History of West Laurel Hill Cemetery

The history of West Laurel Hill Cemetery is intertwined with its sister cemetery, Laurel Hill. To understand and appreciate this history, it is first necessary to delve just a bit into the early history of Laurel Hill.

Laurel Hill Cemetery, which overlooks the Schuylkill River just north and west of Philadelphia, was founded in 1836, and is the second oldest rural cemetery in the United States. This new type of cemetery featured a suburban setting with the combination of decorative plantings and monuments. In 1867, the General Assembly of Philadelphia authorized the city of Philadelphia to purchase land to create a park for the recreational benefit of its residents. It was called Fairmount Park. The commission's intent was admirable; for Laurel Hill Cemetery, the unintended result was not. The newly created park bounded Laurel Hill on three sides and a major thoroughfare bounded it on the fourth. Laurel Hill Cemetery was enclosed forever, the hoped for expansion of the cemetery no longer possible.

With John Jay Smith, President of Laurel Hill Cemetery leading the way, the Board of Managers purchased land on the other side of the river, about a quarter mile or so from the now "locked in" Laurel Hill Cemetery. Situated high above the Schuylkill River, this new land consisted of three large farms nestled between two deep ravines. With a major roadway on the third side, and the river on the fourth, this land had its own natural security; future intrusion by streets and roadways was highly unlikely. West Laurel Hill Cemetery was incorporated in 1869, and its first burial was conducted in 1870.

In the mid-nineteenth century, establishing a cemetery outside the city limits of Philadelphia was a new and daring experiment. Because the new cemetery's location was so high above the river, bringing funerals from the city by steamboat, as was the practice at Laurel Hill, was not practical; some type of alternative transportation was needed. After much research it was discovered that using railway cars to bring funerals from a city to the countryside was already being used successfully. The decision was made to use the railroad to bring funerals from Philadelphia to West Laurel Hill Cemetery. The Reading Railroad even made a special siding at its Pencoyd Station just for the accommodation of funeral trains. The timing could not have been better. The rapid expansion of Philadelphia forced the residents to look beyond the city for a sacred resting place of their departed. And when they did, they found West Laurel Hill. Combining ease of access by railroad, security from future roadway encroachment and the great beauty of the land itself, the cemetery was an immediate success.

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