The oppressive humidity typical of western Pennsylvania summer smothered Johnstown that early August day in 1884. Inside the First National Bank, a group of prominent area residents assembled to form an association to solve the lack of burial space in the region. Temperatures rose into the nineties and thunderstorms rumbled through the region as they examined their options. Existing burial grounds in the Conemaugh Valley were close to capacity, and the cemeteries were falling into disrepair. The group had no way of knowing that their actions would prove so thoughtful and useful in the coming decades--to provide burial sites for thousands of victims of the Johnstown Flood of 1889. Nor could they possibly envision that their decisions would eventually result in founding one of the nation's most beautiful and well-kept cemeteries, visited by people from many nations.
The group purchased land for a new cemetery. They appointed a Location Committee to investigate several possible locations for the new burial site. After the Committee suggested a number of sites and costs for various parcels of land, the General Committee published a notice in the cities' newspapers. This request asked all interested persons to attend a September meeting in the Johnstown Municipal Building.
This open announcement that a new cemetery might be established, coupled with inquiries about the availability and costs for large parcels of land, apparently drove prices upward. At the September meeting, one of the committee members remarked that land in the area previously worth $50 to $100 per acre had jumped to $200 - $600 per acre in just a few days.
In 1885, Johnstown continued to grow because of waves of immigrant iron and rail workers, intensifying the need for more cemetery spaces. At a public meeting on January 12 the Location Committee reported on a 100-acre site that was available for $75.00 per acre. The Cambria Iron Company, a leader in the nation's Industrial Revolution, had previously used the land, located on Kernville Hill in Upper Yoder Township, for pasture and farming. For most of the year, the Trustees Location Committee considered a number of other possible locations for a new cemetery, especially a farm owned by Charles Von Lunen. Because of Von Lunen's extensive traveling in Europe and other complications, the Association never negotiated the deal--which would have cost $60,000.00--and the Location Committee asked the Association to discharge them.
At a meeting on January 15, 1886, the combined committees agreed to purchase the Cambria property, based on its suitability, and formally founded "the Citizen’s Cemetery Association" with a nucleus of 50 Charter Members, and a seven-person Board of Trustees, who would manage the cemeteries' business affairs. This initial site would not be without controversy, however, due to the cost of building a road to the suggested site. In 1887, the first interment took place, that of Lucretia Hammond of Kernville, a downtown Johnstown neighborhood. Just two years later, the Cemetery Association authorized the construction of a winding one-mile carriage road from Kernville to the cemetery, replete with two magnificent arches. The Chapin Arch remains, and people may view it today from the Easy Grade Highway.
The Great Flood occurred in 1889, and poor Johnstown won the ambiguous distinction of becoming the scene of the worst natural disaster in the country's history. Area residents laid most of the 2,209 flood victims to rest in the four-year-old Grandview Cemetery.
Grandview records tell us that the trustees "set land aside and used it for the burial of the unidentified dead. Citizens began calling this area the "Unknown Plot," an intriguing section of history that attracted thousands of visitors from over the world in 1989, the 100th commemoration of the Great Flood."
David McCullough, writing in The Johnstown Flood (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1968), describes a ceremony held three years to the day after the disaster to dedicate a monument to those who had perished: "The whole city had been shut down and close to 10,000 people had gone up to the new burying grounds. Except for the plot for the flood dead, Grandview was still very sparsely occupied. It had been started by Cyrus Elder, John Fulton and others a few years before the flood and was laid out a good distance from town up on some of the highest land for miles around. The idea was that here the dead would be safe from the spring floods. The view was very grand indeed, stretching off in every direction as far as the eye could carry; but the trees blocked a direct look back into the city into the great amphitheater along the hills where Johnstown lay, and so the city was wholly concealed, and except for the distant sound from the mills, it was as if there was nothing even like a city anywhere near.
On the afternoon of the 31st, with the new governor present, Robert Pattison, along with Johnstown's first mayor, Horace Rose officiating, a large granite marker was dedicated to the "Unknown Dead Who Perished in the Flood at Johnstown, May 31, 1889". The Unknown Plot was purchased by the Relief commission and the bodies moved there from Nineveh, Prospect Hill and a half a dozen other places during the early fall of 1889. It had taken the time since to raise money for the monument and the nameless headstones. Actually, there was not quite a full 777 bodies buried in the plot; someone had decided to set out a few extra stones just to make an even pattern. But the effect on the immense throng gathered in the warm afternoon sunshine was very great. Against the long sweep of the grass and the darker green of the bordering trees, the people stood in their funeral best, clustered in a tight, dark mass, strangely motionless and silent beneath the veiled monument. A few steps beyond, the carriages for the dignitaries were drawn up."
Other notable dates in the history of Grandview include 1897, when the first Administration Building and maintenance garages were constructed. During 1904, the Bucknell Avenue entrance--now the main cemetery entrance was opened. The Association authorized the construction of a protective 3,250-foot stone fence along Millcreek Road, which was further extended in 1992. To date, there are more than 12 miles of paved road winding their way through the well-organized and tranquil beauty of the cemetery, which is replete with striking monuments and well tended shrubs and lawns.
The first of four mausoleums was constructed in 1978 and in 1989 new administration and maintenance buildings were constructed. As of 2007, the Citizen's Cemetery Association was debt free, with a strong and successful Endowment Fund. Despite the intense attention that Grandview receives because of the Great Floods (there were subsequent floods in 1936 and 1977), the cemetery represents more--the overall history of the area, encompassing a century covering that also covers the war years. Amazingly beautiful and artistic monuments and markers symbolize their time in the course of events, representing the day-by-day happenings that have molded Johnstown. Surely, as suggested by the Citizens' Cemetery Association: "Grandview symbolizes the restlessness, tumultuous course of the Conemaugh Valley through the years."