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Rehabilitation of Rhode Island’s Route 37 Unearths Long-Forgotten Cemetery

Thu December 10, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

Michael Hebert has faced some interesting cases in his time as archaeologist of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), but nothing like this.

Hebert, who has been with RIDOT since 1989, had seen construction site digs unearth and reveal fragments and pottery, burial sites and even forgotten buildings, but Hebert and his colleagues weren’t prepared in June 2006 when heavy rains and subsequent erosion exposed the human remains of 71 individuals on the northern side of Route 37 in Cranston, R.I., during a project behind the former Davol manufacturing building on Sockanosset Cross Road.

By doing a much more sensitive kind of excavation work, Hebert and his colleagues learned over many months that the remains, dating from 1887 to 1917, were from what had been the unmarked State Farm Cemetery.

From the first of their 19th century burials, to their accidental unearthing, to their public identifications and proper reburial with honored ceremony, it took 122 years, but a state highway department did it up right.

A Stunning Scene

When Route 37 was built in the early 1960s, state and federal laws did not mandate the many approval and review procedures that RIDOT follows today, prior to any work. With property simply marked on most maps as state-owned, and original wooden markers long rotted, the highway was inadvertently constructed over a section of a cemetery.

“Route 37 was completed in 1968 and the old State Farm Cemetery was under Route 37,” said Hebert. “The highway was elevated, 15 to 20 feet above the cemetery. Back in the 1950s and 60s, during the Eisenhower era, when the federal highway system was put into place, there were no environmental laws in place, no considerations for cemeteries.”

Hebert added that in 1966, the Historical Preservation Act was established by Congress and that, “After 1969, things really improved,” in marking such historic places. But this didn’t help the 71 people who were suddenly taken out of the ground when Route 37 got that makeover in 2006.

Hebert described the stunning scene at the time: “The drainage system had failed and there was erosion at the base of the highway. With the rains, human remains rushed out of the gulley into the parking lot where the people who worked at Citizens Bank parked. They go to the parking lot and all these skulls were around their cars.”

The police were called in, as the state medical examiner thought it was some ghastly crime scene.

“I was called in and met with the State Historical Preservation archaeologist to determine where the original remains came from. We found a certain number. Were there more?” Hebert said.

No Mourners

According to RIDOT, in the 19th century, the State Farm was overcrowded with poor sanitary conditions. Diseases, most notably tuberculosis, ravaged the population. Records indicated that about a quarter of the people who died at State Farm were buried there, brought to the grave by horse-driven hearse.

Often, there were no mourners and no family to claim them. That job would be left to people a century removed.

Beyond the bones, the men hired by RIDOT found lead coffin plates and each plate had a different burial number and grave plot designation. There also was the date of death and, in most cases, burial badge numbers. This would prove to be a great help.

Construction work for DOT was straightforward around Route 37. To correct drainage problems, RIDOT needed to build a new drainage swale on the side of the highway, which required minor excavation. The tricky work came in how to remove, organize and categorize the remains

The vast majority was discovered and removed with the assistance of the archaeologists. RIDOT then hired the archeological firm PAL Inc. of Pawtucket who carefully removed the remains, catalogued and identified them, then took on the task of conducting genealogical research to identify their families and any lineal descendants.

“With a backhoe, we carefully scraped the area, the top soil, removed the remains and took them to the lab for study,” said Hebert. “We then notified next of kin. We put in a public advertisement in an attempt to find them. We had to take out two Cranston permits to remove and rebury them. To the kin we gave a choice: Give us permission for reburial or take the remains with them.

“RIDOT had to fix the drainage, remove soil, put in a new drain,” added Hebert. “This would involve more excavating. The Old State Farm Cemetery was a 3.4-acre parcel near the former State Hospital. Either the next of kin of those buried there were too poor to pay for a burial plot or there were no next of kin. The people were just buried there from around 1873 through 1918.”

Hebert said the cemetery was filled up and a new State Farm Cemetery was established to the immediate northwest and was used between 1918 through 1933 with small concrete markers establishing the graves.

Lack of Headstones

According to RIDOT, the process of identifying the remains was difficult because of the lack of the headstones; but the discovery of the lead coffin nameplates with nearly every grave shaft helped immensely. According to Charles St. Martin of RIDOT the findings were, “evidence to the sparse lives these people lived and how they were laid to rest. Along with the skeletal remains, only glass buttons from hospital gowns they were buried in, along with an occasional ring or hair comb, were the only items recovered.”

But RIDOT staff worked very hard. They were able to locate details on each person, including where they lived in state care, how they died, their nationalities and their religious preferences. When they were re-interred by RIDOT excavation workers in 2008, it was done with their identities and bits of their lives re-established.

For more than a year, the department fielded many correspondences from people trying to discover if they were related to the re-interred individuals.

The state made connections to actual descendants, some of whom came to a very moving ceremony this past July, set up by the state.

“It was a very involved process,” added Hebert. “It took two-and-a-half years. We thought these people deserved something more than a reburial without any sort of a ceremony.”

That summer day, RIDOT hosted a memorial service to honor the lives of the 71 men, women and children re-interred in June 2008 at State Institution Cemetery No. 2, which sits on the Cranston-Warwick line.

RIDOT planned beyond backhoes and earthmovers for the July 14 event. The state arranged for all possible clergy members to attend, representing the faiths of the 71 people. There was music, flowers on each gravestone and a wreath-laying ceremony by a national representative of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

At the ceremony, RIDOT Director Michael P. Lewis said, “Ever since the remains of individuals were discovered, the department has been committed to the task of seeing that they would be re-interred with dignity and honor and that their graves would not be lost. I am proud … to see the fulfillment of that pledge.”

Monument in the Works

Working with Warwick and Cranston, the Pawtucket River Authority, the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery and many other agencies, RIDOT reburied and reseeded the graves and is now working on a vertical monument for the State Farm Cemetery. This memorial is being designed by the award-winning firm of Bradford Associates.

“There will be a suitable monument at Route 37,” added Hebert. “We will identify the area as State Farm Cemetery. This is rare that we had to go to this extent, but highways were built over cemeteries across this country, with the lack of environmental laws. Highways were built over cemeteries and some 3,100 people are still buried under the highway there.”

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