Gateway to Heaven? Uncovering the Story Behind the Philadelphia Bridge Founded on a Cemetery
June 27, 2012
All photos: K. Scott Kreider
The Betsy Ross Bridge in Philadelphia seems like any other. It doesn’t have the grace of the Golden Gate or the history of the Brooklyn Bridge, nor does it draw any acolytes wanting to make the trek across. The structure exists primarily to move people, and this it does well, helping connect Pennsylvania to New Jersey. Most commuters, however, are surely unaware of what the bridge’s foundation is actually built on: a cemetery.
The bridge springs from the headstones of a forsaken graveyard, dumped unceremoniously into the Delaware River. The sunken stones at the base of the bridge came from Monument Cemetery, once located two miles from City Hall. Monument Cemetery, established in 1839, was the second Victorian garden style cemetery in Philadelphia, after Laurel Hill, now a protected historic landmark. Monument was modeled after the Pere Lachaise in Paris, and was created to function both as a final resting place for the dead as well as a green respite from the surrounding urban environment. Continue.
By the 1950’s the Cemetery had fallen into disrepair. Buried on the grounds were 28,000 bodies filling the plots to capacity. With no new burials since the late 1920’s, the cemetery owners had barely enough money for routine maintenance. According to some interests in the neighborhood, the land had become an attractive place for thieves and degenerates to congregate. But it would be the rise of the automobile and real estate values, and, more specifically, a land grab by neighboring Temple University that was to seal the cemetery’s fate.
Looking to expand and for ways to attract commuter students, Temple saw opportunity to mold the disheveled graveyard into what it really needed, namely, a parking lot. The university tried repeatedly to purchase the land from the owners but was repeatedly rebuffed; apparently the price offered was too low. As a solution Temple appealed to the City to condemn the cemetery, which it did, and in 1956 the University became the owner of 15 acres with 28,000 dead bodies interred there. A notice was sent out to families and other interested parties that the cemetery was going to be moved. Only around 8,000 bodies were claimed, the rest were dumped into an unmarked grave in Lawnview Cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia.
Less problematic for the University was the removal of the headstones. At the time the Betsy Ross Bridge was under construction and needed limestone and granite for use in the foundation and riprap. The University saw a happy coincidence and sold the headstones to the contractor in charge of the project as rubble to be used for those purposes. Thousands of headstones were discarded into the Delaware, as rubble from a demolition. Today, at low tide, some of the headstones are still visible, no longer a testament to a person beneath, but to the uniquely American habit of turning anything, paradise or cemetery, into a parking lot.