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Grandview Cemetery, shown in this photo from the 1890s, took the remains of 751 unidentified flood victims.

Grandview Cemetery serves as the final resting place for former war heroes, a drugstore chain founder and a list of once-powerful politicians.

But its perhaps best known for a plot honoring hundreds of nameless men and women – a 777- headstone memorial to the unidentified victims of Johnstown’s 1889 flood.

But while the 230-acre Millcreek Road cemetery was forever changed by the great flood, its roots pre-date the disaster, those who have studied the Millcreek Road property’s history say.

What is now Grandview Cemetery was part of a swathe of hilltop farmland in the early 1860s. Like much of the land around it, the site was Cambria Iron Co. property, cemetery officials said.

A growing need

By the 1880s, “it became apparent that the capacity of (existing cemetery) land was nearly exhausted,” said George Kondor, president of the Citizens Cemetery Association, which established and has operated Grandview since its inception in 1885.

Union Cemetery, Johnstown’s original community cemetery near where Cambria County War Memorial Arena now stands, had been abandoned by then, leaving only Sandyvale in its place, according to Richard Burkert, president and CEO of Johnstown Area Heritage Association.

“In those days, Johnstown’s library, the hospital, just about everything, was established by the ironworks,” he added. “Grandview was unusual, in that you had a group of 50 prominent Johnstowners who identified this need and saw it through. It was a community effort.”

To lay out the site, those 50 incorporators ended up hiring Philadelphia architect Charles R. Miller, who Burkert described as one of the pre-eminent landscape designers of his day.

Just a decade earlier, Miller designed Philadelphia’s Centennial Grounds for the massive celebration of America’s independence, records show. He was tasked with designing what would eventually become one of the state’s largest cemeteries, Burkert said.

The first burial was in April 1887.

Over the few years that followed, that lone grave marker would become thousands.

An obvious choice

When the South Fork Dam broke on May 31, 1889, the wave of water and the damage it caused eventually claimed 2,209 lives.

Although some were temporarily interred in makeshift memorial sites, 1,222 victims would end up being buried at Grandview – some of them years after the flood, Burkert said.

The cemetery was the only logical choice, according to a Cemetery Association-compiled historical overview from in 2007. For one, the cemetery was nearly vacant.

It was also 700 feet above downtown Johnstown, which meant the dead could be put to rest safe from the common springtime flooding.

Honoring the dead

More than half of those buried – 751 men and women – were never identified, Burkert said.

But early on, it was apparent they too should be remembered, he added.

A fundraising campaign for both the marble stones and “Tranquility” monument got underway sometime afterward – and was complete by 1892, the Cemetery Association’s book shows.

On May 31, 1892, carriages carrying both state and local dignitaries, including then-Gov. Robert Pattison made the journey to Grandview, where an estimated crowd of 10,000 stood solemnly under a sun-lit sky to watch as the plot was dedicated to the unknown who died three years earlier.

“People stood in their funeral best, clustered in a dark, tight mass, strangely motionless and silent beneath the veiled monument,” author and historian David McCullough wrote in his book, “The Johnstown Flood.”

Extra headstones, 26 in all, were added to pay respect to those never recovered from the floodwaters, and “to make their layout geometrically proper,” Burkert said.

The Tranquility monument holds no remains. At the top, depictions of the virtues for faith, hope and charity still overlook the dead buried there.

Mourning, but moving on

Johnstown paid its respects and then moved on, Burkert said.

And Grandview holds proof. Over the years and generations that followed, those who quietly – and prominently – played a role in its great triumphs and disasters would join them.

Veterans of World War I and II and others since are interred there. Business and industry leaders, seven congressmen and a onetime state senate president are also buried throughout the cemetery’s 230 acres, as is John G. McCrory, a Cambria native who started a five–and–dime store that grew into a chain of hundreds under his family’s name.

“That was the thing about Johnstown. After 1892, they got back to work and moved on from the flood. Their wasn’t a commemoration again until the 50th anniversary,” Burkert said.

“And the town bounced back. The output in those mills quadrupled and the city grew,” he added. “Johnstown’s best days were ahead.”

 

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tddavidhurst.

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