Secrets of Donora’s Forgotten Cemetery

Secrets of Donora’s Forgotten Cemetery

We tred carefully through the brambles, weeds, and bushes devouring a hillside cemetery in the north end of Donora, Pa. We step from one small monument to another, making our way as close as we can, without a machete, to the largest monument, the one marking the grave of Capt. John Gilmore. Gilmore was a well-off steamboat captain and coal mine owner who served in the Civil War.

Mark Pawelec walks along some original trolley tracks in downtown Donora.

My guide this day is Mark Pawelec, a key, long-time member of the Donora Historical Society and a veritable fount of information on the town. He is showing me this aged, overgrown, nearly forgotten cemetery. In an era of decreasing burials efforts have been made here to restore the cemetery, most recently those of Donora councilman Dennis Gutierrez (above, right), spurred on by one of Capt. Gilmore’s descendants, Clifford Gilmore (above, left). Read about those herculean efforts here.

Civil War veterans, infants, accident victims, and a host of other area residents from the turn of the 20th Century are buried here. Here are some of the more interesting observations from a 2015 document outlining the internees, compiled by Dee Turek Bryner, a descendent of the prominent early Donora family, the Ammons. Dee combed through funeral records, court documents, death certificates, obituaries, and some of his family’s ledgers to provide a treasure trove of data.

Civil War Vets

Ten Civil War veterans buried in the cemetery have been identified. Others may be buried here as well, but it seems no data remains to prove it. Here are four of those veterans.

  • Phillip Kern, 67, husband of Martha Brown, died April 10, 1914 from “dropsy.” At that time dropsy meant just swelling and didn’t indicate a cause. Today it’s called edema. At 67 years old I suspect Mr. Kern died from heart failure, which causes edema of the lower legs.
  • James Boyd, 75, son of William and Frances Whitney, member of the Ringgold Cavalry Company E, died Feb. 1, 1905 from “general debility.” Old age.
  • Jacob Baldwin, 53, died Nov. 27, 1894 from “paralysis,” a term probably referring to a stroke, or cerebrovascular accident (CVA). Other diagnoses are possible, certainly, but CVAs in those days were common — and unfortunately still are.
  • Another Baldwin, Nathaniel, 64, also died of “paralysis,” succumbing Jan. 6, 1901.


Infants and children have always been uniquely vulnerable to disease and birth defects, and at the turn of the century that was especially true. Here are a smattering of the youngsters buried here.

  • The Ammon family suffered several losses, including Amanda, 19; Amanda Christa, 13; and two children named Benjamin Frank, one of whom died at 1 month and the other at 6 months. Records indicate a cause of death for only one, 6-month-old Benjamin, who died of hydrocephalus, commonly called water on the brain. We know today that hydrocephalus can have a number of origins and in many cases can be successfully treated.
  • More than 25 children were stillborn. Others died as a result of prematurity. Most premature infants at the time died at or shortly after birth.
  • One infant, Thomas Malie, is listed as having died of marasmus at age 8 months, 2 days. Marasmus is a protein malnutrition common in areas of extreme poverty.
  • A significant number of children died of childhood diseases, including whooping cough (pertussis), meningitis, Bright’s disease (now called nephritis, an infection or inflammation of the kidneys), measles, typhoid fever, and diphtheria.


Many people in the late 1800s and early 1900s died as a result of one kind of trauma or another. Donorans interred in Gilmore Cemetery died from these and other traumas:

  • Drowned, fell out of boat (45y)
  • Suicide by drowning in Monongahela River (35y)
  • Crushed to death, train (8y)
  • Homicidal, drowned in wash boiler (3m)
  • Shot by brother (19y)
  • Burned to death by 2 boys throwing matches (11y)
  • Accidentally shot by brother (4y)
  • Suicide, carbolic acid (61y)

Just Guessing Here

Record keeping before the mid-1900s left much to be desired — and guessed at. Here are several causes of death, exactly as listed, and my best guess at what each actually meant.

5 responses to “Secrets of Donora’s Forgotten Cemetery”

  1. CLEV Avatar

    In the “Guesses” of the Causes of death, “guessing” should be left out of any of this article… Try just writing and leaving your personal comments out of it. The many hours of research many have put into this, stood for the facts for the time period, and also what was in the records. ” Colored”,was the term used at that time, and is very helpful to those of us researching our relatives. It was listed, as part of that persons record, not a CAUSE of death. Try writing about something else.

    1. andymcphee Avatar

      Thank you for your comments, I appreciate it. As a former RN and nurse educator I wanted to delve into the diagnostic terminology used at the time and how it differs from that used today. I also wanted to help others better understand the “old” terms and clarify some of common causes of death back then. With the “Just Guessing Here” chart, I certainly meant no disrespect to the individuals who put together the original data. The chart was my perhaps awkward but well-intentioned way of lightening the reader’s mood at the end of a post that focused solely on death. In any case I truly do appreciate your feedback, and if you were one of the data gatherers, thank you!

      1. CLEV Avatar

        Yes, I was a contributor, and there’s family that I have buried here, and with having a medical degree as well, I tried to add everything within the funeral records,however “truth hurts” but with genealogy, everything is always hunted for, no matter what information is discovered. Many had tragic deaths, and the newspapers spared nothing at the gruesome details back then. It was all about those people buried there. Unfortunately, the original records need to be disclosed, as we have the right as family to know. A few of us have tried to find records elsewhere.

  2. andymcphee Avatar

    I too wish records from the Civil War and even through the 1960s were more widely available. I have found instance after instance, as I’m sure you have, of inaccuracies, omissions, and just plain sloppiness in whatever documentation was kept. Part of my book puts together a detailed narrative of the smog, including what happened when and to whom. I’m actually struggling at this very moment with the lack of proper documentation for one of the victims, John West. West was black, and his records are few and scantly populated because, I believe, of his skin color. It seems that nowhere near as much information is available or was documented on him and the few other black victims as it was for white victims. It’s a shame, but it’s all we’ve got to work with. I wish you good luck in finding more information about your relatives.

  3. Todd Avatar

    Thank you for writing these stories. My 3rd great grandmother Elizabeth Pelkey is buried in this cemetery, but I’ve never been able to visit her grave because of the overgrowth. If you know of anyone with access to the cemetery records, I would love to know.

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