“The sweet strains of music were heard” – Memorial Day in Williamstown

On a warm morning in late May, the citizens of Williamstown emerged from their homes and places of business and joined in the procession to honor the Pennsylvania community’s war dead. This tradition has gone on since the town’s founding in the years immediately following the American Civil War. They first marked Decoration Day in 1870, as Civil War veterans from the town’s Grand Army of the Republic post led the efforts in the rapidly growing village.

By the start of the 20th century, Williamstown had grown to great importance in Upper Dauphin County. As one of the nation’s most productive coal operations sent valuable anthracite to fuel homes and industry, the community at the base of Big Lick Mountain in Williams Valley was economically vibrant. Market Street running through the heart of downtown contained dozens of storefronts selling clothing, furniture, toys, candy, and just about anything else a thriving community could need.

And with the town’s growth to more than 5,000 people, their Memorial Day traditions blossomed as well. On May 30, 1907, the citizens of Williamstown gathered along Market Street on a humid morning and engaged in a tradition that continues into the 21st century. They marched. They listened to patriotic music. They commemorated.

An attendee that day published a short summary of the day’s events in the Lykens Standard the following week:


Special to the Standard.

Early in the morning of Memorial Day the sweet strains of music were heard, and old and young of our citizens were wending their way to assist in the formation of the parade to the cemeteries. At 9 a.m. the parade formed lined up as follows:

Citizens’ Cornet Band.

Firing Squad.

Grand Army.

Woman’s Relief Corps.

Camp 154, P.O.S. of A.

M.E. Sunday School.

Sunday School of Reformation.

Em. Lutheran Sunday School.

 Seybert Ev. Sunday School.

The different cemeteries were visited, short addresses made and the graves of the departed decorated. On the way back from other cemeteries, the Sacred Heart Church congregation and Sunday school joined the parade and the Catholic Cemetery was visited, where Rev. Father Dougherty made an appropriate address. Rev. Mr. Witwer made the address at the M.E. Cemetery. After the ceremonies were over the parade was dismissed.

Something that differentiates the 1907 Memorial Day commemoration in Williamstown from others in the period was the presence of a local photographer who snapped images along the parade route and at the cemeteries.

Whole Scene 1
This photograph was taken near the corner of Market and Tunnel streets in Williamstown on May 30, 1907. (Williamstown Historical Society)
Cornet Band
In this detail of the previous photograph, you can clearly see the members of the Williamstown Cornet Band leading the march.
Firing Squad
Next in line came a firing squad from the local National Guard unit followed by the town’s GAR post, veterans of the Civil War.
Kids Parade
These boys made it in the photograph as well, and seem to be enjoying the parade.
Whole Scene 2
Another image captured at the corner of Market and Tunnel. (Williamstown Historical Society)
Leaders and Ladies Relief
This image shows a number of town leaders followed by the Women’s Relief Corps of Williamstown.
Closer Detail Ladies and Leaders
A closer detail of the leaders and the women holding a large American flag.
Ladies and Sunday School
The Women’s Relief organization was followed in the parade by Sunday School classes from the town’s churches.
Enjoying the Parade
A family watches the parade from a second floor balcony overlooking Market Street.

After the parade wound its way through Williamstown, they visited numerous cemeteries to decorate graves and honor the town’s military dead.

1907 Memorial Day
Photograph showing the firing squad at Williamstown’s Odd Fellows Cemetery.

Well into the 21st century, the Memorial Day traditions of Williamstown continue. The town may have lost a bit of its luster in the century since 1907, but the community’s wish to honor their fellow citizens who sacrificed their lives for the nation remains a powerful force. A visit to the Williamstown Memorial Day program endures as a patriotic institution in a small, struggling American town.

Featured Image: The 1907 Memorial Day parade in Williamstown, taken by an unknown photographer. (Williamstown Historical Society)

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