'They couldn't dig the graves fast enough ...' Historic Mauch Chunk Cemetery was a busy place, especially during 1918 flu epidemic, historian says
There will be a unique walking tour of the Mauch Chunk Cemetery and Chapel on October 30 and 31from noon to 4 p.m. The tour will start at the Mauch Chunk Cemetery entrance gate in front of the Chapel at the intersection of South and Walnut Avenues in Upper Jim Thorpe.
"The history of a town can be found in the history of its cemetery," noted Jack Sterling, a Jim Thorpe historian whose great, great grandfather, Henry Sterling, was the first sexton at the Mauch Chunk Cemetery from 1847 to about 1866. "That's especially true here. It's a great example of a Victorian-era cemetery."
"My grandmother said that the Mauch Chunk Cemetery was busy, especially during the 1918 flu epidemic," said Keith Bellhorn. "The cellar was full. They couldn't dig the graves fast enough. My grandfather, his brothers and all of his friends worked in the mines for 12 hours-a-day digging in the dark and damp. They came home, ate supper, and went out here in the dark and damp, digging all through the flu epidemic to bury as many as they could-as fast as they could."
Sterling and Bellhorn will lead a unique tour of the Mauch Chunk Cemetery and Chapel on October 30 and 31 from noon to 4 p.m. The tour will start at the Mauch Chunk Cemetery entrance gate in front of the Chapel at the intersection of South and Walnut Avenues in Upper Jim Thorpe.
"People who visit Jim Thorpe tend to explore the Historic District," Sterling said. "They don't often visit the cemetery in the Heights."
Sterling estimates that between 7,000 and 8,000 people are buried at the Mauch Chunk Cemetery. "Around 5,500 are recorded and there were 2,000 more," he explained. "They didn't start keeping records until the 1870s."
The Mauch Chunk Cemetery performed its first interment in 1819, within a year of the founding of Mauch Chunk, currently Jim Thorpe. The first burial was a young woman, Lucy Abbott, who Sterling supposes may have died in childbirth.
"The Mauch Chunk Cemetery is the final resting place for nearly all of Mauch Chunk's millionaires. Its markers are a veritable who's who of 19th century Mauch Chunk wealth with names like: Packer, Butler, Dimmick, Kemmerer and Leisenring. The Kemmerer and Leisenring plots are in a separate section of the cemetery and have their own groundskeepers. The Packer family obelisque towers over the cemetery, overlooking the Asa Packer Mansion.
In 1906, Mary Packer Cummings commissioned the Memorial Chapel of the Resurrection in honor of her sister/aunt Marion P. Skeer. Skeer, the younger sister of Asa Packer's wife, Sarah, was adopted by the couple and became Mary's sister as well as her aunt. Skeer may have died from a fall from a horse.
The stone chapel's main floor features 14 stained glass windows. Barely visible from the outside, from the inside they shine, depicting stories from the New Testament.
Mary Packer Cummings cut no corners in the construction of this Victorian era structure. Neast & Co. were the general contractors, and Philip J. A. Binder of East Mauch Chunk provided the stone work and gargoyle carving. The stained glass was done by Alfred Godwin of Philadelphia, whose other work includes the green and gold opalescent glass dome in the Pennsylvania State Capitol's Supreme Court Chamber.
An early special-purpose hand-cranked hydraulic Otis elevator was installed to lower the coffins to the white-tiled basement. At the main level, the floor of the lift served as a support for casket viewing. After the service, it was lowered to the basement for storage during winter months when the ground was too hard for grave digging.
As a bit of humor on this Halloween-period tour, Sterling may point out the grave of Robert Irwin Blakslee. The marker reads, "Thanks for everything," a comment referring to the inheritance he received that made it possible that he "never worked a day in his life," noted Bellhorn.
The Mauch Chunk Cemetery & Chapel Tour is hosted as a fundraiser for the Mauch Chunk Museum & Cultural Center.