Sunday, January 18, 2015

Nisky Hill Cemetery, Bethlehem, PA

On a bitterly cold and windy day in January, I met up with some friends to tour and make photographs in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Nisky Hill Cemetery. Great art comes from great pain. Fifteen degrees with a wind chill right off the Lehigh River that can numb gloved fingers in fifteen minutes. Some snow and ice remained on the ground from a prior time, much as the monstrous and rusting hulks of the Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces sat dormant across the river. These “steel stacks” can easily be seen through the leafless trees at the edge of the cemetery. Looking toward them makes you assume that many of the graves here must have belonged to steel workers.
Dormant blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel lurk across the Lehigh River

Or not. This was more likely an elite cemetery, with the actual immigrant steel workers buried in rude churchyard cemeteries like St. Michael's on the south (opposite) side of the river. Nisky Hill Cemetery appears to be in an affluent neighborhood of Bethlehem (check out this Christmas house across the street).

From what little I’ve been able to ascertain, Nisky Hill Cemetery was founded in 1864 as a Moravian burial ground. The original “Union Cemetery” (having nothing to do with the Grand Army of the Republic) at the eastern end of this large rectangular property, appears to have been annexed to Nisky Hill at some point in time.  The old gates along the front of the cemetery (East Church Street) offer the words “UNION CEMETERY” spelled out on them in wrought iron. I will assume Bethlehem Union Cemetery predates Nisky Hill.

Office at main entrance, Nisky Hill Cemetery
 The main entrance here is a bit odd. The entire cemetery is essentially build into the river bank, and slopes down toward it. Nisky Hill Cemetery is owned by the Bethlehem Area Moravians, Inc., a privately-held corporation which, it seems, has been in the local cemetery business since 1823 (ref.). Why, I’m not sure. I could fill a book with what I don’t know about the Moravians, so I’ll save that research for another time. Suffice it to say that “Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was founded in 1741 by a group of Moravians, members of a church that traces its heritage to pre-Reformation fifteenth-century central Europe”(ref.).

Interesting example of a "pre-need" cemetery monument

While it was a bit uncomfortable being out in the elements on this bright chilly winter’s day, it was actually kind of a cake walk. After some recent visits to abandoned cemeteries where I had to climb over fences and fall out of trees, this visit to Nisky Hill was so easy it seemed like I was getting away with something! While there was snow on the ground, the roads were plowed – in fact, the gates were wide open and we drove right in! Sometimes you take such conveniences for granted. There are in fact many cemeteries I’ve visited in winter where they don’t even plow the snow off the roads or even unlock the gate! Nisky Hill Cemetery is well-maintained and safe. I would guess that the caretaker lives on site in the old office building (there was a swing set behind it).

As we made our way methodically from one mausoleum to the next, I kept thinking about the heating packets for my gloves that I left in the trunk of my car. Oh well, cold fingers are better than the bloody ones ripped up by barbed wire a few weeks ago as a result of my last cemetery exploration! Today, we had a warm running vehicle to which we could adjourn about every fifteen minutes. Pampered.

Zinc ("White Bronze") memorial
As photographers, my friends and I ran off in our separate directions, pursuing our personal visions. Sometimes these interact, sometimes they are at odds with each other. While it can be interesting to see how different people photograph the same scene (like we did with the Civil War cannon above), I rather enjoy totally missing some awesome detail that a friend points out! In the case at Nisky Hill, I would have totally missed a few things, wrapped up in my own world of zinc monuments and snow. My friend Jonathan pointed out the disembodied heads (photos above) and the color photographic mausoleum glass window shown below.

The what? A photographic image about two by three feet, in color, of children in a boat, playing near a small waterfall. Trees crowd the sunny sky, while a hole from a bullet or stone mars the idyllic scene. What exactly is this? It is not stained glass nor painted glass, done in the usual fashion. A photograph printed on glass, then hand-painted? A type of 1860s lantern slide or an early 1900s autochrome? This is a positive image, like a color slide transparency. I am totally curious about this, so if anyone can offer a clue as to how this was done, please comment!
Author at William H. Thomas monument

Perhaps the most unusual monument in the entire cemetery was the one at the main entrance. Before we met up at Nisky Hill, my friends texted me about their impending arrival. This was about fifteen minutes after I arrived. I texted them back, “Meet you at the giant phallus.” I took a selfie before they got there, to help gauge the size - I am six foot two inches tall. Imagine. What would possess someone to install such a thing on one’s grave is beyond me, but apparently William H. Thomas was possessed by exactly that prior to his death in 1928. Maybe he wanted his monument to be higher than the steel stacks across the river? This sixteen-foot high tan (I swear) granite testament to the male ego stands out like a witty analogy amidst the much smaller, normal-sized grave markers that surround it. 

According to, “Moravians focus on the simplicity of burial grounds. They believe in uniform, plain grave markers and inscriptions to emphasize the equality of all human beings.” Oddly, the phallus is right next to the office building so no one can ever miss it. "Equality" aside, whoever all there people were, the residents of Nisky Hill and Union Cemetery in Bethlehem, their choice of how to be remembered was personal. These markers and monuments represent their lives, their community, their collective soul. It is a varied collection.
Older Moravian grave markers

Although Nisky Hill was originally restricted to Moravian burials, at some point this changed. Older Moravian cemeteries have smallish, low to the ground grave markers, almost like a memorial park or a Quaker burial ground with no high tombstones or monuments. There are a number of Moravian stones in this cemetery, made of white marble – perhaps twenty inches long, fourteen inches wide, and four inches high. However, Nisky Hill/Union Cemetery evolved for the most part into a classic American Victorian-era cemetery, replete with angels, zinc monuments, mausolea, and other decorative details from that era of mourning art.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Grave of C.F. Martin, Guitar Maker ... Located!

This blog is part two of a minor odyssey I began in the summer of 2013 (click link at end of article for part one, The Grave of Guitar Maker C.F. Martin ... Almost). Back then I attempted to find the grave of C.F. Martin (Christian Frederick Martin, Sr.), patriarch of the Martin Guitar Company in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. I remember at the time assuming he was buried with his wife, Lucia Otilia Martin (formerly K├╝hle), at Moravian Cemetery in Nazareth. At the time, there was no entry (or gravestone photo) for him on the website There was, however, an entry for Lucia.

After a highly enjoyable tour of the Martin guitar factory in the summer of 2013, I visited Moravian Cemetery – just a couple miles from the factory. Not having a map to Lucia’s grave marker (just the photo from, and with all the grave stones looking alike, I still managed to find her grave within about ten minutes! However, C.F. was not buried with her or next to her. I conjectured that he may have been in an unmarked grave or possibly shipped back to Bavaria for burial in a family plot. While I was at Moravian Cemetery, I failed to notice that all the markers surrounding Lucia’s stone marked female graves.

What is the Moravian Church? Wikipedia tells us: 

"The Moravian Church … is the oldest Protestant denomination emerged from the Bohemian Reformation. This church's nickname comes from the original exiles who came to Saxony in 1722 from Moravia to escape persecution, but its religious heritage began in 1457 in Kunvald, Bohemia, today part of the Czech Republic, an autonomous kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire. The Moravian Church places a high premium on Christian unity, personal piety, missions, and music"

Music, hmmmm? A few months later, I emailed Chris Martin, current C.E.O. and fourth generation owner of Martin Guitars, about the whereabouts of his Great-great-great grandfather. A Customer Service person, Mr. Jason Ahner answered me back: C.F. Martin, Sr. is buried on the men’s side of the cemetery! This never occurred to me at the time of my first visit.

Map of Moravian Cemetery, Nazareth, PA
Apparently, this is how the Moravians buried their loved ones – women segregated from men. Mr. Ahner was kind enough to even send me a hand-drawn map showing the plot location of C.F. Martin, Sr. as well as subsequent Martin family C.E.O.s at the Nazareth Moravian Cemetery. It took me over a year to make the second trip, which I finally made in December 2014 for closure.

Snow-covered Moravian grave markers
My first attempt at the planned second trip was aborted when it snowed the previous night. Older Moravian cemeteries have smallish, low to the ground, grave markers, almost like a memorial park or a Quaker burial ground with no high tombstones or monuments. If you’ve ever been to a Quaker cemetery, you’re familiar with the small, rectangular stones. The Moravian stones in this Nazareth graveyard are larger, however, and are made of white marble – perhaps twenty inches long, fourteen inches wide, and four inches high. As you see in the photo above, such stones, once snowed over, have their inscriptions covered. 

According to, Moravians focus on the simplicity of burial grounds. They believe in uniform, plain grave markers and inscriptions to emphasize the equality of all human beings.”  

A few weeks later, I had another opportunity to make the trip. The map came in very handy and I found the grave in question within ten minutes – even though the stones all looked alike. C.F. Martin, Sr.’s stone had recently been brought to level and shored up a bit. Another thing that made his grave marker easy to find was the photo of it that I found in a Martin Guitar promotional magazine, The Sounding Board (Vol. 34, January 2013), that I picked up after the tour when I was at the factory. 

C.F. Martin, Sr. and grave marker
In a gatefold section of the magazine was a pictorial history of the founding of Martin Guitars. Beneath an artist’s illustration of the patriarch was an illustration of his headstone. 

The older portion of this cemetery, closer to West Center Street (see map), is organized first by gender, men closer to the cemetery entrance, women higher up the hill. offers an explanation of these segregated burial practices in describing the Schoeneck Moravian Cemetery, which is on West Beil Avenue closer to the Martin Factory: “…within each gender, by date of death and marital status, married men together, single women together, children, etc., with families not buried together. Most of the graves are very late 18th through very early 20th century. A number of the stones are in German, or a German-English mix, but most are in English."

The grave marker of Lucia Otilia Martin, the matriarch of Martin Guitars, is about twenty feet away from Christian Frederick’s. The mens’ section is separated from the women’s section of the cemetery by a strip of grass maybe eight feet wide. Here’s a photo (at right) of her grave marker with C.F.’s marker downhill in the background (my blue camera bag is next to it in the white circle).

After finding C.F. Martin’s grave, I thought I might head over to the factory to thank Mr. Ahner for his help. I pulled up in front of the building and got out. A lovely Christmas tree stood above the main entrance. As I was making a photograph of this, a gentleman in a red coat came up the walk from the parking area. As a photographer, you sometimes want a human in your photo to give a sense of scale to the composition. His red coat would add a splash of color to the scene as well.

Chris Martin, CEO Martin and Co. (ref.)
As I snapped the photo, the gentleman turned around and said, “Did I photo-bomb your picture?”  I recognized him from publicity photos. I asked, “Are you Chris?” (Meaning, Christian Frederick Martin, IV, Chairman of the Board and C.E.O. of Martin Guitars) He said “I am.” I was a bit taken aback and blathered on about why I was there and he said, “C’mon in.” Very nice guy. After some discussion with the receptionist about who I was there to see, Mr. Ahner came into the lobby and we chatted a bit. He said they were considering adding a tour of Moravian Cemetery for vising dignitaries and I offered to add the location of Lucia’s grave site to his map. After we said our goodbyes, I played a few of the guitars in the lobby and toured the museum.

As an aside, I did buy my first Martin guitar last year after taking the tour of the factory. Once you go through the factory and see how these guitars are made, you realize that the (relatively) high cost of these instruments is totally justified. I would also like to express my gratitude to the Martin Guitar Company for its hospitality and welcoming attitude toward my rather offbeat inquiries!

Reference and Further Reading:

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Three Brother’s Monument – Harmony in life, unity in death

My first blog of the New Year (2015) was guest-written by my good friend, Sam Ricks. Sam is the Graves Registrar for the Pennsylvania Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (Lt. General John C. Pemberton Camp #2060, Philadelphia, PA) and a member of the Board of Directors of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. (Philadelphia). The photos you see here are Sam's. His article immediately follows the last blog I posted on The Cemetery Traveler in 2014, about General George Meade, Commander of the Union forces at the Battle of Gettysburg. I now turn this interesting story over to Sam ...

In late October, I received a tip about two Confederate graves in Philadelphia from Donna Ozenne, of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Bakersfield, California chapter (herself a Philadelphia native).  The graves of the three Ingraham brothers, all born in Philadelphia County’s Byberry Township, were post-Civil War re-interments. All were nephews of Union Major General George Gordon Meade, Philadelphia’s most famous Civil War general. 

Two of the brothers, Frank and Edward, were Confederate soldiers killed in action on Southern battlefields.  The third brother, Thomas, died of yellow fever before the war in Tensas County, Louisiana.

At first glance, their monument [shown here] in the family plot at All Saints Episcopal Church Cemetery, 9601 Frankford Avenue [Philadelphia], appeared to be a cenotaph – a family memorial to brothers buried years before in Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  As a consequence, Philadelphia’s “Civil War history community” took no notice of this “Confederate” monument as the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, now entering its final year, was commemorated.  That is, until I found their burial card online.

Ingraham burial card

The Three Brothers Monument, featuring three dark, broken, Roman columns bound together by a rusted metal belt, a symbol of young lives cut short, is not a cenotaph, but an actual grave.  They are buried in the Ingraham plot, range 12, grave 2. 

Private Francis “Frank” Ingraham, of I Company, 21st Regiment, Mississippi Infantry, CSA, born in 1829, was killed in action at the Battle of Marye’s Heights (Fredericksburg, VA), during the Battle of Chancellorsville, May 3, 1863. His brother, Major Edward Ingraham, A Company, 1st Regiment, Confederate States Regular Cavalry, CSA, born in 1830, died May 10, 1862 in Corinth, MS, was mortally wounded at the Battle of Farmington, TN.

Author Tom Huntington’s blog, Searching For Meade, recounts the story of the three brother’s post war burial at All Saints.  An “angry mob” threatened to disrupt their re-interment, but was prevented from doing so by a group of local Quakers who stood guard over their graves.

This All Saints episode undermines a long held belief of local historians: that the Meade family and others, had angrily protested the burial of another Philadelphia Confederate, Lt. General John C. Pemberton, at Laurel Hill Cemetery in 1881.  Obviously, the originator of this urban legend got the facts confused with the earlier attempt to thwart the burial of Meade’s Confederate nephews in Philadelphia.

There is something more profound at work here.  Most Civil War readers dismiss the “brother versus brother” story as quaint rhetoric, as rusted as the belt binding the three broken columns of this monument together. But it was reality for many families.  And the evidence can be found in Philadelphia’s cemeteries. The biggest fear of these soldiers was someday finding themselves on opposite sides of the same battlefield. 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Celebrating New Year's with a glass of Meade?

General George Meade
Okay, I have a confession to make. I have repeated a story for years, and I just found out that it is not true! I’d be the first to admit that I seldom let facts get in the way of telling a good story, but in all honesty, this tale was so good, I guess I just wanted to believe it! The story goes that each New Year’s Eve, a group of people calling themselves "The General Meade Society," has a midnight champagne toast at General George Meade’s grave site, which is located in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery. General George Gordon Meade was of course the commander of the Union Army at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War; his birthday was December 31, 1815 (New Year’s Eve). He died in Philadelphia in 1872.

 Memorial Day (2014) gun salute by reenactors at Meade's grave site, Laurel Hill Cemetery

Turns out that the midnight champagne birthday toast at his grave site on New Year's Eve does not actually occur. I got the day right, but not the time! I was searching for details today, thinking that I might attend the toast after hearing about it for so many years. I checked Laurel Hill’s website and found this information:

The annual General Meade Birthday Celebration will mark the 199th anniversary of the birth of General George G. Meade, commander of the Union Army at the Battle of Gettysburg. A parade of Civil War re-enactors, civilians in period attire, special dignitaries, heritage groups and participants will advance to Meade’s final resting place and memorialize his services to his nation. A 21-gun salute and champagne toast will cap off the program at graveside, and will be followed by a reception in the Cemetery Gatehouse. A tour of historic Laurel Hill will be offered following the festivities (weather permitting). This year holds special significance as we continue to commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.
The event will take place on Wednesday, December 31 at 12:00pm, departing from Laurel Hill Cemetery’s Gatehouse entrance at 3822 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19132. Free parking is located in the lot across the street from the Gatehouse.

Free and open to the public; a $10 donation in support of Laurel Hill Cemetery’s work and preservation is suggested and would be much appreciated. Additional information can be found by calling (215) 228-8200.

Ge. George Meade's grave marker, Laurel Hill Cemetery
After reading this, I realized that I didn’t know if "Wednesday, December 31 at 12:00pm" meant midnight, or noon! I really was not sure. Bear in mind that I'm getting up in age - I just turned 56, which is, oddly, the age at which Meade died. Would they really have a 21-gun salute and a tour in the cemetery at midnight? So I called Laurel Hill Cemetery and was told that, no, this will not happen at midnight, but at noon. In fact, the event has always been held at noon! So, to all the people to whom I have repeated this "midnight toast" nonsense to over the years, I sincerely apologize. Happy New Year!

References and Further Reading:

The General Meade Society

Photo at top of article is from The General Meade Society website

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas in Bethlehem

I had heard about St. Michael's Cemetery in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for a few years now and needed to see it for myself. What better time of year to go to Bethlehem than Christmas? I knew it to be an old cemetery on a hill overlooking the defunct Bethlehem Steel mill complex (which now houses a Sands casino). The drive from Allentown was easy enough, down Route 378 toward the Lehigh River. Some big place called Nisky Cemetery jumped off the map at me, but I only had time for my one destination on this trip - St. Michael's.

 Approaching the bridge over the river, I noticed a gigantic star framework on top of the mountain, overlooking the town. Must be the famed “Star of Bethlehem.” I tried to get a photograph, but I didn’t want to rear-end the car ahead of me. It must look rather impressive lit up at night – the star, that is, not the bridge. A bit congested here, traffic-wise. The cemetery was about a mile to the left up Fourth Street after I crossed the Lehigh.

On the right side of the road, St. Michael’s Cemetery rises at a steep grade, stretching about a city block or more up with the same amount of frontage. (For a satellite view, click here and click on the map tab). Note that the cemetery continues into the trees, which must have been allowed to grow wild after a point in the cemetery’s long career, which began in 1867.) Any cemetery built into a hillside simply has more character – it’s a very dramatic look. I parked my car on steep State Street alongside the cemetery and was greeted instantly by the graffiti on this mausoleum (below). 

St. Michael's Cemetery, Bethlehem, PA
I had heard that the cemetery was not in the very best condition (which I admit, is one attribute that will spur me to visit), but I was not quite prepared for what I saw. When you decide to explore a new cemetery, and you’re alone, you must decide where to begin. I decided on mid-hill, entering the grounds through a side entrance – wait – no, actually, this is the main entrance. A lowly narrow brick road that meanders up through the cemetery. Following it, I was able to look down the hill at all the – damage. You don’t really notice this from the street, looking up. The clandestine vandals who spray-painted the grave markers and mausolea did their dirty work on the uphill side of these structures, out of view of passersby.

Grafittied garages below St. Michael's Cemetery

Defaced headstone
As I hiked across the hillside, it was shocking to see that graffiti covered many of the monuments, headstones, and mausoleums. More than I have ever seen in any cemetery before – and I’ve visited hundreds. The same culprits tagged the same messages on neighboring buildings and garage doors, so it wasn't like they were targeting the cemetery. Granite is just another surface to deface, I suppose. Graffiti can be artistic, but there is a time and place for everything. I’m thinking the place for these people is prison.

St. Michael's Cemetery with Bethlehem Steel mill blast furnaces on horizon

You can see Bethlehem Steel, or what’s left of it, below the cemetery. The old gigantic blast furnaces tower into the sky along the river. It’s not a very Christmassy look. At two weeks before the holiday, I couldn’t help but notice the complete absence of any Christmas decorations. The only thing that came close was the red and green graffiti on this mausoleum, its original door replaced with cinder blocks, possibly due to theft. I also noticed, to my horror, many statues lying on the ground, pushed off their pedestals. In fact, save for a four-foot-high female mourning statue high up in the woods, all the statues in the maintained portion of the cemetery were on the ground.

Author Ed Snyder with grounded angel

When I say maintained, I mean that the grass is cut, there is no trash, and the grounds are perfectly safe and suitable for visitors. There is a Friends group of community volunteers called the “Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery,” that is trying to help care for the property. On the Friends’ Facebook page they say that the group “hopes to raise awareness of the historic and cultural value of [Saint Michael's] Cemetery, generating interest and support for on-going preservation and restoration efforts.” What a job these good people have ahead of them! They deserve a round of applause for their efforts.

Graffitied mausoleum

Zinc grave marker
Why would they bother? Why should anyone bother? It’s all about respect, people. Not just respect for the dead, but respect for ourselves. This burial ground is part of our legacy. St. Michael’s is the last resting place of many of the Italian, German, Polish, and Slovak immigrants who once labored fiercely in the steel mills down at the river. Inscriptions in these various languages are evident on the monuments and headstones throughout the cemetery. 

St. Michael's history can be pieced together from short excerpts on the Internet – it was formerly the parish cemetery of St. Michael and then Holy Infancy, serving most of South Bethlehem’s Roman Catholics. The Lutheran church next to the cemetery has no affiliation with St. Michael's Cemetery, which is owned by the Holy Infancy Church (a few blocks west of the cemetery on Fourth Street). 

As I climbed the hill, noting the many toppled crosses and head stones, the wind began to pick up. It was cloudy, overcast, and about thirty-six degrees, the wind making it feel colder. An SUV came winding up the cemetery road. It parked and two women emerged. They spent about a half hour walking around. I was curious if they were members of the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery, and I should have gone up to them to ask, but I was too spellbound by the cemetery. It seems odd now as I think about it, but it was almost like the Stendhal Syndrome, where I just become so focused on my surroundings that I’m barely capable of processing new information. Captivating graveyards sometimes do this to me.

Graves continue on up the hill beyond tree line

About three-quarters of the cemetery is well-maintained and walkable – the lower portion, if you will. As you climb the hill toward the tree line, you begin to see grave stones and rusty plot fencing far up into the woods. And if the day is as chilly and windy as it was when I was there, you welcome the tree cover. I climbed up past a small zinc grave marker (shown above) – the only one of its kind in the cemetery, to my knowledge.

Plots with fencing in the wwods

I followed the graves into the woods, dried leaves and dead branches crackling beneath my feet. I spent about an hour roaming the hillside. Many of the individual graves were bounded by their own rusting iron fencing, something I don’t recall ever seeing in such quantity. Trees had grown through the center of family plots, breaking apart the granite coping and toppling headstones. Most of the grave sites in the woods were crumbling ruins. I assume this forested area (which accounted for maybe a quarter of the entire cemetery) had been allowed to grow wild some fifty years ago. Nature reclaims its own.

Tree growing in center of family plot
To my surprise, an all-terrain jogger passed above me in the woods – some sort of trail up above. I wondered if he even knew the woods below him were filled with graves. I wondered if he even knew the cemetery was there, or the efforts of the Friends group in trying to keep the place safe for people like him. I quote from the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery Facebook page:

“Please join us in raising awareness of this important historical resource in our community and its urgent need for restoration.”

Personally, I’ve always been a tad heavy-handed when it comes to this “raising awareness” stuff. I call it the way I see it and invariably, someone gets upset. But I feel that if you don’t put the photographs right out there where people can see them, the problems will continue. The public needs to be made aware. At that point, if they choose not to do anything about it, that’s their decision. But they can’t say they were unaware of the situation. If you’re very, very calm and diplomatic, people are less likely to pay attention.

"St. Michael’s Cemetery is the resting place for immigrants who came to America in the 19th & 20th centuries, many of whom worked at Bethlehem Steel & other local industries. The land for the cemetery was donated by Asa Packer in 1867 to create the first burial place in Bethlehem consecrated for the interment of Catholics. SM is an excellent representation of the diverse cultures that built our community – more than 25 nationalities are buried at SM. The Cemetery is also known for the nationally-recognized work of famous American photographer, Walker Evans, who made a series of photos in the Lehigh Valley during his time with the Farm Security Administration. One of his most acclaimed prints, the iconic, “Graveyards, Houses, & Steel Mill, Beth, PA, Nov 1935,” was taken at SM."

Walker Evans' 1935 photo above (ref), Ed Snyder's 2014 photo below
Now that’s interesting – Walker Evans was here in 1935, walking the same ground as me. A wonderful lesson in photographic history, that Evans saw this as an iconic scene to shoot for the Farm Security Administration. Asa Packer, mentioned above, along with Robert Heysham Sayre and Augustus Wolle built the mills on the Lehigh River in 1861 to provide steel for the railroads which brought America into the Industrial Age. Bethlehem Steel grew to be the second largest steel producer in America, until the 1960s when competition grew fierce. By 1995, the mill had closed.

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie ...

As I descended out of the trees into the open graveyard, the cold wind cut through my layers of clothing like I was wearing linen. It seemed colder than before. Fingertips numb inside my leather gloves, I balled them up to keep them warm. I glanced back and saw a female figure in the trees. It was a four-foot-high discolored marble mourning statue, a lone figure keeping her vigil over a lonely grave in the woods. This is, in fact, the last statue standing in the entire cemetery. I turned back downhill toward a tall monument with a circular platform at its top – what could this be?  I was shocked to see these white marble angel wings sticking out of the ground; the statue itself likely six feet tall (or rather, long, at this point).

Fallen angel statue, St. Michael's Cemetery

I left the partially-buried angel feeling a bit disturbed. I walked down through the lower part of the cemetery, as the light began to fade. At the front corner of the cemetery, at Fourth Street and State, sits an incredibly ornate Italian marble memorial sculpture of a leaf and vine-covered cross, fronted by the faces of a husband and wife. It is the same monument you see in the Walker Evans photo, at the bottom center of the scene (the one with the small cross). The monument is in fine condition, probably due to the fact that it and the entire front of the cemetery is raised about six feet off the Fourth Street sidewalk, with iron fencing atop a high stone wall. All this probably keeps most of the vandals out of the front section of the cemetery.

Author Ed Snyder with friends
At the front of the cemetery, fragments of Victorian-era ornamental metal fencing still mark the entrances to family plots, and many plots have large obelisks and monuments. There are four family mausoleums at St. Michael's. While hundreds, maybe thousands of the graves here belong to poor steel mill workers and 1918 influenza victims, it’s obvious that many of those interred were rather well-to-do citizens of Bethlehem. Citizens whose history is lost to the ages, and most likely lost on the three high schools boys who passed me as they cut through the graveyard on their way home from school.

Far be it for me to be judgmental with regard to why this cemetery, this memory garden, is in such condition. There are reasons why damage occurs, and reasons why ongoing maintenance drops off. I don’t know the financial condition of the owner, Holy Infancy parish. But since this is not an active cemetery (i.e., there are no new burials), then there is no income. I believe there have been no burials since the 1960s. Should there be money in trust to provide perpetual care? Probably. But considering that burial records were not even kept for the first forty-five years of the cemetery's existence (between 1867 and 1912), there were probably no funds allocated for ongoing care of the first graves.

Graves in the trees, St. Michael's Cemetery, Bethlehem, PA

I see beauty everywhere, and St. Michael’s Cemetery is quite a show piece. It should also be treated by us, collectively, with greater respect. With ongoing efforts by the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery, it could very well become the Star of Bethlehem. If you would like to learn more, visit, or help with the stabilization and restoration of the cemetery, please visit the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery Facebook page (click here). To make donations to the upkeep of the cemetery, please visit the website of Holy Infancy Church.

References and Further Reading:
A Short History of Big Steel and Bethlehem 
Bethlehem Historical Marker 
Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery