The Union & West End Cemetery is located in downtown Allentown between 10th street and 12th street on the east and west and between Chew street and Liberty from south to north. The main entrance is off 10th Street, between Chew and Gordon Streets.
The cemetery grounds cover 19.6 acres and are the final resting place for over 22,000 departed souls. There are more than 700 Civil War Veterans buried in the cemetery as well as a few Revolutionary War soldiers and veterans from the War of 1812 are also interred here. Civil War Medal of Honor recipient, Ignatz Gresser, is buried in the cemetery.
The Union Cemetery was chartered on April 17, 1854. This cemetery consisted of 11 acres purchased at a cost of $200 per acre and laid out in lots one rod square. The lots were first drawn by ticket, and sold at $6.00 each. In a very short period the lots were being sold for $10.00 and by 1914, they sold for $200 and more. By 1920 all lots had been sold.
The first person to be buried in Union Cemetery was John Diefenderfer, who died on September 25, 1854.
The land for the West End Cemetery was purchased in 1876 at a cost of $1,150. This tract of land, which adjoined the Union Cemetery, consisted of 9 acres and extended from Chew Street to Liberty Street with 12th street being the western boundary. Six hundred lots were laid out sixteen feet square. All lots were sold prior to the consolidation of the two cemeteries.
The two cemeteries merged and were incorporated as the Union & West End Cemetery Association on May 4, 1895. At the time of this merger, the cemetery became a non-profit corporation.
Over the decades when the cemetery was under various boards responsible for managing the cemetery, cost increased and the cemeteries perpetual care funds were depleted. In the 1970’s and 1980’s vandalism became a serious problem as the surrounding neighborhood fell into decline.
In 1997, the existing Board of Directors ran out of funds and all of the directors resigned en masse and the cemetery was virtually abandoned. As a result, the cemetery rapidly deteriorated to a wasteland of high weeds, frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes. Vandals repeatedly attacked unique Pennsylvania German and Victorian monuments, breaking and toppling several thousand of them.
During 1998, the City of Allentown and Lehigh County organized community clean-ups but with only partial success. In 1999 local, civic minded residents organized a new Board of Directors and began a campaign to restore the Cemetery and to raise $1 million dollars for a permanent Endowment Fund.
During 1999-2001, the all volunteer board obtained $36,500 in state and private grants for commercial mowing equipment, to repair hundreds of vandalized gravestones, and to install night-time lighting to deter crime. The cemetery does not currently employ any paid staff.
In 2004 the cemetery celebrated its sesquicentennial anniversary. One-hundred and fifty years from the year of the original charter for the Union Cemetery.
The current board of directors continues to obtain grants for the restoration of the cemetery, organizes community volunteers and events, mows the vast acreage and attempts to preserve priceless records. Allentown Community Corrections Center inmates volunteer hundreds of man-hours each year, primarily to reset gravestones and other cemetery maintenance chores in an ongoing community service program. The inmates also help, to a lesser extent, with mowing, but for the most part, the mowing is done by the board members, each of whom has adopted a section containing more than 1.3 acres. Currently, there are ten active directors and several volunteers that are cutting grass on a regular basis. Chapter 190 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart maintains the section immediately under the flag and behind the cannons in the west end section.
The Union & West End Cemetery Association is registered as a non-profit cemetery association under Internal Revenue Code Section 501 (c) (13). All non-restricted donations are tax-deductible.
The cemetery suffers from a lack of funding and the operating expenses are covered on a week to week basis. There is always concern if the operating funds will be sufficient to carry the cemetery association to the end of the mowing season. The cemetery association does utilize grants for some projects and these grants are generally committed to a specific project, such as a tree removal expense which can cost $2,000 to $2,500 per tree. Tree removal is one the cemetery's largest expenses. Many of the grants received by the cemetery association are, by necessity, earmarked for tree removal. Many of the trees in the cemetery are more than 100 hundred years old and are at the end of their lifespan.
The Endowment Fund, which cannot be touched, now stands at $29,849.42, a long way from the $1 million dollar goal set in 1998. The association does have the option of utilizing dividend and interest from the Endowment Fund to cover some operating expenses although it would prefer not to have to do so.
The current board is continually striving to raise operating funds to cover operating cost for fuel and maintenance for the mowing equipment, the purchase of new equipment, electricity, insurance, burglar alarms, telephone and other incidental expenses. With volunteers and inmates operating the equipment, maintenance cost is a large expense during the mowing season. The expenses associated with the operation of the cemetery continue to rise dramatically and it is a struggle for the cemetery association to meet these increased cost.
A number of recurring annual events and some special events are held in the cemetery each year including Memorial Day services conducted by Chapter 190 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart; Genealogy Workshop, helping families to locate graves of relatives; Ecology for children, study & appreciation of the ecology and habitat of the cemetery; Cedar Crest College Freshman Community Orientation, Day of Service; “Civil War Voices” a program of the Lehigh County Historical Society and on Saturday, September 24, 2006, the cemetery association presented “Echoes of the 1860’s”, an open air concert of Civil War band music by the Allentown Band. There was participation of Civil War Reenactment Units to round out the event. The program was free to anyone that wished to attend.
The Union and West End Cemetery association board of directors take pride in the fact that they are able to put forth effort to maintain the cemetery in some semblance of order. Obviously, during the mowing season, the grass must be cut every week or it begins to look a little shabby. Weed-whacking around the stones is a very difficult task as well. The board members make every attempt to stay on top of the situation, but it is a never ending chore. The thousands of departed souls buried in the cemetery deserve our respect, our dedication and our efforts. The cemetery is a historical place which is sacred and hollowed ground and within its boundaries, one should be able to enjoy quite solitude, gentle breezes and a sense of peace and serenity.