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Johnstown offers history-themed summer activities

July 29, 2012
By BILL ACKERBAUER , The Leader Herald

JOHNSTOWN - It was neither Halloween nor the Fourth of July, but it felt like a little of both on Tuesday evening at Johnstown's old Colonial Cemetery.

As the setting sun made way for the moon and stars on a clear, cool night, about 50 visitors gathered outside the historic Drumm House, waiting to take the After Dark Cemetery Tour offered by the Johnstown Historical Society.

Dressed in a Victorian-style black mourning veil, Jahnn Gibson serves as the tour guide, leading visitors on a tour of the city's oldest burial ground - the final resting place of early settlers, Revolutionary War veterans and at least one unrepentant murderer.

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer
In this time-exposure photo, visitors appear ghostly under the moonlight during the After Dark Cemetery tour Tuesday at Johnstown’s historic Colonial Cemetery.

As the tour begins, Gibson gives a summary of Johnstown's earliest days and highlights some of the quirky burial customs of days gone by. Before leading visitors into the moonlit graveyard, she sets the tone by quoting a poetic epitaph:

Take heed, stranger, as you pass by

As you are now, so once was I

As I am now, so you will be

So prepare for death, and follow me.

The Colonial Cemetery, on the corner of Green and North Market streets, has about 497 graves, of which about 468 still have legible headstones. More than 100 of the people buried there were children who died before reaching the age of 5, Gibson said.

"Childhood, especially infancy, was a dangerous period" before the era of modern medicine, she told visitors on Tuesday. Continuing the tour, she points out the graves of several notable individuals, among them politicians, entrepreneurs and men who fought in the Revolution and the War of 1812.

Guests said Tuesday's tour was informative and enjoyable, with just the right mix of historical interest and creepy fun.

"It was fantastic," city resident Jessica Henry said after the tour, which was punctuated by occasional strange noises from the darkest corners of the graveyard.

"I think I saw something in the woods," said a smiling Bridget Spagnuola, also of Johnstown, who accompanied Henry on the tour.

Noel Levee, the city historian and president of the historical society, said the Colonial Cemetery is unique because so many of its occupants are military officers, including Col. James Livingston, who fought in the Revolution and was a grandfather of women's rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Over time, the elements and vandals have been harsh to many of the cemetery's grave markers, Levee said.

"There are stones that, 10 or 15 years ago, I could read, and they're barely legible now," he said. The historical society is considering efforts to preserve the cemetery's stones and historical information about its contents.

"We're looking at some projects, maybe some conservation, maybe some mapping of where the graves are," he said, noting the existing historical records don't necessarily agree about who is buried where in the graveyard.

One of the unmarked graves belongs to the cemetery's most notorious occupant. Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh was hanged in 1846 after fatally poisoning two husbands. Gibson said Tuesday's tour group included 10 of Van Valkenburgh's descendants.

"It's always interesting to learn about your ancestors," Gibson said. "But I guess it's the naughty ones who are the most fun."

Gibson, the historical society's corresponding secretary, came up with the idea for the After Dark Cemetery tours, which will continue at 9 p.m. each Tuesday through Sept. 4. The admission fee is $5 per adult and $3 per child ages 10 to 16. Proceeds benefit the historical society, which helps maintain the city-owned cemetery as well as the neighboring Drumm House and the society's museum/headquarters on North William Street.

Tourism Tuesdays

"It's all working really, really well," said 3rd Ward Councilwoman Helen Martin, a member of the historical society board and chairwoman of the city's new Tourism Committee. In addition to the cemetery tours, the city is offering other "Tourism Tuesday" events through Aug. 28:

Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at



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