Washington County Poor House

The Washington County Old Men’s Home, 2198 North Main Street, Arden, Washington County, PA. Photo from PoorhouseStory.com Washington

Many years ago, the Washington County Commissioners were charged with the task of caring for the poor who lived in the county. This new obligation came by the way of the Pennsylvania State Legislature, which passed an Act on April 6, 1830, giving the county the authority “to erect a building and conduct an institution for the employment and support of the poor of Washington County.”

The commissioners “purchased land situated in Chartiers and North Strabane Townships from Robert Colmery on August 19, 1830,” according to the Library of Congress’ Collection of Historic American Buildings Survey. “The property comprised 172 acres and the purchase price was $2,752.00. The site is adjacent to the Chartiers Valley Railroad and the former Washington and Canonsburg Electric Railway Line, ¼ mile east of the former Arden Station.”

In 1865, the county purchased an additional six acres and another 28 were purchased in 1867. The first building was erected in 1831 and was replaced in 1874.

“The institution was known as the Washington County Home for the Poor from 1831 to 1883, when separate institutions were built for women and children. Since 1883, families were no longer housed at this facility, and it became known as the Washington County Old Men's Home,” according to the buildings survey. “The main building is an example of institutional type architecture built in the Second Empire style of architecture.”

At this point, a cemetery was established for the burial of the county’s poor, a Potter’s Field. Today, approximately 299 small white markers dot the hillside on the property near the modern-day Washington County Health Center, which opened on April 4, 1977 at 36 Old Hickory Ridge Road. There are no names on these markers, only numbers.

Over the years, the county has had inquiries about the names of those buried in the cemetery. Some old papers and a tattered ledger did exist, but a searchable list of names was not available. The only records currently on-hand are:

  • Xerox pages from a ledger titled “History: The Directors of the Poor, The County Home and Children’s Home of Washington County, Pennsylvania, from April 5, 1830,” containing the names of 57 people buried in a county cemetery from 1879 to 1882
  • Information copied from LRGP31 Collection of Microfilm: Roll 4: Washington County Home Deaths from 1912 to 1921
  • A leather-bound ledger containing a list of everyone who died at the County Home and everyone buried in the Potter’s Field from 1912 to 1945.

Commissioner Harlan G. Shober, Jr.’s office collected the records and transcribed the names of those buried in the cemetery. The names of those who died at the County Home, but were buried elsewhere were not included in the research. However, some of the people buried in the cemetery died in other parts of the county and were transported to the cemetery for final disposition. It is not certain when burials ceased at the county cemetery.

Earlier it was believed that as many as 502 people were buried in the Potter’s field. However, documentation shows there are at least 1,328 people buried there. In many cases, several people are buried in a single grave, numerous graves are unmarked, and therefore it is likely that more people are buried in the Potter’s Field. Commissioner Shober’s interest in the project stemmed from the simple fact that everyone deserves to be remembered for the life they lived. To create an on-line database of the available names is a way to give these people the dignity they deserve.

The database is linked to the Washington County website and consists of a map, which shows the geographical location of the existing grave makers. The map also includes a digital marker for the graves with unknown locations. Researchers can click on the square that represents a grave, revealing a photo of the marker, along with the names and information of everyone buried in that grave. The map also includes a search bar that allows users to look up individual surnames, the originating community, cause of death, date of birth, or date of death. The link can also be accessed by visiting www.co.washington.pa.us, selecting the Residents tab, and selecting the link for Genealogists and Researchers.

This article was written by Randi Marodi, administrative assistant to Washington County Commissioner Harlan G. Shober, Jr. The project was completed over a two-year period by the office of Commissioner Shober, the Chief Clerk’s office, and Informational Technology Department. Research on this project is ongoing and the database will be updated if further information is discovered.

For mapping or website issues, please contact the Christopher Jon Jursa, GISP.