Autumn, as the trees go dormant and the nights grow cold, is a time when we look to those whom we have lost.
While other businesses have “dead records,” the irony of Homewood Cemetery is that the records of those who are long gone are still current, Jennie Benford, the Point Breeze cemetery’s historian points out.
“People think of cemeteries as places, which of course they are, but they are businesses,” she says.
Through the years, Benford has conducted regular tours of Homewood Cemetery, but those stopped in 2020 due to pandemic shutdowns. But walking tours have resumed just in time for Halloween at 1 p.m. on Oct. 29 and 31.
Homewood Cemetery was founded in 1878 and many of Pittsburgh’s most prominent residents, with last names such as Mellon and Frick, are buried there.
The highest point in the cemetery was also the most precious real estate, that of Section 14, which rises above the rest.
“We’re talking about people who were well-established, well-known, well-heeled and wanted these large monuments for themselves,” Benford says.
Many of the families bought extra large lots so that their mausoleums could have space around them. “You want to set it off, you don’t want to be all crowded in,” she says.
But it wasn’t the wealthy men of Section 14 who were the subject of Benford’s recent tour on Tuesday, Oct. 6, it was the women. “The ladies of Section 14” as Benford puts it.
The tour started at the mausoleum of Christine Miller Clemson (1877-1956), a Scottish immigrant who was working at a department store in Pittsburgh and singing in her church when the pastor approached her and said a mystery donor had offered to pay her tuition to attend a conservatory in Boston to study voice.
The training paid off.
“She became the world’s top mezzo-soprano. She travels all over the world with Victor Herbert,” Benford says. “At the height of her career, the pastor gets in touch with her again and said ‘Our soloist is retiring; would you consider coming back to us for this salary?’ ”
That salary was less than half of her annual income; however, it made her the highest-paid church singer in the nation.
Christine Miller, her name at the time, came back to Pittsburgh and found that her benefactor was Daniel Clemson, who had been a blacksmith when Andrew Carnegie’s horse threw a shoe. Clemson fixed the shoe but was derided by his employer.
So, Carnegie offered him a job and Clemson worked his way up in Carnegie Steel, ultimately becoming one of Carnegie’s partners and a multimillionaire when J.P. Morgan bought the company in 1901. Clemson’s first wife, Alice, died in 1916 and he married Miller in 1918.
Who knows what other stories of the Pittsburgh elite could be resting in Homewood Cemetery?