There is a commanding, panoramic view from the hilltop of the burial grounds in Williamsport, known as River View Cemetery. From there, you can see that someone carefully considered this town's planning and layout. Perhaps Otho Holland Williams liked the symmetry and almost perfect directional placement of the early Baltimore City streets where he lived. As a result, except for Commerce Street, all of Williamsport's streets align perfectly with cardinal points north to south and east to west.
Initially commencing at the town market house, Commerce Street extends southeast at about a 45-degree angle, fronting the entire length of the graveyard. It is the only street in Williamsport designed around a land feature. This large graveyard is one of the town's most prominent landmarks, yet it was intentionally placed outside the original town's limits. It was an essential part of the town, but separate.
The founders of other local 18th-century towns, such as Funkstown and Sharpsburg, reserved several town lots for graveyards. When Otho Holland Williams created his town, a burial ground already existed on a steeply sloped hillside, on land where his parents had lived, died, and were buried. Several years later, when Williams offered his town to President Washington as a potential site for our nation's capital, his only stipulation was to preserve the one-acre parcel where his parents were buried. This cemetery is testimony to the character and generosity of General Otho Holland Williams. He could have secured a small private graveyard on the hilltop for only his family; instead, he transformed valuable real estate, at no charge, into a public burying ground for the citizens of his town.
The average life expectancy for an adult in the mid-18th century was 30-40 years, with more than 10% of infants dying within the first year. Old age was a rarity, death commonplace. Colonists lived each day preparing for death and judgment and educated their children to do the same. The graveyard was part of day-to-day life, never out of sight or far from mind.
Early public burial grounds were located outside the town for several reasons. The first was the sheer necessity of sanitation. Graves were very shallow compared to the modern "six feet under." An early grave often contained several layers of family members. There also was the belief that the body had no significance after death as the soul had departed. Therefore the grounds need not be sacred. The public graveyard was usually fenced off for grazing small livestock, keeping it tidy naturally in an age before lawnmowers. In rural England, small livestock is still keeping early graveyards clean.
Before 1831, America had no cemeteries. It's not that Americans didn't bury their dead, just that large, modern, landscaped cemeteries did not exist. Early colonists did not use the term "cemetery," a word that comes from Greek and means "a sleeping place." Instead, the dead were buried in a burying yard, burying place, boneyard, or graveyard. Early settlers often used grounds that had been Indian burying places. American Indians buried their dead facing east to the rising sun. Coincidentally, the River View Cemetery faces east.
Nearby wealthy plantation owners had private burial grounds on their estates. Members of the Tilghman family are buried in the small, private cemetery at Rockland Mansion on the Sharpsburg Pike. Likewise, at St. James College, once the estate of General Samuel Ringgold, a private graveyard once held the remains of the Ringgold family members. And scattered throughout the county are hundreds of small burial grounds on rural farms.
The first recorded burial in the Williamsport burying ground was Joseph and Prudence Williams in 1764, the parents of Otho Holland Williams. Whether the site was formerly an Indian burial ground is reasonable, but remains a puzzle for archaeologists to solve. After Otho Holland Williams purchased the land in 1786 to create a town, he continued the tradition of burying family members in the community graveyard and was subsequently buried there himself in 1794. Thirty-five years later, his son, Edward Greene Williams, was buried beside him. Edward's 1829 obituary noted that he was buried in "the common burial ground at Williamsport."
There are no records of how plots were assigned in the two oldest sections of River View Cemetery. Early Colonial graveyards tended to be used or filled in the order of need, not sold in lots to families. The Williams family is buried almost in the center of the oldest or first section. From there, plots were distributed as needed. Every prominent family in Williamsport is buried there: Weisel, Light, Ardinger, Van Lear, Findley, Woltz, Towson, and Friend. With no surviving written records, only the commemorative headstones of the more affluent tell us who is buried there. Unquestionably, there were hundreds more buried under simple wooden crosses.
No one seemed overly concerned about who owned the graveyard for the first hundred years. It was a necessary part of the town, and Williamsport was fortunate to have such a glorious hillside for a boneyard. While folks were not in a hurry to get there, it was comforting to know it was available when needed. When it appeared the original graveyard was getting full, Edward Greene Williams generously donated an additional two acres. Farmers would allow livestock to forage for a day or two if the weeds started to overrun the hillside, and the problem was solved.
Not until the mid-19th century did the simple act of burying the dead transform into a business. Large-capacity urban-rural cemeteries were sculpted into park-like settings. Embalming was promoted as a public health measure, and underground vaults were encouraged to prevent graves from collapsing, ruining the manicured appearance of the grounds. Large monuments and elaborately carved tombstones with Victorian embellishments, such as weeping angels and florals, were erected. These final resting places with distinguished names, such as Rose Hill, Green Lawn, Ever Green, and Woodlawn, set a new standard in the business of dying.
In January of 1864, the General Assembly of Maryland passed an act giving the Williamsport burgess the authority to incorporate the public graveyard into the town limits. Apparently, the town fathers were not thrilled with this legislation, as it was another thirteen years before they acted. The burgess understood that incorporating a large, century-old graveyard into town represented a hefty financial responsibility.
Meanwhile, the world of cemeteries was rapidly changing. Hagerstown opened the manicured, professionally designed "Rose Hill Cemetery" in 1865. Two years later, the President of the United States, four cabinet members, and eighteen Governors attended the formal opening of the Antietam National Cemetery at Sharpsburg. And in 1868, "Decoration Day" became an annual tradition to decorate the graves of soldiers. Gone where the days when a few grazing sheep were sufficient for upkeep.
In 1871, the Williamsport the Mediary Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons on Williamsport replaced in kind the decaying sandstone and marble sarcophagus of General Williams. This once rural graveyard of simple headstones was transforming into a "final resting place" of beautiful statuary and handsome, engraved marble monuments. Victorian America had embraced the romance of a peaceful park-like setting for cemeteries. It was a lovely location for a picnic in a era before public parks. It only needed constant attention, maintenance, and money.
In 1877, Williamsport finally acquiesced and annexed the Potomac Hill graveyard into the town limits. The name "River View" was not adopted until 1892. As funding was an immediate issue, numerous volunteer organizations formed to assist the town with burials, upkeep, and maintenance. The first independent organization to develop to "have a proper place of burial for the people of Williamsport and vicinity. . ." was the Williamsport Cemetery and Memorial Association in 1887. The River View Endowment Association followed them. Finally, the River View Association, Inc. These philanthropic groups were incorporated, allowing them to buy adjacent properties and enlarge the cemetery. The corporation could then sell lots, arrange for burials, and generate income to maintain the entire property.
The major problem with each of these organizations was the cost of maintenance. As each addition to the cemetery filled, fewer lots were available to sell, income plummeted, and expenses increased exponentially. These organizations held teas, hosted street carnivals, and sold raffle tickets to raise money. They met monthly at local homes to hear orations of religion and citizenship; they still lost money.
In the 1920s, businessman and Mayor W. D. Byron took the organization's reins, and significant improvements began. With added income from investments in stocks and bonds, cemetery roads were paved, and tombstones cleaned and straightened. Retaining walls were built and backfilled with dirt to create additional lots. Then Byron died in an airplane crash and is buried in the cemetery he so efficiently improved.
River View Cemetery is one of the earliest burial grounds in Washington County. There are early settlers, soldiers from the French & Indian War, Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, famous Judges, patriots, African-Americans, and everyday folks. Perhaps because it was initially a public cemetery, Williamsporters were nondiscriminatory in who was buried in River View Cemetery. At a time when Confederate soldiers were being removed from Antietam National Cemetery, and most towns had a separate cemetery for the "colored" community, River View remained a public cemetery for local folks: Union and Confederate, black and white - they are all buried there together.
"those who have made so many sacrifices in the accomplishment of what has been done."
Tombstone of Brigadier General Otho Holland Williams (1749-1794) in a photo from the 1940s
Chartered in 1881, the Ladies Cemetery and Memorial Association organized and dedicated themselves to maintaining the cemetery. In a formal ceremony in 1890, they decorated the graves of ex-soldiers of "Potomac Hill Cemetery." including:
General Otho Holland Williams, founder of Williamsport, a Revolutionary officer
George Spangler, a soldier in the was of 1812
George D. Williamson, war of 1846
Lieutenant Conrad Hitechew Lieutenant William Irwin, John Long, David Hoover, William Grimes, and John Newton, of the war of the Rebellion
Captain Patrick, regular army whose death occurred while on duty at Williamsport during the construction of the C & O Canal.
The first mention of "River View Cemetery" was in 1892.