Sunday, December 13, 2015

Union Cemetery Has Gone Missing ...

Here’s a short blog on an odd little situation I just discovered. I live in South Philadelphia near Third Street and Washington Avenue. At Sixth Street and Washington Avenue (running to Federal Street), there used to be a cemetery. It was called the Union Cemetery. The City of Philadelphia “removed” the cemetery around 1970 to further develop the commercial business corridor along Washington Avenue.

I have driven past the particular Asian supermarket you see in the photo above, which is at Sixth and Washington (Federal Street is behind it). I have driven past it hundreds of times since moving to the neighborhood in 2008. Until a few weeks ago, I had no idea that the stone wall along Sixth Street (on the south side of Washington) is the ACTUAL stone retaining wall of the Union Cemetery! Complete with holes in the granite top where the iron fence was anchored!

It is no wonder they would they destroy a cemetery to build a parking lot, but why KEEP the original retaining wall? If you’re expecting to find the answer here, you may as well stop reading – I don’t have it. There is quite a bit of information (and photos, as bizarre as that is!) on the cemetery’s demise all over the Internet, but I could not find out much about the wall. I suppose it will remain just one of those odd little cemetery facts.

Union Cemetery wall with fallen fencing, c. 1970 (Ref. 1)

I will quote a few of these sources and you can see more of the historic photos at the link to the Temple University Archives (at end). Temple, by the way, is no stranger to cemetery destruction. They conned the City of Philadelphia into condemning the city’s second Victorian cemetery in 1956 so the university could build a you guessed it – a parking lot. (Read more about that on my blog post, "How Monument Cemetery Was Destroyed," at the link at the end.)

Picking through human bones during excavation of Union Cemetery, c. 1970 (Ref. 2)

Historic map of South Philadelphia's Union Cemetery (Ref. 4)
But back to the little ol’ Union Cemetery, the graveyard in the Southwark section of Philadelphia which occupied land about the size of half a city block. The name "Union," perhaps, may have sprung from the fact that a union, or association, of people established it in 1841. Ironically, 100 Civil War soldiers - mostly Union Army veterans, I suppose - were later buried here. Where are they now? Under the parking lot of the Asian supermarket? Supposedly not. Above you see a photo of a young man picking through the bones in 1970 so they could be reinterred, in a mass grave, I expect, in Frazer, PA – a distant suburb of Philadelphia . Get those dead as far away from the living as possible! Make way for progress!

Original entrance gate from Union Cemetery resides at Philadelphia Memorial Park in Frazer, PA. (Ref. 1)

From the Find A Grave website (Ref. 1):

"The Union Burial Ground was located at the NE corner of 6th and Washington; Federal Streets in South Philly, was incorporated in 1841 as an "association" cemetery, catered to the poorer residence who as association members could obtain a decent family plot for $10.00. This cemetery was called Sixth Street Union to differentiate it from another Union Burial Ground at 10th and Washington Avenue. In 1970 the cemetery which contained the graves of over 100 Civil War Soldiers and Sailors and their families was neglected and vandalized. That same year the site was sold for use as a supermarket. About 2,000 graves were dug up, the remains boxed and then reburied in Philadelphia Memorial Park in Frazer, Chester County."
Casual onlookers during the demise of Union Cemetery, c. 1970 (Ref. 3)

Union Cemetery's decline began at the end of the nineteenth century, as the area's residents began to move away, edged out by commercialization. With no close relatives living nearby to care for the graves, the cemetery went to ruin (Ref. 4). As I said, by 1970, it was gone - gone, that is, except for one of it's retaining walls. Perhaps it was left intentionally as a reminder to future generations - a reminder of the ground's sacred past, or perhaps our callous handling of the dead.