Tuesday, August 29, 2006
History of the Union and West End Cemetery
The Union & West End Cemetery is located in downtown Allentown between 10th street and 12th street on the east and west and between Chew street and Liberty from south to north. The main entrance is off 10th Street.
The cemetery grounds cover 19.6 acres and is the final resting place for over 20,000 departed souls. There are more than 700 Civil War Veterans buried in the cemetery as well as a few Revolutionary War soldiers and veterans from the War of 1812 are also interred here. Civil War Medal of Honor recipient, Ignatz Gresser, is buried in the cemetery.
The Union Cemetery was chartered on April 17, 1854. The cemetery consisted of 11 acres purchased at a cost of $200 per acre and laid out in lots one rod square. The lots were first drawn by ticket, and sold at $6.00 each. In a very short period the lots were being sold for $10.00 and by 1914, they sold for $200 and more. By 1920 all lots had been sold.
The first person to be buried in Union Cemetery was John Diefenderfer, who died on September 25, 1854.
The land for the West End Cemetery was purchased in 1882 at a cost of $1,150. This adjoining tract of land consisted of 9 acres and extended from Chew Street to Liberty Street with 12th street being the western boundary. Six hundred lots were laid out sixteen feet square. All lots were sold prior to the consolidation of the two cemeteries.
The two cemeteries merged and were incorporated as the Union & West End Cemetery Association on May 4, 1895. At the time of this merger, the cemetery became a non-profit corporation.
Over the decades when the cemetery was under various boards responsible for managing the cemetery, cost increased and the cemeteries perpetual care funds were depleted. In the 1970’s and 1980’s vandalism became a serious problem as the surrounding neighborhood fell into decline.
In 1997, the existing Board of Directors ran out of funds and all of the directors resigned en masse and the cemetery was virtually abandoned. As a result, the cemetery rapidly deteriorated to a wasteland of high weeds, frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes. Vandals repeatedly attacked unique Pennsylvania German and Victorian monuments, breaking and toppling several thousand of them.
During 1998, the City of Allentown and Lehigh County organized community clean-ups but with only partial success. In 1999 local, civic minded residents organized a new Board of Directors and began a campaign to restore the Cemetery and to raise $1 million dollars for a permanent Endowment Fund.
During 1999-2001, the all volunteer board obtained $36,500 in state and private grants for commercial mowing equipment, to repair hundreds of vandalized gravestones, and to install night-time lighting to deter crime. The cemetery does not currently employ any paid staff.
In 2004 the cemetery celebrated its susqsesquicentennial anniversary.
The board continues to obtain grants, for the restoration of the cemetery, organizes community volunteers and events, mows the vast acreage and attempts to preserve priceless records. Allentown Community Corrections Center inmates volunteer hundreds of man-hours each year, primarily to reset gravestones in an ongoing community service program. The inmates also help, to a lesser extent, with some mowing, but for the most part, the mowing is done by the board members, each of whom has adopted a section containing more than 1.3 acres. Currently, there are ten active directors and several volunteers that are cutting grass on a regular basis. Chapter 190 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart maintains the section immediately under the flag and behind the cannons.
The Union & West End Cemetery Association is registered as a non-profit cemetery association under Internal Revenue Code Section 501 (c) (13). All non-restricted donations are tax-deductible.
The mission statement of the cemetery association reads as follows:
The Union & West End Cemetery Association protects the final resting places of 24,000 Pennsylvanians, preserves the historical integrity of the Cemetery and its records, fosters appreciation of the lives of those buried there, and beautifies the Cemetery to enhance quality of life for the surrounding community.
The cemetery suffers from a lack of funding and the operating expenses are covered on a week to week basis. There is always concern if the operating funds will be sufficient to carry the cemetery association to the end of the mowing season. The cemetery association does utilize grants for some projects and these grants are generally committed to a specific project, such as a tree removal expense which can cost $2,000 to $2,500 per tree. Tree removal is one the cemetery's largest expenses. Many of the grants received by the cemetery association are, by necessity, earmarked for tree removal.
The Endowment Fund, which cannot be touched now stands at $29,849.42, a long way from the $1 million dollar goal set in 1998. The association does have the option of utilizing dividend and interest from the Endowment Fund to cover some operating expenses although it would prefer not to have to do so.
The current board is continually striving to raise operating funds to cover operating cost for fuel and maintenance for the mowing equipment, the purchase of new equipment, electricity, insurance, burglary alarms, telephone and other incidental expenses. With volunteers and inmates operating the equipment, maintenance cost is a large expense during the mowing season. The expenses associated with the operation of the cemetery continue to rise dramatically and it is a struggle for the cemetery association to meet these increased cost.
A number of recurring annual events and some special events are held in the cemetery each year including Memorial Day services conducted by Chapter 190 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart; Genealogy Workshop, helping families to locate graves of relatives; Ecology for children, study & appreciation of the ecology and habitat of the cemetery; Cedar Crest College Freshman Community Orientation, Day of Service; “Civil War Voices” a program of the Lehigh County Historical Society and this year , there will be a special program on Saturday, September 24, 2006, at 2:00 P.M., “Echoes of the 1860’s” an open air concert of Civil War band music by the Allentown Band. There will also be participation of Civil War Reenactment Units. The program is free to anyone that wishes to attend.
Click on the following link to view the web site for the Union and West End Cemetery:
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