The Hospital in a Cemetery?

By 1907, Lancaster was growing at a rapid rate. Leaders determined that a hospital was necessary in order to serve the community better. Up until this point, doctors would make house calls and, if advanced care was necessary, patients would have to travel to Columbus or Zanesville. Besides fundraising, the major issue was finding the ideal spot for the new hospital. Believe it or not, the site that was considered as one of the best locations was a cemetery that was no longer being used.

The Old City Cemetery in Lancaster, Ohio.

The Old City Cemetery in Lancaster, Ohio, circa late 1800s.

The plot in question was at the southeast corner of Chestnut Street and High Street. Proponents of the spot argued that the lot was already owned by the city and it was easily accessible from all directions. A group of physicians, led by Dr. J.J. Silbaugh, unanimously agreed and urged city council members to approve. It appeared that the city was on its way to building a hospital on the lot. However, there was one problem. The site was the location for the city’s first cemetery: the City Burial Ground.

Burials had stopped at the City Burial Ground around 1837 and bodies had been exhumed and moved to other cemeteries such as Elmwood Cemetery. However, it was common knowledge that the site still contained bodies. This became abundantly clear in 1899 with the building of Engine House No.1 which was built on Chestnut Street right next to the cemetery. When excavation began, bodies began to be found. In fact, at least 18 of them were uncovered during the construction of the firehouse.

Council members were split on how to proceed and so was the community. The summer of 1907 turned into a heated debate in Lancaster. Those who opposed the hospital did so for one of two reasons:

1. They didn’t think the city could afford it
2. They didn’t like the idea of building on burial grounds

The Old City Cemetery, close-up view, in Lancaster, Ohio circa late 1800s.

The Old City Cemetery in Lancaster, Ohio circa late 1800s.

Residents made their arguments at public meetings and through the newspapers. Proponents of the site were able to counter most of the complaints from the opposition, except for one: building on top of the burial ground. Many people in the community felt it would be immoral as the area still contained an unknown number of bodies. Proponents argued that it was just as bad to leave the site as it was. By 1907, the plot had become overgrown with weeds, headstones had fallen over, many headstones had been stolen, and the area was filled with litter. Although they made valid arguments, proponents were dealt another blow from contractors that were asked to provide bids to exhume the remaining bodies. Their bids came back at around $3,000. This extra expenditure and the morality argument ended up stopping the construction on the old cemetery site.

Residents did agree that something needed to be done with the cemetery. So, in 1907, the city unanimously voted to abandon the area as a cemetery. They decided that they would exhume any remaining bodies and re-inter them at Forest Rose Cemetery. Rather than use a more expensive private company, the city felt it could do the job cheaper in-house. A superintendent and six men were given the task of exhuming the bodies.

It is impossible to know if they were able to exhume all of the bodies but it is highly unlikely. There were no records kept of the burials and no plat maps to follow. Lists of the dead and names on current cemetery lists do not match and bones were uncovered when the large radio tower was installed. Following the exhumations, the area was re-dedicated as a park and is now known as Firehouse Park. It’s safe to say that bodies still remain under the ground where Lancaster children have played for over a century.

Park Street Hospital in Lancaster, Ohio

Park Street Hospital in Lancaster, Ohio, circa early 1900s.

As for the hospital, Dr. J.J. Silbaugh and Dr. George Boerstler were worried that the project would never materialize. So, they set up a private facility at 224 Park Street. It had the capacity for 10 patients and had an operating room. The Park Street Hospital served as an effective placeholder while council members continued to search for a location for a large facility. In 1914, that location was finally purchased and it is the lot we are all familiar with today on the corner of Sixth and Ewing. The following year, the project became even more important as the Park Street Hospital closed its doors on January 2, 1915 due to financial troubles.

Officially, the new hospital would open in October of 1916. However, several patients were admitted prior to opening due to emergencies. Dr. J.J. Silbaugh, one of the main proponents of building a hospital, performed the first surgery on September 1, 1916.

It is hard for us to imagine the hospital in a different location as it has been a constant fixture for over a century. However, 1907 will always be the year that Lancaster’s hospital was almost built on a burial ground.

If you enjoyed this story, read more from Michael Johnson by becoming a supporting member of the Fairfield County Heritage Association. He authors the Association’s quarterly publication which includes stories like this one.

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Filed under: Histories & Mysteries, News
Michael R. Johnson, marketing director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association based in Lancaster, Ohio.

By Michael Johnson

Lancaster native Michael Johnson is the Marketing Director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association and serves as editor of the Heritage Quarterly – a magazine highlighting local history. Michael is a member of the Sherman Rotary and the Lancaster Fairfield Chamber of Commerce’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee. His bachelor’s degree in history education was earned at Ohio University. Michael is married to Tara Johnson and has two children, Isaac and Mia.