- Associated Press - Saturday, June 27, 2015

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) - An old, large black cherry tree with a trunk some 5 feet in diameter snapped 30 feet above the ground and fell recently at Griffin Cemetery in North Scranton.

Rotted to the core, the tree had lived a long life - at least a century if not two - at the abandoned orphan cemetery on North Main Avenue, where the upper trunk and branches remain splayed across the sparse graveyard.

One of Scranton’s earliest cemeteries dating to the early 1800s before the city was established, Griffin has around a dozen or so other old, large trees also in danger of falling on the 60 to 70 graves of pioneer settlers, said city forester Tony Santoli.

Griffin and another of the city’s older, abandoned cemeteries, Stratford Cemetery in West Scranton, highlight not only the city’s history but also the question of who is responsible to care for that history when ownership is unclear or has been defunct for decades, said Lackawanna County Historical Society Executive Director Mary Ann Moran-Savakinus.

While a definitive list of orphan cemeteries in the city does not exist, the situation is not necessarily unusual. The historical society fields calls every year inquiring about various small, old, apparently abandoned cemeteries or burial grounds. Their existence - even if largely hidden - often is known, but ownership and responsibility for upkeep are not.

“They’re always kind of the question mark: Who owns them? Who takes care of them?” Moran-Savakinus said. “It’s sad because at one point, someone took care of these cemeteries.”

Griffin

Griffin Cemetery, situated atop an embankment along North Main Avenue, gives the appearance from the road of a small patch of woods next to a separate, newer, typical cemetery.

A plaque marker here atop a set of concrete steps spells the name of the orphan cemetery as “Griffen,” but Ms. Savakinus-Moran said the correct spelling is “Griffin.” At least one weathered, old gravestone marker also appears to contain the last name of Griffin.

The plaque states the graveyard dates to the early 1800s and is “one of the oldest farm cemeteries” in the city. A farm-style cemetery means people dug graves randomly and not laid out in neat rows like the newer cemetery next door. Many of the Griffin graves do not have headstones, apparently because of tenets of the Quaker religion of those deceased.

Though abandoned, Griffin Cemetery has not necessarily been forgotten, as every few years or so civic-minded residents, businesses or Boy Scouts have cleaned up the old graveyard and cleared out vegetation, weeds, brush and debris.

City resident Don McKeon, who at times has referred Griffin Cemetery to scouts looking for community service projects, was going to do so again recently until he went over to take a look at it and discovered the fallen tree.

“It was the worst I have seen it,” McKeon said of the cemetery’s condition. “No one takes care of the cemetery. It’s really kind of like fading into oblivion there.”

McKeon, who happens to work for the city as a housing inspector, knows Santoli and asked for his opinion of the condition of the other trees at Griffin. Mr. Santoli said many of the other trees also are in danger of falling and need to be cut down.

“No one should really go in there until those other bad trees are taken down,” Santoli said. “The tree that fell is extremely old. It had to be, to fall by itself. It rotted from the inside out. The others also are very old trees and could crack in half and fall down as well.”

However, cutting down and removing several large, old trees would be very expensive and could cost around $1,000 per tree, he estimated. The elevation of the cemetery also would make it impossible for a bucket truck to get onto the site and require an expert tree climber/cutter, Santoli said.

McKeon, who also is a member of the Lackawanna County Historical Society, and Santoli said they hope that publicity of the Griffin trees would spur donations to pay for their removal or professional tree-removal firms to donate services.

Moran-Savakinus said the society agreed to assist the effort, and donations may be sent to Lackawanna County Historical Society, 232 Monroe Ave., Scranton, PA 18510.

“It’s a shame because it is historic,” McKeon said of the Griffin Cemetery. “It would be great to save it, especially with the city experiencing its 150th anniversary next year. This cemetery predates the city. It is the beginning of the city. It would be a shame to lose it.”

Stratford

Meanwhile, over in West Scranton, complaints about the abandoned, overgrown, debris-strewn Stratford Cemetery led Scranton Licensing, Inspections and Permits Director Patrick Hinton to check it out. At first he found a typical neat-and-orderly graveyard, but “I had no idea there was another hidden cemetery around the corner,” Hinton said.

The Stratford Cemetery complained about was a few blocks away, tucked in a patch of woods at the ends of Watson and Sloan streets. Neighbors told Hinton the abandoned Stratford Cemetery is a mess, before asking him who owns it and if the city could clean it up.

Some, citing word-of-mouth passed down over decades, believe the city owns Stratford Cemetery and therefore should clean it up and maintain it. However, the city does not own it or have the resources to clean it up, Hinton said.

Lackawanna County Assessor’s Office property records list the owner as a “Stratford Cemetery Assoc” at 1541 Watson St., and say it was acquired in 1970.

Many of the headstones are much older. And, it appears the cemetery association has been defunct or nonexistent for around four decades. The 1541 Watson St. address appears to either be nonexistent, or the cemetery itself. The last house number on that block of Watson Street is 1520.

In 1997, The Times-Tribune reported that Stratford Cemetery, also known as Watson Street Cemetery, opened in the early 1900s, had its last burial in the early 1970s, and by 1975, was becoming overgrown with brush.

“It has been a puzzle for a long time,” said Lackawanna County Historical Society Executive Director Mary Ann Moran-Savakinus, citing that article and several others from the 1990s about the overgrown, abandoned Stratford Cemetery.

It’s apparent that no one has taken care of most of it for quite some time.

For many years, a handful of graves closest to a home on Watson Street have been cared for by that homeowner, who declined to comment for this story. Someone has regularly cared for a tombstone about 15 feet from Sloan Street.

However, most of the cemetery’s headstones and grave markers are buried in dense brush and large trees. While some headstones clearly identify those buried beneath, others are weathered and unreadable. A large tree growing next to one headstone appears to have knocked it off its pedestal base. Debris ranges from scattered litter to a toilet tank dumped in the graveyard’s woods.

“To clean it up would require an immense amount of equipment and manpower” that the city does not have to spare, Hinton said.

He said he hopes civic or church groups, service organizations or businesses might step up with some sort of mass cleanup project.

So does Robert Rucker whose home at the end of Watson Street abuts the abandoned Stratford Cemetery, where sidewalks end and the graveyard’s dense woods and debris begin.

“I’d love to see it cleaned up,” Rucker said. “Right now, it’s a mess.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1I88SuQ

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Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/

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