Long-abandoned cemetery draws researcher's attention

| Sunday, May 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The headstone of William Zschoegner, who was just a year old when he died in 1853, stands next to a stone for his unnamed sibling in a small cemetery that holds the remains of Squirrel Hill's first residents and veterans of four wars.

“For babies to have tombstones was incredibly rare,” said Helen Wilson, vice president of the Squirrel Hill Historical Society who has researched the history of Turner Cemetery on Beechwood Boulevard, one of the oldest cemeteries in Allegheny County.

But it's almost impossible to tell where everyone is actually buried.

Burial records no longer exist for the half-acre graveyard, and during a cleanup in the early 1900s, most stones — but not the graves — were grouped near the bottom of the property.

“These are the first settlers of Squirrel Hill. ... Beechwood Boulevard was a stream,” Wilson said. “This is a place where people farmed.”

Small U.S. flags indicate that soldiers are buried here. Their headstones no longer are legible; one is embedded in tree roots.

A Mercyhurst University student is using modern technology to help find what those missing records used to show.

Elizabeth Abernathy, a forensic anthropology major, is mapping, photographing and researching the cemetery as part of her thesis.

“All of the stones have been moved, which makes it more difficult for us,” said Abernathy, 22, of Hickory, N.C.

The earliest known list of interments dates to 1905, more than 120 years after the first burial in 1785, said Wilson, who hopes the property is preserved.

“It seems whatever is left should be preserved because it's so rare,” she said.

After the last burial around 1880, the cemetery was abandoned. Some descendants removed remains and buried them elsewhere.

Soldiers from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the Civil War are buried in Turner Cemetery. Some accounts say it could hold the remains of anywhere from six to 30 veterans.

Abernathy studied old maps and accounts for the graveyard and took GPS readings on the location of remaining headstones. Recently, she used a device called a fluxgate gradiometer to detect electromagnetic anomalies in the soil that could reveal where bodies are buried.

“We wouldn't be able to say who's buried where. We'd have to exhume the bodies,” she said. Her project does not include excavations.

Abernathy will present her findings at Mercyhurst next week.

Cemeteries are among the most valuable of archaeological and historic resources because they show settlement patterns, burial practices and cultural and religious influences, historians say. They also are some of the most fragile resources to preserve and protect.

Turner Cemetery was No. 8 on the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh's list of 10 best preservation opportunities in 2012.

“Historically, it is extremely important,” said Dan Holland, the group's president.

The cemetery and nearby Mary S. Brown Memorial-Ames United Methodist Church need to be preserved, Holland said, but money is not available.

“Federal sources and state sources are in short supply,” Holland said. “Money from private donors and corporations can also be hard to come by.”

Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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