Restoring the Old Saltsburg Cemetery

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.

Saltsburg, Pennsylvania. Photo from Wikipedia

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.

The overgrown Old Saltsburg Cemetery. Photo by Alan Saltsman

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 Colton at Old Saltsburg Cemetery. Photo by Jack MaGuire

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.

Old Saltsburg Cemetery in September 2021. Photo by Jenny Ashcraft

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.

Aaron Wyatt headstone. Photos by JFBC and Jenny Ashcraft

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.

Maria Hakins headstone. Photos by Alan Saltsman and Chuck Colton

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®.

157 comments

  1. God Bless Chuck, his sister and all the volunteers. That is a great restoration. One that would never have happened if not for Chuck’s efforts. A great story, and photos.

    • Absolutely love this! Thank you Chuck and all the volunteers and towns people.

    • Wonderful article of what a community can do together to reclaim a part of their history. Beautiful results.

  2. This is a great story. What an exceptional person Chuck is to dedicate his life to revitalizing this cemetery. Kudos to all who helped. We need more people like this to save the old neglected cemeteries.

  3. In Belgium, there are families that have been caring for the graves of U.S. soldiers who died fighting in World War I; these grave keepers pass down the graves of individual soldiers through the generations so that these men will never be forgotten for their sacrifice to liberate Belgium

  4. Wish you would make a pamphlet with do’s and don’ts about restoring old cemeteries.

    • As a professional gravestone conservator in Texas, I have a document both for groups considering work at a cemetery and the things to be mindful of, as well as one for those in the next step of cleaning and clearing around gravestones to take inventory of them. If you would like I can send you both documents. Send a message to my email on my website.

      • I would love the information on the do’s and don’t. How can I get a copy?

  5. The article that I read is truly beautiful. There is so much that we do not know from the past and how things were. The pioneers need to be remembered with honor and grace.

    • Hello … As you just mentioned that you have a family at a cemetery in Franklin, Tennessee. My great grandmother and others (Buchanan) are buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Franklin. Are you familiar with that cemetery?

  6. I love this! I have a family cemetery in Franklin County, Tennessee I’ve been trying to get help with. If I lived there
    I would do what you have done. Thank you for your hard work and dedication.

  7. These stories touch my heart and I am grateful for what Chuck and others are doing. It’s a great example of what can be done to bless others’ families with such selfless service!!

  8. Always love hearing stories of restorations, but this was a huge undertaking. Chuck is inspiring in his pursuit to find and restore every grave. Thank You Chuck

  9. Chuck is the answer to the deceased prayers, and that is “to not be forgotten”. What a wonderful work and accounting of the restoration. Thank you.

  10. What a wonderful thing your team of volunteers & yourself have done! Your story about the old Saltsburg Cemetery was great. Thank you for the work you and others have accomplished! Well Done!

  11. Terrific story!. I am aware the town of Tillamook Oregon once had a pioneer cemetery of about 300 graves. The county and power company did not respect the old cemetery. Many graves were lost while the power company took over a large portion of that cemetery. They put up a token plaque as a memorial. another small cemetery in the area was also razzed.
    In 1845 the Earl Family I track, traveled to Oregon Territory. The mother of this family died in 1850. She her son and a granddaughter are said to be buried on the SE side of Knox Butte, Linn county, in the tree line. Graves not marked. The present day land owner was told there are graves on their new to them property. These are Oregon to do projects. You give me hope. Thank you!

  12. Thank you for sharing, so glad you were able to restore that forgotten cemetery back to life💜

  13. Chuck,
    You are a hero. Thank you for you dedication
    You’ve earned your gold stars in heaven.
    Always
    Vickie J

  14. What a wonderful story and such a great guy for stepping up and restoring this cemetery. As a genealogist who has been researching for 20+ years, I am very concerned with the way some cemeteries are neglected so it warms my heart to see someone with a big heart restoring such a special forgotten gravesite. Thank you for taking on such a rewarding job, you are a blessing to all of the families of each person buried there. Your reward awaits you in heaven.

  15. This world needs more people like Chuck!! Thanks for such an inspiring story 🙂

  16. This is an awesome story and Sir, we are all proud of you and the folks that helped you. I enjoy finding the graves of people that have passed and relatives are in search to locate them. The Webb site is called Find A Grave. I have found many for others and also located a lot of my family members. May God bless you…

  17. My father was born in Saltsburg in 1910. I wish I could be there to help. What a wonderful job you are doing. Karen in Florida.

  18. I began an inactive 19th cemetery uncovering in Minaville NY (Town of Florida) 2 years ago with the help of a local resident and fellow cemetery afficionado who is also the supervisor of the active cemetery there. Many stones were either unreadable or badly disintegrating. The owner of the farm from which this cemetery was set aside was my 3rd great-grandfather. I did not know that at the time I began the project. I have found many links to previously unknown ancestors. We cannot set up the remaining stones but set them aside along the wrought iron fence. I had a sign made and will attach it to the gate. I and my friend will keep the cemetery clear as long as we can.

  19. This is absolutely awesome. I thank him and all his volunteers for all there hard work and dedication!
    I’m sure there are a lot of souls smiling down on them from heaven!

  20. A labor of love! Thank you, Chuck for engineering this project and many thanks to all who helped this happen.

  21. This old cemetery restoration project, at Saltsburg, PA, was very heartwarming to me; and such a huge undertaking spearheaded by Chuck Colton, the City Borough, and the many Volunteers, who assisted with this project. Thank you for the nice historical story of diligence, hard work, and self-sacrifice, along with the nice photos of the historic cemetery before -and after. What a first-class restoration effort. I hope that this cemetery will stay preserved for many future generations to come. Blessings!

  22. Kudos to you, Chuck for taking on such a daunting task and getting such wonderful results. God bless you and may all your curses be blessings in disguise.

  23. I absolutely love this. It breaks my heart to see any cemetery that is not cared for. This should inspire all of us!

  24. Tom Sloan: I”m sure there is plenty of info available online, but one has to be very careful about the cleaning. The Maine Old Cemetery Association (MOCA) has offered several workshops over the years, right at the site of an old cemetery that has broken stones,-lichen covered stones, etc.
    https://moca-me.org/cleaning-gravestones

  25. Does anyone know if there is an online database of rundown cemeteries and missing cemeteries in the United States? It would be helpful to people such as Chuck to have a database of cemeteries waiting to be restored.

    • In the county I live in New York we have such a database. I volunteer for Find a Grave and photograph headstones. There are several cemeteries in my area that are in ruins and ard slowly being taken over by nature. I feel so let down when I have to explain to families that are doing research that the cemetery is almost impossible to enter. There is one cemetery in particular that is mind blowing. A descendant had a cemetery built and had over 70 ancestors graves moved to the new location. Quite noble. But the person never made arrangements for the future upkeep of the cemetery. It is now a jungle.

  26. There are many people buried in cemeteries who aren’t even listed on the headstone, but they are buried there. I have run into problems with 1 particular Cemetery in Boston, who don’t believe in my cleaning of headstones and I also do FindaGrave pages as well. The women in the office just basically hang up on me, when I need information on people buried there. The office manager is also on the board of trustees, which to me is a conflict of interest. I have even cut through brush and branches to uncover headstones that are buried.

  27. God bless you Chuck Colton and your army of volunteers! What a beautiful story. I’m hoping to make a stop there my next trip thru Saltsburg from Indiana.

  28. Nice going to all of you folks. I wish someone could have done that where my relatives were buried in Brookfield, PA. before it was strip mined for coal.

  29. What a wonderful way to preserve the past history of this area, and the years , instead of destroying it all. It gives life to the area. Thank you sir . My ( Biber) Beaver relatives from Germany , migrated to North Carolina from somewhere in Pennsylvania.

  30. This is good deed of a very high order! Thanks so much, Chuck!

  31. Thank you for sharing that story! There are so many cemeteries in our country that are in need of someone to take care of them. I appreciate what he does for the people who have passed on before us!

  32. Bless you for your diligence. Loved reading the story. I wish I were near to help in a clean/restore day. The Daughters of Union Veterans National Mtg will be in PA in 2022. I hope to attend and possibly visit this beautiful restored cemetery. Thank you

  33. Wonderful project. I wish there were more people like Chuck with more cemeteries saved!!!

    • There is an old cemetery outside of Syracuse which could use some love like this. I do not recall how many graves are there. How does one find out who owns the land? I live 6 hrs away and there must be some way to preserve this.

      • You can check with the Property Appraiser, Clerks Office, or Land Assessor’s office. Perhaps you can also check with the local historical society.

  34. WOW what a great mission you are on fantastic. Are they making now also a list of the people buried there, so it can be looked up on findagrave? Maybe a job for someone who can not lift or help with the cleaning? You will be blessed for your work and genealogist are grateful to you

  35. A heart warming story. Thank you Chuck and all those volunteers that made this happen. You are an inspiration to all!

  36. I know of a cemetery in NY outside of Syracuse which is badly in need of some care. How does one go about finding who has any ownership of the land? I would love to find out if something could be done? Unfortunately I live 6 hrs away.

  37. What a caring project. I can’t even imagine where you would start to find information for so long ago. What a privilege to be able to honor each of those lives in their final resting place. God bless you for your hard work, kindness and dedication to our ancestors of long ago. Each person there had love and life. I am amazed!

  38. What a Beautiful story. So many people are forgotten by the removal of headstones. A it is a shame that no one cares or there are no more family members to take care of or to share the information of there families. It is wonderful to hear of such a caring person. Thank you..

  39. CARING AND SHARING….,THANK YOU FOR YOUR PHOTOS AND STORY. WE NEED TO REMEMBER THOSE THAT HAVE PAST.

    In mining days families from Russia, Lithuania and others came to work in coal mines, they wanted a better life.

    WHEN VISITING FAMILY IN SOUTHERN ILLINOIS, WE ALWAYS SEEK OUT OLD CEMETERIES.

  40. Thank you so much for doing this. My 2nd great grandparents are buried there.

  41. Beautiful job on the lovely Cemetery. Thank you for caring & sharing.

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