Our Nation's Capital's Historic German-American Cemetery
In December 1800 Congress moved to Washington, DC. There was little here except a partially-finished Capitol, the president’s house, and a few public offices, plus some detached houses along a few streets. There was little else in Washington except trees and livestock.
At that time it was customary for a church to have its own burial ground. Concordia Church in 1846 purchased the city square bounded by 4th, 5th, G and H Streets in northeast Washington. Six years later, on June 5, 1852, City Council passed Chapter 400 prohibiting any new burial grounds (including expansion of already existing cemeteries) within city limits.
In July 1858 the German Evangelical Church Society, the Men’s Evangelical Society of Concordia Church, met to consider a new cemetery location. Five men were appointed to find a suitable site. Quite quickly they reported back that Moore’s farm, north of Boundary Street, would be ideal. The Society approved the selection and told the committee to buy it. The committee completed the sale, giving Moore about $2,300 as the first of three equal payments. To do this the men’s organization had to borrow $2,000.
It is important in the history of the new cemetery to note that, although a meeting had been set up to obtain church approval, this purchase was made before that meeting could be held. Therefore Prospect Hill Cemetery was owned by the Society and not by Concordia Church itself, although burial sites were originally to be sold only to Concordia members.
The new cemetery was dedicated on Sunday, September 26, 1858. At this time Pastor Samuel Finckel consecrated the ground for Christian burial. Prospect Hill officially opened for business the following year.
On June 13, 1860, Congress approved the charter for Prospect Hill Cemetery. This charter stated that at least 17 contiguous acres shall be forever appropriated and set aside as a cemetery, and that no streets, lanes, alleys, roads or canals of any sort shall be opened through the property. The charter incorporated not the Society itself, but only the Board of rustees, which at that time was controlled by the Society.
The Civil War began nine months later. Its upheaval had a detrimental effect upon cemetery finances. Lots were being sold, but purchasers could not make payment in full. Moore extended the times on his notes. Picnics were held annually to help raise funds. By 1869, the debt to Moore had been reduced to $2,000; at that time he demanded payment in full. The Society paid him by borrowing the money.
By 1870 Washington s population had grown to 109,000. Six new Lutheran or Re formed congregations had been established. To help meet the needs of the growing German community of the city, and also to help its own financial status, the Society began selling lots to people who were not Concordia Church members. Many were members of the city s other Lutheran and Re formed churches, none of which had cemeteries of their own. Thus a significant number of non-member Prospect Hill lot owners developed.
In 1873 two members of the Board of Trustees, John Walter and F. Heider, executed quit claim deeds, releasing themselves from any ownership of the cemetery.
By 1880 the city was expanding beyond its original northern border of Boundary Street (now known as Florida Avenue). In 1885 there was a rumor that the Capital Cable Car Co. wanted to extend its tracks north through the cemetery to Soldiers Home. This gave rise to the question of Cemetery ownership and caused a split in the original Men’s Evangelical Society. A small conservative group contended the cemetery was owned by Society members only. A much larger group of Society members, along with about 800 non-members, felt it should belong to the lot owners.
In 1886 the cable car company requested five acres of cemetery land on which to extend its tracks. Later the same year a similar request was made to enable the extension of North Capitol Street. The Board denied both requests on the grounds that the Charter prohibited such actions.
Later that same year the conservative group went to District court and had six men listed as incorporators of the Cemetery, among whom were Walter and Heider, the executors of quit claim deeds the previous decade. They then filed in the Office of the Surveyor a subdivision of PHC land, much of which was to be used for buildings. The following year they gave District Com missioners permission to extend North Capitol Street. All these actions violated the Charter, were illegal, or both. The group did not inform lot owners of their actions.
In December 1887, District Commissioners sent laborers to Prospect Hill to tear down a fence and begin removing trees. The superintendent chased them off the land. A mass meeting of angry lot owners quickly followed, and a suit was filed in Equity Court. An injunction was granted.
By the early 1890s extension of North Capitol Street had become inevitable. A decision on right ful ownership of the land was imperative. On November 22, 1892, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the lot owners.
After the Charter was amended to allow the extension of North Capitol Street, a long battle en sued concerning just compensation for the land. Finally a judge had the land appraised. District Com-missioners offered about half of the appraised value, which the Board refused. In 1897 Congress ruled that the full amount had to be paid. This ended a 12-year battle.
The first sixty years of the 20th Century were peaceful ones for Prospect Hill. In 1922, all cemetery land west of North Capitol Street was sold. In 1925, Daniel King was hired as superintendent.
The number of burials in the cemetery began declining in the 1920s and 1930s, initially because of advances in medical science. By the 1960s the Cemetery had begun operating at a loss. After the 1968 riots occurred, many middle-class Washingtonians, both Caucasian and African-American, moved away from the city s center. Vandalism to the grounds increased.
In Fall 1972, three times burglars entered the Stone House and confronted the Kings, who by that time were elderly, having served the Cemetery faithfully for 45 years. After the third incident, badly frightened, they left immediately. Several different couples served in the superintendent’s position over the next 12 years.
Glenwood Cemetery took over care of Prospect Hill in early 1985. At first the arrangement worked fairly well, but after six years our Board became dissatisfied. By 1992, the lot owners of Prospect Hill were once again able to manage the cemetery. Today Prospect Hill is becoming a revitalized memorial to those who struggled to create a capital city in their new nation.
At the Memorial Day Service of Prospect Hill Cemetery in May 2002, Garry Grassl, President of the German Heritage Society of Greater Washington, D.C, delivered an address about some of the known and unknown citizens of the District of Columbia who are buried at the German Cemetery.
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