YORK — Seven-month-old Samuel Chambers Jr., who died Sept. 11, 1821, was the first person to be buried in Rose Hill Cemetery.
In the years that followed, the Liberty Street property became York’s community burial ground.
The original half-acre cemetery was started by York’s first church, the Yorkville Independent Presbyterian Church, organized in 1821 by Rev. William C. Davis, who died in 1831 and whose grave lies just inside the front gate. Among others whose final resting place is Rose Hill Cemetery are Civil War veterans from both the Union and Confederate armies.
Members of the Yorkville Historical Society – who recognize the significance of the historic cemetery – wanted to give the cemetery a facelift. They decided to replace the chain-link fence at the front with spaced brick pillars joined by an aluminum fence with a wrought-iron look.
“It’s a very key part of the historical corridor,” said Gary Gross, a historical society member and retired contractor overseeing the project. “We thought it would be nice to make it look a lot better.”
Gross said the chain-link fence around the cemetery was kind of an eyesore, and it also violated the accepted guidelines for what structures are appropriate in a historic area.
“A chain-link fence would be one of the things you should not do, because it’s totally inappropriate for a historic district,” he said. “In addition to being ugly, it’s not historic. It detracts from the appearance of the cemetery.”
He said the cemetery at one time may have been surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, which is mentioned in a published history of the cemetery. If so, he said, it was removed long ago and scrapped or stolen.
“There are some remnants of wrought-iron fences surrounding certain grave sites, and there is a wrought-iron gateway leading into Rose Hill Cemetery,” he said. The gateway, topped by the words “Rose Hill Cemetery,” will remain, Gross said, and the new fence will be linked to it.
Gross said the fence put up by the society will only cross the front of the cemetery rather than extend all the way around. He said the $11,000 cost for the front was all the group could afford.
“We’d love to be able to do it all the way around the cemetery,” he said. “But it was felt that doing the fence across the front, that area is highly visible from Liberty Street as you are coming in to York, and that that would make a big impact.”
In the early years of Rose Hill Cemetery, there was little semblance of order, according to a published history. Graves and markers were placed at random, and the grounds were poorly kept and grown with weeds. Engraving on some of the early gravestones is no longer visible.
After the 1800s, the Charleston, Cincinnati and Chicago Railroad Depot was located next to the cemetery, and added “an unkept and disrespectful atmosphere to a place which deserved better,” says the history.
In 1875, the Yorkville Cemetery Association was created to operate and care for the cemetery. The association still continues, operating with donations, and the cemetery, enlarged in the late 1800s, still serves as a community burial ground.
Jan Ramsey, a member and past president of the historical society, said Rose Hill Cemetery is significant because the people buried there made up “the backbone of York.”
“When I go over there and look at that, I wish I could thank them for what they did to make York become significant and grow and develop,” she said. “Because we owe a lot to them.”
Gross said the group is using money generated by various fundraising projects to complete the work. He said Sharon brick mason Clyde Good is doing the brick columns, and Clark Fencing is doing the metal portion. Gross said he expects the work to be done in a couple weeks.
Every other October, the historical society invites the community to enjoy its Stories of the Stones in Rose Hill Cemetery. Members chose to highlight 10 or 12 people buried there, then research their lives. Costumed interpreters stand by the grave of each person and tell his or her life story.
Among those who have been featured by the society, Ramsey said, are Asbury Coward and Micah Jenkins, who started the Kings Mountain Military Institute, now home to York Place.
Also buried there is Camuel Cosmos Lowry, who lived in the Liberty Street home now owned by Gross. Lowry was a Civil War veteran who took his manservant to the battlefield with him. When Lowry was killed, the servant brought his body back to be buried at Rose Hill Cemetery.
Ramsey said the cemetery is fascinating because of the people interred there.
“I can go over there and spend hours at Rose Hill just reading the monuments and looking at the names,” she said. “It’s the people who started York. They used to walk the streets and work and go to church, all the things we do today.”