Lost Pittsburgh cemetery lives on in memories

North Side plot still intrigues archaeologists

When the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation advanced work on the last segment of Interstates 279 and 579 in June 1987 on the North Side, a backhoe working just north of East Ohio Street and the 16th Street Bridge unearthed human bones.

Everything ground to a halt.

PennDOT had an archaeologist there. Federal laws protect cultural artifacts on sites eligible for the National Register of Historic Places before federally funded road construction can begin. The area was eligible and had the potential to yield artifacts, but no one expected to find graves. There were no records to indicate they were there.

The Voegtly Church Cemetery, established in what was Allegheny City in 1833, had lain forgotten beneath a parking lot for many generations, but it had to be exhumed.

Archaeologist Diane Landers was a new hire at GAI Consultants when she was assigned to lead the team.

It was prime construction season, and PennDOT had contracts out. Fifty to 75 archaeologists worked 10-hour days, six days a week, for four months carefully unearthing remains -- row after row of Swiss and German congregants buried in 727 graves from 1833 to 1861.

"I've done a lot of great sites in my career," said Ms. Landers, "but this one stands out. It's still with me 25 years later."

The remains and artifacts were reburied under one marker in a 2003 ceremony in Troy Hill's Voegtly Evangelical Cemetery. In the years before that, the Smithsonian Institution did an analysis of the bones for PennDOT.

It was the largest anthropological study of 19th-century graves in the nation's history and "a microcosm of Pittsburgh's history" as it rapidly moved from pastoral to industrial, said Ms. Landers, who drove the remains to Washington, D.C., in a moving van.

Joe Baker, an archaeologist in PennDOT's cultural resources program, said the Smithsonian study provides a rare set of comparable data about people who had not assimilated much or moved from their original American settlement. That dynamic and homogeneity began to vanish with industrialization and developments in transportation.

The neighborhood was known as Schweizer Loch, or Swiss Hole. It extended south to the Allegheny River.

At the dig site that summer, Ms. Landers remembers the careful scrape of the bucket inching through soil, stopping when it hit wood or popped over a coffin nail. Archaeologists cleaned bones and artifacts, sorted, photographed, mapped, wrapped and labeled them by burial number and quadrant, but they could not match names on a burial list.

"I was only able to put names to two stillborn twins," Ms. Landers said. "It was a sublime moment for me after seeing those tiny identical graves together" and then finding the name Dierdorf in the records. Among seven Dierdorfs on the list, two were twins stillborn on Oct. 19, 1847. "I thought, 'Oh my goodness, there are my babies.' "

There were many babies and children -- 311 of the total. With flowing sewage, polluted water, child labor, cholera, tuberculosis, malaria and typhoid, mortality was high. Occupational safety standards were generations away.

Besides graves, the team found foundation blocks of the original church and a 1911 addition. The cemetery was either forgotten by 1911 or ill-considered, because one skeleton was impaled by a sewer pipe and another's legs were cemented into a wall.

"That's why these preservation laws came into being," Ms. Landers said, "to recognize priceless historic resources. So many archaeological sites had been destroyed before."

The First German Protestant Evangelical Church of Allegheny was established in 1833 and became known as the Voegtly Church because Nicholas Voegtly, a shoemaker, gave the property on which his home had been built at the corner of Chestnut and East Ohio streets.

The congregation lived plain and pious lives, and few wore jewelry to the grave. Most early coffins were pine and unadorned. The more recent ones had hardware that reflected the growth of manufacturing.

Artifacts included tombstone shards, shoe leather, coins, buttons and clothing. A 40-foot well on the site yielded layers of items the scientists could date, from porcelain dolls' heads to slates children wrote on in school.

There's a dearth of details about livelihoods. Church records reveal one man died in a coal mine collapse, one was a potter who died of lead poisoning, and one died in a fall from a roof while building a house. The Smithsonian study revealed a tailor's notch in a man's teeth from holding pins and needles between them repeatedly.

Nicholas Voegtly Jr. owned a cotton mill. The neighborhood was also home to a lumber yard, a saw mill, a flour mill and a brewery. Trade on the nearby Pennsylvania Canal was bustling during that time. From 1825 to 1840, Allegheny City grew from 725 people to 11,000, and the river bank that had once been quiet was teeming.

Ms. Landers said she still has a hankering to fill the gaps in the story.

"I was reading the records one night because I sometimes revisit this," she said. "In archaeology, we want to tell the story of cultures not in written records. Sitting there beside a full skeleton, I would talk to the person and say, 'I hope you know that someone really cares about you, what you did and what you were like.' I plan to write a book about this one day."

It would help if descendants could be found, but she said no one responded in 1987 when the study was advertised and the dig was so visible from the road.

"There may be people who don't realize" some of the Voegtly dead were their ancestors, she said. "It's such an enigma to me that a big cemetery could be forgotten in the middle of a big city."

Mr. Baker said fewer than 1 percent of PennDOT's projects involve cultural artifacts, and that surprises like human bones in a backhoe "almost never happen anymore. Absolutely the worst thing would be for something unexpected to pop up during construction."

PennDOT has historic preservation and archaeology staff based throughout the state to do field work scoping out projects in the design phase, he said.

"They refer to records, to environmental databases, old photographs and maps, and determine whether there is a likelihood of an archaeological site or cemetery," he said. "If we come back to the design team and say we have a concern that an area is sensitive, the design can often move the project around it and tweak things to avoid it. Our primary goal is to avoid digging up stuff."

Find out more about PennDOT's cultural resources program at paprojectpath.org.

homepage - neigh_city - lifestyle

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk. First Published August 19, 2013 4:00 AM


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here