The year of the moving dead

Every few years, someone up along Bellefonte Avenue will be adding something to a property. A swimming pool, an electric line, something like that. Something that requires them to dig. And it’s always, roughly, on the south side of the street, between Highland Street and Pearl Street. And often, when they dig, they find something very interesting — a bone or a piece of old headstone. And then I get a call at work.

This is an occasional event that is not likely to go away anytime soon. Particularly since it’s been going on for almost exactly a hundred years.

Right now, it’s 2018. (In case you hadn’t noticed.) And that means it’s been a century since the Great Island Cemetery was moved.

Great Island Cemetery used to be up in the hill section of Lock Haven, before there even was a Lock Haven– the cemetery went back to the 1700s. It was along the south side of Bellefonte Avenue, almost all the way at the top of the hill. It was established by the Great Island Presbyterian Church, which got its name because it began on the riverbank, across from Great Island. When they had enough money to build a church, the property they purchased was on the hill, not even remotely near Great Island, but the name remained.

A few fun facts about Great Island Cemetery: It was said to be haunted by two ghosts, both women, one in white and one in black. The criminal John Michael Conley was buried there after being shot in the 1820s, and his skull was later dug up and used in a college class. It was the burial spot of many of the early settlers, including most of the Reed family, who established Fort Reed in 1773.

By the early 1900s, though, Great Island Cemetery was in bad shape. Weather and vandalism had done a lot of damage, and let’s be real, practically anything that’s over a hundred years old may not be doing so well. There was, for years, a lot of talk about what to do with Great Island Cemetery.

It was 1918 when things actually began to happen. By August, City Council began to discuss how to best proceed, and then by October, the work had begun. They started digging up the graves and moving them — and there was a lot more to move than they’d thought. There were 49 markers found, but over a hundred bodies, which took some of the workers by surprise. Bodies were moved to Highland, Dunnstown, Cedar Hill, and Flemington, and reburied.

Now, don’t go thinking this was exactly a thorough, organized move. I get the feeling that a lot of the workers just wanted to knock off for lunch already. There are a lot of bodies that never turned up — in the records, the word “unfound” comes up a lot. One marker, a 12-foot marble stone belonging to iron furnace inventor Benjamin Perry, was inexplicably lost for nearly a century. In September of 2014, it turned up without explanation, sitting behind a shed in State College. I wrote a column on it. It’s now in Cedar Hill. (Perry himself is probably still where he was buried, in someone’s yard.)

At least two of the bodies were petrified — two women were reported to have turned to a hard, stone-like substance. One of them was named Madeline Yost, and she’d died in 1896. Nobody ever satisfactorily explained why they’d petrified, though speculation ran to certain minerals in the ground or water that caused them to harden.

“Four husky men were required to lift one body,” said an old newspaper article.

The cemetery was entirely moved by mid-summer.

“Old Great Island Cemetery Is No More,” said an article in the Clinton Republican. This was formally announced on July 23, 1919 — exactly 50 years before I was born. (It’s probably a coincidence.)

I wanted to take a moment and remember it, talk about the grand old cemetery that used to stand above us, on the hill. Some of the stones were moved to other cemeteries, but that neighborhood is all residential now. And I’ve never found any old photos of the Great Island Cemetery. Nothing remains of the cemetery anymore.

At least, not aboveground.

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Lou Bernard is a Lock Haven resident with a keen interest in the history of this area. He is adult services coordinator at Ross Library and may be reached at ross13@rosslibrary.org or 570-748-3321.

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