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®.
What a beautiful and heartwarming story where history meets with a caring person of the future. Thank you for caring and thank you to those who volunteered precious time and effort. Susan Dundas, Ontario, Canada
What a special man Chuck is to take on this huge project of restoration. I’m sure it will mean a lot to many who have loved ones buried there.
Great story. I’m out of California and have been trying to figure out a way to get the neglected “Old Ellenville Cemetery” in NY (now in Warwarsing) maintained… I have a few relatives buried there that the Warwarsing county clerk can’t find records on, but their late 1800, early 1900 obituaries say they were buried there… communicating with a few folks that have been there in person they say it’s overrun with vegetation and many markers are illegible… This is an inspiring story, wish I lived close to Warwarsing so I could attempt to do something similar there…
Reading stories like this are inspiring. Thank you for sharing
I am looking for graves of my great grandparents Walter and Anna Moffitt Porter. They came to this country in 1880 s. I would appreciate any information. They had five children Ellen, Robert, James, George and Walter. James is my grsndfather./ He is buried at Grandview in Johnstown, Pa . Thank You, Karen
Are US graveyards and cemeteries not sacred and consecrated grounds as they are in the UK? Full respect to the townsfolk and especially Chuck Colton, for taking this restoration on. I hope he has the full backing of the community.
Very interesting story. I live in Essex, England and have spent many an hour searching cemeteries for family history. Sadly many of the memorial stones are so badly damaged through time. It is always a ‘eureka’ moment when I find useful information.
What about knowing of a cemetery that was destroyed by someone wanting to build a commercial building?? It has always bothered me knowing what happened but no one seemed to care. Many of the headstones were thrown into a nearby creek. I don’t know what became of the them or the others in the cemetery.
Newly retired and living in Idaho, my wife and I traveled the US visiting hundreds of Cemeteries. It was so disheartening that so many were in terrible condition, having been left uncared for for many, many years. While searching for the burial site of John (1798-31Oct1853) & Margaret Boyer who was living in Sugar Creek Twsp, Montgomery County, Indiana we found where we thought it was located. We drove & drove in that area and finally stopped by an old machine shop to ask an older gentlemen if he ever knew of a Cemetery in that area. He responded that he knew exactly where that Cemetery HAD been. He said that the farmer who owned the property contacted Local & State Officials about the dissaray with headstones being being down, broken and weeds 6″ high.. He could not find anyone who was willing to do anything about it so he claimed the farmer stacked up all the stones in a corner of the site and plowed the rest of the land under returning it to agricultural use. I have great regret that we did not pursue that injustice. We were in a hurry and never followed through. I wonder if it was true? Is there anyone in that area who could check this out?
The Scarborough Historical Society took over an abandoned cemetery in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada and documented the interments, cleaned up the stone and reopned the cemetery for new burials.
A fascinating story. I appreciate the commitment to honouring these early settlers.
I am so impressed with the commitment you have made. I love finding gravestones when I am looking for ancestors. It’s people like you that make my search possible. Thanks for your continued work.
This makes my heart happy. Thank you for your hard work!
Great story with so much incredible detail….
I think it is a wonderful story and I applaud Find a Grave for helping share one persons efforts to retain our American personal histories through the records of our ancestors and their stories tied to their burial places. I personally use it to trace and track my own family and their related clans as they migrated into the Americas and then spread out throughout the states and beyond. I wish there were better records from the old countries. There is one area that seems to have been neglected. Perhaps Find a Grave can be used at a repository for this missing information. I am 83 years old and know that my time is running out. I have chosen to be cremated. I didn’t very much want to have a memorial located in any cemetery. I would prefer to have my remains scattered in places I have grown to love in life. But I have recently come to the understanding that persons like myself won’t leave a researchable footprint for the future. I know that many cemeteries have moved into providing places for cremated remains to be placed with memorials (on monuments) to their passing. Still that leaves people like me who would prefer to not reside in such a place. So here is my idea. Find a Grave should design a virtual online memorial site for all those people who chose to be scattered in an unidentifiable real place. It could be designed to mirror real world site but not actually require a grass and tree garden of memorials as a repository, but rather utilize a virtual memorial site for all that information we now see in cemetery records including but not limited to Obituaries, Family Records, Military Veteran’s Records, and general stories of family and public interest.
I love this story! It leads me to believe there are many more cemeteries in “grave” need around the country. I know of one I would like to recommend for special attention. I have one relative buried in a very small rundown and neglected circumstance in Texas. It is called the “Oscar Cemetery” AKA “Little Elm Cemetery” and AKA “Simmons Cemetery”. It is located in Bell County, Texas a few miles east of Tempe TX. I live far enough away from there that I might not ever get to visit there. But here is my tale of this resting place. One set of my great great grandparents were moving around in Texas. During their one of their moves they lost a 20 year old son. He was buried in this quiet place along with about 48 other people. You might say he is one of those who rest in a strange land with people he doesn’t know. He was buried there in 1883 and the latest grave there was in 1955. It has since fallen into gloomy disrepair. And I believe it is on private land (not sure). I wish someone would adopt this cemetery. Someone did some recording; it is documented on Find a Grave. Thank you for that Find a Grave.
Love the work done by Find a Grave and all the wonderful volunteers. It is with much regret that the Metropolitan Cemeteries Board and the Western Australian Government are “renewing” our cemeteries here. That means bulldozers and total destruction of headstones including WW veterans. Our pleas are falling on deaf ears
Very moving and inspiring. It shows great respect for the dignity of human beings, thanks.
Well done Chuck to you and your volunteers. So wish there were more people like you. Ive seen videos on overgrown lost type gravesites and its just so sad the disrepair that they are left in. Especially large family ones that seem to have been made so wonderful and pretty but now in total decline. Whole family plots going to the bush it seems. Happened when the Civil War was on in the USA and people had to up and leave. So sad.
“As long as there’s one person on earth who remembers you, it’s not over.”
Beautiful story! I love your determination to not let our ancestors be forgotten. There is a small Cemetery near where I live, it is so overgrown with weeds, it breaks my heart. It is a family Cemetery, which seems to make it even more distressing. I spend so much time photographing graves, I find myself cleaning up many from dirt & grass, so I can get a good photo. I applaud you!
Hats off to Chuck! Loved reading this story – Thank you!
Something tells me that Chuck is not just your average citizen but someone special that is capable of creating small miracles!
I LOVE this story each time i return to KY and go to visit the old crematories it is hard to read the head stones for they were rocks that was carved on many of them then trying to take a picture to see if I would be able to read at times the carved letters are not able to be seen.
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