Mass grave in Butler is sad reminder of region’s last pandemic

BUTLER COUNTY, Pa. — You would be forgiven for missing the mass grave that is peacefully nestled underneath a grove of trees alongside a quiet road away from everywhere in rural Butler County.

Known as The Black Cross or Wooden Cross Cemetery, there is no accurate count of how many souls have rested there for the last hundred years, but it is believed to be hundreds.

As the 1918 influenza pandemic ravaged the world, western Pennsylvania was not spared. Pittsburgh, in particular, recorded the highest death rate of any major city in the nation.

Despite the horrific numbers that heralded a modern plague, press coverage at the time barely acknowledged the crisis as news of World War I kept the country’s attention diverted until the pandemic could be ignored no longer. As the war ended and troops returned home, the flu accelerated the death spiral until Pittsburghers began to take the threat seriously.

The spread of the virus went largely unchecked in more rural areas and especially among immigrant populations who worked the land and industries there. Contributing to the death toll, many doctors and medical staffs were deployed overseas as part of the war effort.

Winfield Township, where the cemetery is located, was home to a limestone mine, sand plant, brick yard, salt works and a tile works. The workers were primarily Polish or Slovakian and the flu swept through the community faster than traditional burials would allow.

Local lore said that a wagon loaded with the dead from West Winfield got stuck in the mud on its way to the Catholic cemetery in Coylesville. Unable to free the wagon, a local farmer donated the land for the mass grave. A large cross was made from railroad ties, giving the place its various names.

With the site now established, it became a frequently used burial spot for the duration of the epidemic.

The original wooden cross survived until 2002, when it was finally replaced with a new memorial, including a white plaque erected by the Saxonburg District Woman’s Club. It reads: “Here are buried an unknown number of local victims of the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 – one of history’s worst epidemics in terms of deaths. In Butler County, the worst period was early October to early November 1918, with some 260 deaths in the county seat alone. Immigrant workers in the limestone and other industries are buried in this cemetery, with one to five bodies in each grave. A large wooden cross marked the site.”

As quickly as the pandemic flared up, it abated. By November 1918, the decimation was subsiding and the region was able to finish burying its dead as life returned to normal.

The mass grave with its hundreds of dead is a sobering reminder of the pain and loss suffered by the generations that lived here before us, now all but forgotten at a quiet country crossroads.