After mysterious disappearance, flag will fly again over vets' cemetery

3 x 2 Eugene Hough
Eugene Hough has worked to get a replacement flag at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Yeadon, Delaware County, and West Philadelphia.

At some unknown time, for some unknown reason, the 2,520 veterans buried in the Naval Plot and Soldiers' Lot at Mount Moriah Cemetery lost their flags.

The Stars and Stripes and at least two flagpoles from which they flew 30 feet above the white tombstones for more than a century vanished from the graveyard, which is in Yeadon, Delaware County, and Southwest Philadelphia.

Their inexplicable disappearance caught the attention of veterans activist Eugene Hough as he toured Mount Moriah four years ago.

"Here is a site that has veterans who go back to the Revolutionary War," said Hough, 58, of Bryn Mawr. "I can't imagine not having Old Glory providing a constant vigil."

A cofounder of Saving Hallowed Ground, a Devon-based monument preservation group, Hough went to work. He secured the free help of architects, a contractor, a flag and flagpole merchant, and a nearby township so that the Star-Spangled Banner could wave above the cemetery once again.

At 11 a.m. Saturday, a new flag and flagpole will be dedicated in a ceremony at the Naval Plot, on the Yeadon side of Mount Moriah.

The project fit the mission of Saving Hallowed Ground, which "preserves and protects monuments and markers commemorating veterans and patriots," as Hough described the nonprofit.

A former corporal in the Pennsylvania National Guard, Hough travels the region donating his time to restore monuments to their original glory. He was leading a workshop on cleaning techniques when he was invited to tour Mount Moriah, a 380-acre cemetery that has struggled to maintain its landscape.

Incorporated in 1855 - and one of the resting places of Betsy Ross' remains - Mount Moriah was virtually abandoned in 2011 by the widow of the last known member of the Mount Moriah Cemetery Association, which owned the property. Neglected and overgrown, the graveyard was placed in receivership by a Philadelphia judge. The Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corp. was created to assume responsibility for it.

The Soldiers' Lot and Naval Plot within Mount Moriah are owned and maintained by the National Cemetery Administration, a division of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees 131 of the 147 national cemeteries.

At least one flagpole stood in the Naval Plot, which holds the graves of 2,120 Marine and Navy vets. A second was in the 400-grave Soldiers' Lot for Army veterans on the Philadelphia side, said Samuel Ricks, a board member of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, a volunteer group that raises funds for the cemetery's upkeep.

No one seems to know what happened to the flagpoles, said Ricks, of Philadelphia. They have been gone since at least the 1990s, when a cemetery neighbor complained about their absence in an Inquirer article.

Ricks suspects the poles were removed because of a theft problem at the cemetery. In 1970, a bronze figure of a Union soldier was stolen and later recovered when the thieves tried to sell it to a Camden scrap dealer. The statue was never returned to Mount Moriah because of security concerns and was moved to Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Gregory Whitney, director of the Washington Crossing National Cemetery, who also oversees Mount Moriah's military plots for the VA, said the poles were there in the 1970s, but he, too, doesn't know when and why they were removed.

The VA had been planning to erect two poles of its own, but now will install only one, in the Soldiers' Lot, in about six weeks.

Hough has worked on the project for four years, on and off, marshaling his volunteers and securing the requisite government approvals.

In early 2014, he approached Radnor Township officials about funding the pole. The township, which has collaborated with Hough on monument preservation, donated $2,600.

"We did it gladly to . . . have an American flag where our heroes are buried," said Phil Ahr, president of the township board of commissioners.

Jan Hartman of Flag Lady Gifts, an online and mail-order store in Wayne, ordered the 30-foot-long, 200-pound aluminum pole and an eagle-shaped ornament for the top, at a total cost of $2,560. Hartman donated the flag.

She commended Hough for his persistence.

"The number of hoops one has to jump through to put a pole in an area where there are only dead people is unbelievable," Hartman said.

Peter Benton, a landscape architect with Heritage Strategies LLC in Birchrunville, traveled to the cemetery amid February snow to measure the site and make a preliminary drawing. Architect John Marshall and his staff at Marshall Sabatini Architecture in Bryn Mawr used it to create a computer-assisted drawing and a site plan required by the government.

Then contractor JJ White stepped in. Starting in late September, a crew of six excavated the site, removed the concrete base of the former pole, laid a new one, and erected the pole near an imposing anchor that sits on a stone pedestal in the Naval Plot.

"This is about patriotism and respect for our veterans," Hough said, "and we need to honor them at all times."

kholmes@phillynews.com

610-313-8211

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