McCandless cemetery could be swallowed by time |

McCandless cemetery could be swallowed by time

A little-known McCandless cemetery where soldiers from four wars are buried might lose its principal volunteer caretaker.

“I’ve had two open heart (surgeries). … It’s just getting harder and harder,” said Donald Wagner, 79, a Korean War veteran and commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9199, who almost single-handedly has maintained the small cemetery for five years.

With his 80th birthday nearing, Wagner said he won’t be able to do that much longer.

He worries about who will care for the graves when he no longer can load his lawnmower and tractor into the truck and drive the six miles from his home in Glenshaw. His wife, Constance, 73, mans the lawnmower while he takes the tractor around the six-acre plot.

“It just bothers us,” said Donald Wagner. “They deserve better.”

Scattered behind a small stone wall along Duncan Avenue are the graves of veterans from the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II. Many of the markers were moved from their original locations. There is little hope of putting them back where they belong.

The cemetery, prone to flooding, holds an untold number of paupers’ graves.

“It’s sad. … When we first started, people called and asked, ‘Is my aunt buried there• Is my grandfather buried there?’ ” said Kathleen Munhall, chairperson of a now defunct group that formed in 2007 to try to preserve the cemetery, known alternately as Duncan Heights Cemetery, Duncan Manor Cemetery, Duncan Heights Colored Cemetery and Lakeview Cemetery.

At least 410 people, and possibly as many as 2,000, are buried there, according to Norman Meinert, 71, of O’Hara, who researched the history of the cemetery using Allegheny County records.

Many tombstones bearing the names of veterans sank over the years, said Ron Gancas, CEO of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.

“There are African-American veterans buried there who were residents of Mayview,” said Gancas, who was a member of the Duncan Heights Cemetery Association.

State, county and local officials three years ago lined up to support its preservation.

“Everybody was on board; everybody wanted to help,” Munhall said.

But the property is privately owned and the group couldn’t get clear title to it.

“There’s nobody left with a connection to the original owners,” said Munhall.

Records from the cemetery are long lost, said Meinert. It is believed the property was owned by a small, black church around 1931 but then abandoned, Meinert said on his website, Allegheny River Family Archive. Two businessmen who bought the property in 1947 didn’t establish a perpetual care fund.

“We tried everything, but we ran into the ownership of that land,” Gancas said.

That stymied even municipal officials.

“As a general rule, we can’t go on private property,” said McCandless solicitor William Ries.

Told it needed $160,000 for perpetual care, the association started raising money but collected only a small fraction of its goal — $2,000 — and eventually returned the money to donors.

Other efforts to preserve the cemetery failed.

In 1961, the American Legion 32nd District wrote to county commissioners and the Office of Veterans Affairs “that a deplorable and disrespectful condition existed, with regard to the care granted the graves of war veterans.” But without proof of ownership, nothing could be done legally.

Wagner hoped help would come from an old Pennsylvania law that allows residents to ask a judge to force a municipality to take control of abandoned or neglected cemeteries and clear brush, grass, briars and weeds between May and August. But the 1923 statute limits expenditures by local officials to no more than $30 on a cemetery in a year’s time.

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