Two Historic Cemeteries: Beautiful Reminders of Those Who Came Before

By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D. Photos by Danielle Debley

Before 1845, Harrisburg had no cemeteries. It’s not that folks didn’t bury their dead—just that large graveyards did not exist. But with construction of Harrisburg Cemetery and its dedication on September 30, 1845, Harrisburg joined the rural cemetery movement to build that was popular in America at the time.

Before the establishment of Harrisburg Cemetery, when a person died, he was interred in a small family plot or churchyards within the Borough of Harrisburg. The practice of embalming did not become popular until after the Civil War and these family plots and churchyards often had the stench of decomposing corpses. Also, with the increase of population, Harrisburg leaders realized that the small burial sites were impeding development in the fast-growing borough. Thus, the Harrisburg Cemetery Association was chartered in 1845, and 12 acres of pasture and woodland, situated on a promontory overlooking the Pennsylvania statehouse, owned by the Herr family, was selected.

The Harrisburg Cemetery, once known as Mount Kalmia Cemetery, is on the National Register of Historical Places. It was laid out in the antebellum style of cemeteries such as Mount Auburn in Boston and Laurel Hill in Philadelphia. This new style cemetery coincided with the growing popularity of horticulture and the Romantic aesthetic taste for pastoral beauty. Its plan included retention of natural features and original woodlands, and included roads and paths that followed the natural contours of the land, as well as the planting of rhododendrons and azalea. The cemetery was also decorated with tall obelisks, large mausoleums, magnificent sculptures, and a large sunken garden lots that hold some of the cemetery’s most significant burials.

The rural cemetery movement mirrored changing attitudes toward death in the nineteenth century. No longer was puritanical pessimism key. Harrisburg Cemetery’s statues and memorials include depictions of angels and cherubs, as well as botanical motifs such as ivy representing memory, oak leaves for immortality, poppies for sleep and acorns for life. A later plan for Harrisburg Cemetery included a massive shrub and tree planting effort.  Landscaping improvements over the years were undertaken not only on the newly developed land but also the interior older portions of the cemetery.  Over 3700 plantings including 550 trees were used, and some of which may be found on the grounds today.

After the dedication of Harrisburg Cemetery, burials began immediately. On October 1, 1845, General James Steel, aged 82, was laid to rest in Section F. On October 25, 1845, the infant child of the Honorable William Kepner was buried by him.

In August 1849, the Herr family sold seven acres of additional land to the Harrisburg Cemetery Association. These acres included the Herr family graveyard. In 1850, the Caretaker’s Cottage, a Gothic revival style building was completed, a design of famed 19th century architect A.J. Downing.

By 1856, the Presbyterian Churchyard and the Methodist and several other small churches, removed their deceased and relocated them to Harrisburg Cemetery.

During the Civil War, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania purchased lots to bury casualties from the Camp Curtin post hospital. A total of 155 men from both sides were laid to rest in the Harrisburg Cemetery, along with two civilians, the wife of Peter Roberts in 1862 and the other a child of John Schreckenhurst in 1863.

From its inception, Harrisburg Cemetery was designed for the public to use. The cemetery provided a place for the public to enjoy the art and sculpture amidst leisure and relaxation previously only available for the wealthy.

Notable folks buried in the Harrisburg Cemetery include U.S. Congressmen John Conrad Buch, Richard Jacobs Haldeman and John Crain Kunkel, Senator James Donald Cameron, Pennsylvania Governors William Findlay and George Wolf, Presidential Cabinet Secretaries James Donald Cameron and Simon Cameron, numerous Civil War Generals and the Founder of the Church of God, John Winebrenner, to name a few.

Tours of the historic Harrisburg Cemetery grounds can be customized around the interests of architecture, art or funerary styles to local or world history. Guided tours by appointment only, pricing upon inquiry.

Harrisburg Cemetery Association
521 North 13th Street
Harrisburg, PA 17103

Historic Midland Cemetery

The Historic Midland Cemetery began around 1795 for the purpose of burying those who were working on or near the old farm in which later became known as the Kelker Farm. However, it did not actually get its legal name until around 1877.

Midland Cemetery holds the remains of those who once were in servitude bondage either from another state or Pennsylvania and became free. Reading of the various headstones shows soldiers from the United States Colored Troops, who were the Black men who volunteered to serve during the Civil War, the Buffalo Soldiers, who fought in and opened up the West. Headstones also show soldiers of World War I and II, including Tuskegee Airmen, and those who fought in the Korean War.

Aside from the various veterans, there are also numerous leaders of the area’s African American community laid to rest, including ministers of churches which are still functioning in the Steelton, Harrisburg and Swatara Township areas such as Monumental AME, Mt Zion Baptist, Goodwin Memorial, Beulah Baptist, and the First Baptist Church. They are buried alongside of their deacons and deaconess and many of their church members.

Midland Cemetery’s notable burials from Pennsylvania’s Grand Review 100 Voices include Lemuel Butler, Co. H, 55th Massachusetts; Charles Henderson, Co. K, 127th USCT; and Andrew Hill, Co. B, 6th USCT.

For additional information about the Historic Midland Cemetery go to The website includes a historic directory which lists 971 individuals laid to rest in the cemetery and includes plot number and other information. 7

Historic Midland Cemetery
206 Kelker Street
Swatara/Steelton, PA 17113
(717) 939-0242
(717) 579-0003