Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Paved path through cemetery with grass, trees, and stone markers of various shapes and sizes.
Paved path through cemetery with grass, trees, and stone markers of various shapes and sizes.

Exploring the Harrisburg Cemetery

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Spring has sprung in Harrisburg!  So when I was deciding what National Register resource to focus on for this week’s blog post, my office mate/dining room table neighbor/husband suggested we take a walk through Harrisburg Cemetery, listed in the National Register in 1985.

And what a beautiful afternoon it was!  All the photos you will see in this post were taken by my 10 year old assistant/daughter, who declined to be photographed herself.

You can enter through a gate at 13th street, just off the State Street Bridge – its really just a short distance from the PA SHPO office in the Keystone building!

Large metal gates anchored in stone pillars across the paved road.
Entrance gates to Harrisburg Cemetery, April 2021.

In the early 1840s, cemeteries in Harrisburg were small and scattered throughout the city, in some cases likely impeding progress and city growth. 

In February of 1845, the State General Assembly voted to establish the Harrisburg Cemetery Association, which purchased 12 acres of land from a local farmer, Henry Herr.  The land afforded a tremendous view of the city from a bluff. 

Looking through bare trees at city and office buildings.
View of Harrisburg from cemetery, April 2021.

Overtime additional land was added, until it reached the 35 acres that stands today. The current boundaries were reached by 1971.

The cemetery is significant under several areas of significance – architecture, art, and sculpture, though if we were going to re-write the nomination today we would likely add significance in design and landscpe. 

It was part of the Rural Cemeteries trend popular between the 1830s and 1870s. (Interested in reading more about cemetery design?  Check out this developmental history webpage!) Rural cemeteries like this were created in places chosen for accessibility and beauty and was designed to take into account the natural landscaping that already existed.

The nomination says it “physically expresses the rise of romantic and picturesque landscape philosophies of the mid 19th century … it served the purposes of both consolidating Harrisburg’s prior burial locations and offering a park like setting for the recreational enjoyment of the living as was popularly pursued in cemeteries at the time.”  

Paved path through cemetery with grass, trees, and stone markers of various shapes and sizes.
Path through Harrisburg Cemetery, April 2021.

Other examples of rural cemeteries include Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Cemetery and Philadelphia’s Woodland Cemetery.

But beyond the natural beauty of the cemetery, the thing you notice first when you enter the cemetery is a striking blue building – the Caretaker’s House (the current office), built in 1845. 

Two story blue and white building with Gothic Revival details next to paved road and surrounded by grass and trees.
Caretaker’s Cottage (now office) for Harrisburg Cemetery, April 2021.

Constructed in a Gothic Revival style, the building is notable because it was constructed in a style that was not yet popular in Harrisburg at that time.  According to the nomination, it was “popular in larger cities in the 1820s, and the 1840s was a bit early for Harrisburg, thereby displaying some innovation on behalf of the architect.”

The stones were frequently ornate and elaborately decorated, and included many obelisks.

Stone grave marker carved with cloth draped over top and flowers.
Grave marker in Harrisburg Cemetery, April 2021.
Carved stone cemetery marker with the name Bishop carved in center.
Granite grave maker for Bishop family in Harrisburg Cemetery, April 2021.

So many obelisks, in fact, that a section of a management document from 1876, noted

“There is another suggestion which the managers feel it their duty to make to lot holders; they trust it will be received as an evidence that they are anxious to unite in encouraging an improved taste in monumental sculpture.  It has been the frequent remark of visitors – our own citizens, as well as strangers – that a monotony already begins to be apparent in the style and form of the improvements.  Obelisk succeeds obelisk, etc., with only slight variations, and if this is continued we shall see in time too dull a uniformity to strike the mind with agreeable sentiments.”

Tall stone memorial carved in an elaborate design at the top.
Tall memorial in the Harrisburg Cemetery, April 2021.

One monument that caught our eye, and that of the nomination author, was a striking Gothic spire in the interior of the cemetery – the only one of its kind, and “richly detailed in true Gothic form with finials and tracery moldings.”

Gothic Revival stone monument surrounded by grass and trees.
Elaborate Gothic Revival momument in Harrisburg Cemetery, April 2021.

Later additions to the cemetery included a “massive shrub and tree planting” effort in the 1900s, which added over 500 trees, including “Elm, Mountain Ash, Tulip, Sugar Maple, Red Maple, Pin Oak, Red Oak, White Oak, Linden, and Flowering Dogwood.”  The day we were there, a group of Master Gardeners were working on a project to label the trees.

A section of much older stones, predating the cemetery, comes from several other cemeteries that were consolidated here.

Rows of simple grave markers in wooded area.
Early slab markers in Harrisburg Cemetery, April 2021.
Brown stone cemetery marker carged with name and death information.
Example of early 19th century stone marker in Harrisburg Cemetery, April 2021.

Civil War stones also appear in another section. According to a Harrisburg Magazine article,

“During the Civil War, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania purchased lots to bury casualties from the Camp Curtin post hospital. A total of 155 men from both sides were laid to rest in the Harrisburg Cemetery, along with two civilians, the wife of Peter Roberts in 1862 and the other a child of John Schreckenhurst in 1863.”

Rows of uniform stone grave markers surrounded by grass and trees.
Rows of simple markers for Civil War soldiers in Harrisburg Cemetery, April 2021.

There is so much to learn here about the roots of Harrisburg – it contains the graves of four governors, numerous local and state politicians, and numerous local icons. 

It continues to be a place of “enjoyment of the living” and a place to remember those who have come before us.  My 10 year old and I had a lovely afternoon as I explained what the significance of this place was and why we had come. 

In the end, she allowed one photo to be taken to prove she was there, too.  

The photographer leaving the cemetery, April 2021.

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