Gilmore Cemetery

BEFORE THE GILMORE CEMETERY Most know the burial ground on the north end of Donora as the Gilmore Cemetery, but the Gilmore family didn’t take it over until 1877. Initial burials predate the Gilmore’s takeover by some 70 years. Prior to the Gilmores taking over and naming it the Gilmore Cemetery as a for-profit business to add to their other ventures, we’re unaware if the burial ground had a formal name. The earliest known burial we think occurred when a 19-year-old young man - (Unknown) Ammon, born in 1785, was buried in 1804, over 218 years ago. We know this because at one time his stone was visible.
Since no documentation exists prior to the Gilmore’s burial records started in 1877, it’s uncertain if any burials occurred prior to 1804 and how many total burials occurred between 1804 and 1876. There could have been burials in unmarked graves whose wooden crosses long disappeared.
Just a year earlier in 1803, Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark Expedition fame would depart nearby Elizabeth on the Monongahela River and then to Pittsburgh with William Clark on the Ohio River on their journey by keelboat to discover the west as part of the President Thomas Jefferson's Corp of Discovery. Lewis initially ventured to Elizabeth by way of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to nearby Brownsville possibly travelling on Nemacolin's Trail (old Route 40.) From Brownsville, if he floated to Elizabeth by flatboat on the Monongahela River, he would have floated past this burial ground. This isn't inconceivable since Lewis came to Western Pennsylvania nine years earlier in 1794 and camped in nearby Elrama with his Virginia military unit to help put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1795. During this time, he grew to learn the area that was just two miles from Elizabeth.
To attempt to better understand the origins of the burial ground that would become the Gilmore Cemetery, we must first gain an understanding of the parcels that made up the Castner Farm and Heslep Farm by turning back the clock to a time not often associated with Donora, Colonial America. Prior to Donora being founded in 1901, a portion to the south of the cemetery was known as West Columbia as early as 1814, and before that the area was known as Horseshoe Bottom in 1784. The spot where the burial ground existed was not in West Columbia but was part of Fallowfield (Carroll) Township at the time. The area that surrounded the burial ground included the Castner Farm and the Heslep Farm that were started by some of the area’s first settlers to Horseshoe Bottom: Peter Castner and Tom Heslep, both veterans of the Revolutionary War.
CASTNER FARM Peter Castner was born in 1733. In 1767 he married Mary Magdalena Rugh who was born in 1746 in Somerset, Pennsylvania. They would be the parents of at least three sons and seven daughters.
Peter and Mary Magdalena Castner were among the courageous pioneers who trekked from the relative comfort of eastern Pennsylvania to the first frontier of America west of the Allegheny Mountains. They departed old Bucks County, now Lehigh, in 1769, and set out across the mountains on the Forbes Road, to a tiny frontier community in old Cumberland County, now Westmoreland, the present site of Greensburg where Peter purchased a land grant. In 1774, Peter and others signed a petition requesting military protection from Indian attacks. After Peter Castner’s participation in the Revolutionary War, he and Mary sold their land in 1778 and moved their family west to the fertile Monongahela River flood plain in Fallowfield (Carroll) Township, Washington County, where Peter had received a Commonwealth land patent in 1794 for his land of 282 acres that was known as Walnut Bottom (in Horseshoe Bottom) because of its lush walnut forest. Castner would clear the land of walnut timber and start a farm.
The photo above shows the Castner Homestead c1903 - James Percy Castner sitting, his wife standing, daughter Rebecca Donora on her father's knee, and Mrs. Bertrand Castner in the rocker.
Peter died in 1819 at the age of 86 and was buried in the Castner family plot in the burial ground that existed during his death that is now known as the Gilmore Cemetery.
The photos below show the 200-year-old Castner family obelisk monument that measure forty-six inches wide at the base and fifteen feet tall. The photo on the left shows the barely readable stone face with Peter Castner's name at the top. The photo on the right shows a portion of the size of the monument.
After Peter had passed, Mary moved to Wintersville, Ohio where she lived with her one son and his family. She died in 1839 at the age of 84 and was buried in Wintersville. John Castner, one of Peter and Mary’s sons, was born in 1773 and fought in the War of 1812 and achieved the rank of major. John died in 1845 and is buried in the Castner family plot in the burial ground now known as the Gilmore Cemetery. Bertrand "Bert" W. Castner, son of Daniel Castner, grandson of John Castner and great- grandson of Peter Castner, was born in 1852 and was a Justice of the Peace and elected as the first Burgess (Mayor) of Donora. Bert’s granddaughter was the first child born in Donora in 1901 and was named Rebecca Donora Castner. Rebecca cut the ribbon for the opening of the Donora-Webster Bridge in 1908. Bert died in 1908 and was initially buried in the Castner family plot in the Gilmore Cemetery but was disinterred in 1942 and then reburied in the Monongahela Cemetery. There are thirteen Castners buried in the Gilmore Cemetery that span three (possibly four) generations. Other Castners are buried in the Monongahela Cemetery including Rebecca Donora Castner Burke.
HESLEP FARM About the same time that the Castners settled in the area, so did the Hesleps. Tom Heslep, also a Revolutionary War veteran, came from Philadelphia in 1769 and settled his family on the 304 acres adjacent and north of the Castner farm to what is now 15th Street and had it patented in 1796. Tom’s two sons, John and Thomas, did most of the farming on the Heslep land.
John Heslep’s two other sons, Robert and George, fought in the Civil War.
Most of the Heslep family is buried in the Monongahela Cemetery. It’s uncertain where Tom Heslep is buried. The Heslep coal mine was adjacent to the Gilmore Cemetery, so it could be that the Hesleps at one point owned the property that contained the original burial ground before it was the Gilmore Cemetery. At some point the Bissell family purchased land from perhaps the Hesleps. That section was known as Bisselltown and may have included the burial ground. There are no recorded burials of any Hesleps in the Gilmore Cemetery.
In the photo to the left is the Heslep Homestead from 1801.
Ultimately, Castner and Heslep descendants sold their family farms in 1899 to Richard B. Mellon, upon which the American Steel and Wire Company built a steel mill starting in 1900.
THE ARRIVAL OF CAPTAIN JOHN GILMORE
Born in 1811, Captain John Gilmore Sr. came to the West Columbia or Horseshoe Bottom area in 1862 or 1863 from Pittsburgh. He married Susannah Spargo who was born in 1815.
Captain Gilmore operated a line of eight steamboats that transported passengers and freight down the Monongahela River north to Pittsburgh, and upriver as far south as Brownsville. He purchased his land from the Bissell family who may have purchased their land from the Hesleps. Before Donora was founded, this section of farmland was known as Gilmore’s Landing and stretched to the west bank of the Monongahela River.
During the Civil War, Captain John Gilmore and his son Captain James Gilmore enlisted and steamed south with their river fleet and took part in naval engagements against the Confederates. Another son Frank enlisted and fought with the Pennsylvania volunteers.
The Gilmores lived in a two story "mansion" that was erected on the corner of what is now Thompson Avenue and 13th Street in Donora, not far from the area where his vessels were docked. This mansion was said to have had the area’s very first elevator.
In the photo above is what remained at one time of the Gilmore home.
Prior to the building of the Donora-Webster Bridge in 1908, the mode of transportation for getting people, horses, wagons and supplies across the Monongahela River from Gilmore's Landing to Webster was by ferry. The Gilmores operated Gilmore's Ferry until the bridge was built.
On their many steamboat trips south to Brownsville or north to Pittsburgh, they brought products back to the area and filled people’s orders through G. W. Gilmore - General Merchandise. These products included tools like shovels and buckets, as well as staples like salt and sugar among a huge list of other items that they shipped.
This business was owned by George W. Gilmore, another son of Captain John and Susannah Gilmore, and operated on both sides of the Monongahela River at Gilmore's Landing and Webster.
Besides living in Donora, other Gilmore family members also lived in Webster.
GILMORE CEMETERY In 1877, Captain John Gilmore carved out a nearly two-acre section of his land located on Meldon Avenue between 12th Street and 13th Street to make a cemetery for the people of the local district that would also include the existing burial ground where some of the Castners and Ammons were already resting.
Unfortunately, Captain Gilmore was the first to use the cemetery when he buried his four-year-old son Charles there on December 28, 1877, making him the first documented burial in the cemetery’s interment register. The cemetery was incorporated on December 31, 1882 and deeded in 1884. Captain Gilmore died in 1884 at the age of 72 and Susannah died in 1890 at the age of 74. They are buried in the Gilmore family plot at the center of the cemetery around a monument carved from high quality black granite and measuring fifty inches wide at the base and ten feet tall. See the photo to the left. We assume this monument dates to 1884 and not from 1877 when the Gilmores buried their four-year-old son Charles.
There are twenty-four Gilmores buried in the Gilmore Cemetery.
In the early days of Donora, people would arrive by streetcar to have picnics in the cemetery. Parades used to be held for those to march to the cemetery on patriotic holidays. At one time, a stone road lead up and into the cemetery with a circular drive around the Gilmore monument.
No sign was ever erected to identify it as the Gilmore Cemetery. Originally, stone steps created an entrance off of Meldon Avenue. NOTE: Those steps no longer exist after a 400-foot retaining wall was rebuilt around 2009 to prevent further erosion from occurring. A side entrance to the cemetery still exists at the end of McKean Avenue.

Shortly after the Zinc Works were constructed in 1915 just a short distance away, erosion of the cemetery’s hillside terrain was becoming an issue when the Zinc Works' toxic emissions started killing the vegetation. Deep gullies were being carved in the ground after strong rains. See the photo above.
By 1920, burials became less frequent, and this once promising business was dying like the surrounding grass.
Multiple disinterments occurred to move bodies to other cemeteries like the Monongahela Cemetery, West Newton Cemetery and others. It’s uncertain how many bodies were disinterred. Back in that time, removing loved ones from a cemetery and reburying them elsewhere was more common than one might think, but maybe this was even more common with those buried in the Gilmore Cemetery due to deteriorating conditions because of the Zinc Works.
MYTH: Despite all the old lore, caskets and bones did NOT wash up on Meldon Avenue. While deep gullies were carved into the cemetery after erosion, it’s our understanding after discussing with the Gilmore family that corners of coffins were occasionally exposed after severe rains, but the gullies were always filled in enough to adequately rebury the coffins.
In 1933, the Gilmore Cemetery stopped paying taxes per a 1933 Return of Capital Stock Tax form.
George W. Gilmore died in 1933 and was buried in his family's plot. He was the second to the last burial in the Gilmore Cemetery.
In 1934 on an Internal Revenue Service form, the Gilmore Cemetery stated, "From the time of the organization of this Cemtery Company in 1882 until 1914 this business was active. At this time The Donora Zinc Works of the U.S. Steel Corporation was built. This Plant is directly across the railroad tracks from the Cemetery. The fumes have destroyed all vegetation. Deep gullies have been caused by rains. Burials are only made in this place when the lot owners cannot afford to bury elsewhere."
Fifty-eight years after Charles Gilmore was buried in 1877, the last interred was also a child in 1935, Darle Kissinger, who was a five-year-old boy and a twin.
All told, there are 1,207 documented burials in the cemetery from 1877 to 1935 including people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. There is no record of the number of burials that occurred prior to 1877 that would include the Ammon and Castner family members, which would bring the total number of burials in excess of 1,207.
The 1934 blueprint below shows the plot layout of the Gilmore Cemetery, as well as the stone road entrance from McKean Avenue and the circular drive around the Gilmore family monument.
Forty-five military veterans and one police officer are buried in the Gilmore Cemetery:
  • One Revolutionary War veteran - Peter Castner.
  • One War of 1812 veteran - John Castner.
  • Forty-two Civil War veterans. Arnold Molsberger and Robert Scott to the right are two.
  • One WWI veteran - Alexander T. Aris.
  • One police officer – Paddy Murphy (1903).
One of the other Civil War veterans buried in the Gilmore Cemetery was Andrew B. Grant who was born in 1844. Grant fought in the Civil War with the Ringgold Cavalry Company A under the command of his cousin General Ulysses S. Grant. Andrew died at a young age in 1874. Andrew was disinterred from the Gilmore Cemetery and reburied in the Monongahela Cemetery’s Civil War section.
Also, there is at least one ex-slave from the Civil War era, Thomas Gorden, who died in Donora in 1903. Gorden migrated from Staunton, Virginia to escape the segregated South during the Great Migration.
After the Donora Zinc Works closed in 1957 and the Steel Works closed in 1966, the surrounding environment, including the hillside that held the Gilmore Cemetery, got a reprieve from being bombarded for sixty-plus years with the toxic emissions from the stacks of the mills. It would be years, but the vegetation started to regrow in the 1970s and the open wounds of the Gilmore Cemetery started to heal. But it's been over 85 years since the last burial and the cemetery hasn't been maintained. Today, the overturned grave markers that have been lying face down for years, are too heavy to move without machinery. Unfortunately, the vegetation has come back with a vengeance making up for lost time and the cemetery is difficult to navigate during the warmer months of the year.
NOTE: If you visit the Gilmore Cemetery, park at the end of McKean Avenue, bring a walking stick and your patience, and plan your visit between February and April before the vegetation starts anew. Most of the gravestones are hard to read. And keep in mind that the local neighbors keep a watchful eye on the cemetery and may question your intentions. You will notice the "No Trespassing" signs maintained by the neighborhood, so please respect their efforts.
WHERE DID THEY COME FROM?
People from the little towns, villages and hamlets that dotted both sides of the Monongahela River at the time used the Gilmore Cemetery to bury their loved ones. Most of those hamlets were named for hollows that had coal mines from places like:
  • West Columbia (pre-Donora)
  • Webster
  • Gilmore’s Landing
  • Fulton’s Landing
  • Monongahela City
  • Victory
  • Baird’s Station
  • Gallatin
  • Sunnyside
  • Milesville
  • Bakerstown West
  • Iron City
  • Black Diamond
  • Ella Hollow
  • Dagg’s Hollow
  • Lock #4
  • Dunlevy
  • Eldora
And larger towns like:
  • Belle Vernon
  • Charleroi
  • Monessen
  • McKeesport
  • West Elizabeth
  • Homestead
  • Pittsburgh

The Coal Mine Map below shows the various coal mining hamlets from Monongahela City to West Columbia that dotted both sides of the Monongahela River where people would bring their loved ones to be buried in the Gilmore Cemetery. These hamlets are often identified in the cemetery’s interment register.
HOW DID THEY DIE?
People who were buried at the Gilmore Cemetery often died from natural causes due to lack of medical hospitals and knowledge of how to treat specific illnesses during that time, but many died from horrific causes, in some cases, more than you might guess. Many died from an undisciplined social environment (think of the Wild West.) Some of the extraordinary causes of death compared to today are as follows:
  • Killed in action during the Civil War.
  • Died during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.
  • Women and/or children during childbirth, some children were sets of twins and even a set of triplets.
  • Infants and children who died at a young age for various reasons like malnutrition, typhoid fever, croup, and pneumonia.
  • Mining accidents.
  • Burn victims.
  • Hit by train.
  • Drowned in the Monongahela River or even in an outhouse pit.
  • Struck by lightning.
  • Died by gunshot.
  • Died by knife or even an ax.
  • Suicides.
  • Scarlet fever, cholera, diphtheria, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, croup, pneumonia and other illnesses of the day.
DONORA CEMETERY
For whatever reason, George W. Gilmore started another cemetery that he would name the Donora Cemetery perhaps because they were running out of room at the Gilmore Cemetery. After selling a good portion of their Gilmore's Landing property to the American Steel and Wire Company, blueprints show that they still had land, titled the "Gilmore Estate," higher on the hill above the Gilmore Cemetery. We assume the Donora Cemetery was there because of the one lone gravestone that seems out of place and that person is not documented in the Gilmore Cemetery Burial Ledger but is documented in the Gilmore papers.
Unfortunately, this cemetery would suffer the same fate as the Gilmore Cemetery when it was plagued by the same culprit - the Donora Zinc Works.
In the Gilmore Papers Collection, we have documentation that chronicles the timeline of the short-lived Donora Cemetery that states:
  • On December 1, 1907, the Donora Cemetery was formally incorporated with a business address of 909 Heslep Avenue - the George W. Gilmore home address.
  • On April 15, 1908, correspondence from George W. Gilmore to a Pittsburgh attorney shows that he is trying to organize the Donora Cemetery Company.
  • On June 4, 1908, the first meeting of the Donora Cemetery stockholders was to occur.
  • On June 17, 1908, one hundred cemetery lot markers were ordered.
  • On September 23, 1908, George W. Gilmore had E. Jay Iiams survey the Donora Cemetery property.
  • On March 16, 1909, advertising was purchased in The Donora American newspaper.
  • On June 23, 1909, Chas. Hern died at the age of 68 in Pittsburgh and transported to Donora by the Pittsburgh, Virginia and Charleston (PV&C) Railroad three days later. Hern is buried higher on the hill above the Gilmore Cemetery and beyond the end of Castner Avenue. Hern's death certificate is among the Gilmore papers and his name does not appear in the Gilmore Cemetery Burial Ledger.
  • On June 30, 1909, one hundred deeds were ordered in book form from a printer.
  • On March 23, 1910, a plot was purchased by Emil C. Mosebaugh for $25.00 on a Donora Cemetery form.
  • NOTE: There is no Donora Cemetery Burial Ledger that we're aware of, nor is there a blueprint.
  • In 1933, just like the Gilmore Cemetery, the Donora Cemetery stopped paying taxes per a 1933 Return of Capital Stock Tax form.
  • In 1934, just like the Gilmore Cemetery, on a Claim for Exemption from the Capital Stock Tax form, the Donora Cemetery stated, "This company has never been active. It was organized to promote a burial ground, but only a few burials took place. Shortly after its organization all vegetation was destroyed by the Donora Zinc Works and the property has been undesirable ever since as a burial ground."

We are only aware of the singular gravestone for Chas. Hern in the woods beyond the end of Castner Avenue. It's our assumption that this was the site of the short-lived Donora Cemetery owned by the Gilmore family. If there are other graves around the Hern gravestone, these aren't in the Gilmore papers documentation that we have, and they aren't marked by gravestones.
NOTE: The Hern grave is not easy to find among the overgrown forest and weeds.
GILMORE CEMETERY, DONORA CEMETERY, GILMORE FAMILY AND STEAMBOAT RECORDS The Gilmore Cemetery, Donora Cemetery, Gilmore Family, and Gilmore Steamboat and Merchandise records were graciously donated to the Donora Historical Society in 2021 by Captain John Gilmore’s great-great-great-grandson who no longer lives in Donora. They are extensive but after over 150 years, they are in a fragile and poor condition.
NOTE: If you would like to research these documents, please set up an appointment by sending an email.

GILMORE CEMETERY
  • Gilmore Cemetery Burial Ledger (Interment Register) – 1877 – chronological order – this ledger is in a fragile and poor condition. We scanned the original ledger to a flash drive to do research and preserve the original. Researchers who want to view this ledger are expected to bring and use their own laptop. Researchers will NOT be able to view the original ledger. See the very top photo on this page for an example of the first two pages.
  • Gilmore Cemetery Burial Document – 2016 - This is a modern document, that's in alphabetical order. This document was compiled by Dee Turek Bryner from Rostraver, but grew up in Webster, doing her own family research, so not all burials are listed. This document also exists at the Donora Public Library where they have a copier. We do NOT have a copier.
  • Original Death Certificates – there are just a few.
  • Death Certificates – 2016 - This is a modern document of copies of death certificates from local County Courthouses. This document was compiled by Dee Turek Bryner from Rostraver, but grew up in Webster, doing her own family research, so while there are many death certificates, not all Gilmore Cemetery death certificates were researched or printed. This document also exists at the Donora Public Library where they have a copier. We do NOT have a copier.
  • Burial or Removal Permits – There are just a few and may not be a complete collection.
  • Disinterment CertificatesThere are just a few and may not be a complete collection.
  • Gilmore Cemetery - This is a "Find A Grave" site whose records are NOT complete but worth looking at as a starting point for research.
  • Gilmores Cemetery blueprint – 1882 – Original on canvas that is in poor condition. It is framed for viewing but is hard to read. See the blueprint (not blue) below on the left.
  • Gilmore Cemetery blueprint – 1934 - Original with plot numbers that match up with the numbers in the burial ledger from 1877. See this blueprint above.
  • Gilmore Cemetery blueprint - no date - This is a blueprint (not blue) with a proposed new section that was never realized. – Framed for viewing.
  • Gilmore Cemetery Plot Deeds Ledger – 1903 – Signed by Frank Gilmore.
  • Gilmore Cemetery Plot Payment Ledger – 1877 – book 1.
  • Gilmore Cemetery Plot Payment Ledger – 1877 - Brief Gilmore Cemetery Corporation meeting minutes – book 2.
  • Donora Cemetery Ledger Charter Payment Ledger - 1907.
  • Frank Gilmore Cemetery Ledger – 1878.
  • Miscellaneous - These are modern documents of various research projects and notes from school students and people doing their own research over the years.


DONORA CEMETERY
  • Miscellaneous - various forms, certificates, letters and receipts.


GILMORE FAMILY
  • Gilmore Family Bible Genealogy – Starts with the birth of John Gilmore in 1811. Not the complete bible, just the family history pages. See the Bible pages below on the right.


GILMORE STEAMBOAT AND MERCHANDISING
  • Geo. W. Gilmore Co. – Gilmore Landing1884 and 1893 - Product delivery ledger.
  • Walter Gilmore Work/Weather diaries – 1946, 1948, 1950, 1951. Walter Gilmore chronicled whether he worked or not each day, if he coal mined, the daily tonnage, and the weather conditions of the day. Yes, the 1948 diary makes mention of the unusual late-October weather conditions that combined with the emissions from the Zinc Works got the attention of Walter Gilmore that week. To see an image, click 1948 Smog.
  • Gilmore Ferry Ledger – 1886 - North Webster Coal Co. and alphabetical product lists.
  • Captain James Gilmore Steamboat Ledger - 1892.
  • Gilmore Merchandising Transaction Ledger - 1920s.
  • Miscellaneous - Various receipts and calling cards.



Gilmores Cemetery blueprint – 1882 Gilmore Family Bible Genealogy