The view from the top – the very top – of Southpointe II yields a striking panorama of buildings, streets, parking lots and pedestrians. A fairway on the golf course serenely sits on the near horizon, ahead of Interstate 79 cutting through the valley beyond.
The view of the top of the Cecil Township business park, from I-79, is fetching as well. Tucked amid a half-dozen trees, in an expansive green space, is a neatly constructed white fence and arch. The area looks peaceful, as it was intended to be.
“Rest in peace” is engraved on each of the 35 markers within the fence.
This is the cemetery remaining from what was originally the Pennsylvania Reform School at Morganza, one of the first juvenile correction institutions in the state. The facility had a notorious reputation from the day it opened in 1876 until it ceased operations in 1967. Parents would threaten wayward kids with, “Behave or I’ll send you to Morganza.”
Over the years, there were widespread suspicions of isolation, confinement and neglect, culminating in the 1950s with a trial in an abuse case. (The outcome is not known.)
That notorious reputation probably lingered throughout the facility’s history – even during its final 33 years, when it was a residential location mostly for children and teens with intellectual disability. It was known in its final incarnations as Western State School and Hospital, then Western Center, which closed in 2000.
The 35 residents lying in the cemetery were buried young. Though records are incomplete for about half of them, many of the others were teenagers who died between 1890 and 1908, during the reform school years – and at a time when disease was more prevalent and medical treatment was relatively primitive.
Abuse? Neglect? Confinement? There are very few accounts of what went on at the reform school, and few people privy to information. But one who is, who has heard tales, doubts mistreatment was a factor in the deaths.
“I came across reports that stated there were two to three deaths every year. All were due to sickness,” said Christopher Barraclough, author of “Morganza, Pennsylvania’s Reform School,” a paperback book in the Images of America series. “As horrible as some stories were, the place was not really as bad as the stigma that had been attached.”
Despite its lengthy history in Washington County, the reform school sprouted its roots well north. And they were deep roots.
The Pennsylvania Legislature established the institution in April 1850, opening it four years later as House of Refuge on the North Side of Pittsburgh, an area then called Allegheny. SCI Pittsburgh, previously Western Penitentiary, now sits there.
After 22 years along the Ohio River, the institution was renamed Pennsylvania Reform School and moved to Cecil in December 1876. The land was named Morganza, after the landowners, the Morgan family.
The intent was to house the juveniles inside well-appointed cottages in a more rural setting, and teach them job skills that would enable them to assimilate into society when they left. Boys were taught general work skills, girls domestic skills, according to “The Cemetery on the Hill at Morganza,” a booklet by E. Irene Taylor and Dorothy Parry.
“They instituted a family system of living,” Barraclough said. “The dorms were referred to as cottages and were segregated by age, with the boys and girls always separate. There was always (a reformatory) officer present in each cottage to supervise them.”
Juveniles developed agrarian skills as well. A farm was established on the grounds as a cost-effective way to feed staff and residents, and the young people tended the crops. But that wasn’t the extent of their duties.
“They did a lot of maintenance on the grounds,” Barraclough said, adding that residents in 1921 built the bridge that links Morganza Road to the southern entrance to the park.
Residents also formed a band that marched in local parades, had sports teams, and participated in pageants and other social events.
Happiness did not always reign there. Runaways were rampant in the early ’50s – an average of 18 per month during one stretch. One fugitive shot another boy in Pittsburgh in 1949.
The reform school – later known as Pennsylvania Training School and Canonsburg Youth Development Center – operated in Cecil for 91 years, until 1967, when the juveniles were sent to other facilities. Western State School and Hospital, and Western Center, would serve residents with intellectual disabilities for the remainder of the location’s 124-year history.
Western Center was shuttered in 2000. The final structure on campus was razed in May 2012.
The cemetery, on a 4.5-acre plot that cannot be developed, is the last vestige of Western Center. The land abuts Canonsburg Borough, in the northwest corner of the 589-acre, mixed-use park.
At some point, the cemetery may not be the only visible vestige of the former school in Southpointe. Horizon Properties, lead developer of the park, plans to place the copper cupola from the administration building in a green space near Town Center.
The cupola has been placed in storage by the Washington County Authority, which is in charge of land sales and building and maintaining Southpointe’s infrastructure.
Though a picturesque plot, the cemetery property above Rice Drive wasn’t so spiffy a few years ago – until the county authority provided some TLC.
“The fencing was falling down,” said Bill Sember, director of operations for the authority. “We kept the grass cut, put in hard plastic (post-and-rail) fencing, a bench and a stone walkway.”
Sember’s organization cleaned up between the gravestones and the stones themselves, which sit at ground level. The authority also tidied up the flat, rectangular aluminum plates affixed to the stones, all bearing a cross and “Rest in peace,” most with the deceased’s name. A few are unidentified. Upon entrance, 19 males are to the right of the stone walkway, 16 females to the left.
A tar-and-chip walking trail a few steps away, completed by the authority last fall, enhances the location.
Beauty reigns where it once didn’t.