery restoration project will take a lifetime, and he is committed to the long haul. It has brought him joy and satisfaction. “It has bloomed into something I never expected,” he said. Chuck hopes that his journey at the Old Saltsburg Cemetery might inspire others to look for opportunities to care for cemeteries in their communities.If you would like to learn more about the ongoing restoration of the Old Saltsburg Cemetery, check out their Facebook page here. See more amazing photos and the memorials for those buried at the Old Saltsburg Cemetery here on Find a Grave®.