Cemetery Project Utilizing Radar Identifies 100s of Unmarked Graves

The normal quiet of the cemetery, its ground covered by the fragrant needles of Ponderosa pines, is interrupted by the steady click-click-click sound as the retired Virginia geologist makes repeated passes across the ground with the wheeled contraption in a grid-like pattern.
Pausing to catch his breath on the normally quiet hillside, Matthew Turner scans out over Lake City’s historic City Cemetery. Referring to the grid pattern which he makes with his trolley-like, three-wheeled cart with transducer antenna connected to a compact computer monitor, Turner notes, “I feel like a farmer.”
Rather than planting seeds, however, Turner is utilizing the advanced subsurface radar to detect subtle anomalies deep beneath the needle-strewn ground which may indicate the presence of an unmarked grave.
Breathing heavily as he trudges up the hillside, Turner pauses as he intently scans the monitor and then parks it, its wheels parallel to the steep hillside — “we don’t want any accidents, now do we?,” he muses — and reaches into a bag with bright-orange surveyor flags mounted on slender metal rods.
“Here’s another one,” he relates as he plants the flag within a slight depression located directly beneath a century-old pine tree.
Looking back down the hill in the direction from which Turner has already come, it’s spine-tingling to see a veritable sea of bright orange flags fluttering in the September afternoon breeze indicating literally hundreds of unmarked graves which have been detected by the radar.
Chatting amiably as he continues pushing the computerized trolley up the hill, Turner says that his work with GeoModel, Inc., provides subsurface radar data for a vast variety of projects throughout the U.S.
In addition to locating underground utilities, spying on rebar through layers of deteriorating concrete, and identifying the long-forgotten locations of subsurface fuel tanks, Turner says he spends a lot of time in cemeteries.
“I enjoy the work,” he says, “and feel I’m contributing to rediscovering history.” When not pushing the cart, Turner takes time to read tombstone inscriptions. After working multiple days in both Lake City’s upper IOOF Cemetery and the lower City Cemetery last month, Turner commented that inscriptions on memorials in the two cemeteries are among the most detailed and poignant of any he has seen in his cemetery surveying work throughout the country.
Turner lives in Leesburg, Virginia, and prior to joining GeoModel, Inc., in 1991, worked as an independent geologist as consultant to major oil and gas corporations. On last month’s western foray providing subsurface vradar in cemeteries, Turner first stopped off in Iowa City, Iowa, then came to Lake City, and after leaving here headed off to map a cemetery in suburban Dallas.
On an earlier trip to Colorado, he mapped gravesites in a small cemetery at Monument near Palmer Lake.
In addition to being adept at reading the computer monitor which is mounted near the handle bars of his trolley, Turner also has a discerning eye for indications of long-forgotten graves on the ground surface. In Lake City, he looked for slight depressions in the ground surface — many of them in the City Cemetery quite small, sadly indicative of a child’s grave — and in many instances faintly outlined with stones.
In some areas he looked for inobtrusive collections of Ponderosa pinecones which have lodged within depressions in the ground.
The trolley contraption which Turner wielded about the ground at both the IOOF and City cemeteries is equipped with a 50-lb. red-colored box consisting of a 400-megahertz transducer antenna which, as the trolley is pushed, glides along on the ground surface. The antenna transmits pulses of ultra high frequency radio waves downward into the ground covering a space 1-1/2’ wide and 15’ deep.
The radio waves, as explained by Turner, react differently to subsurface ground strata, part of the radar reflecting off of denser, rockier soils, while some of the waves pass further downward to detect the next layer of soil strata.
In the case of Turner’s cemetery work, the radio waves seldom detect coffins but do in fact register disturbances to the soil strata, indicative that a hole has been dug and then refilled, in the process interrupting the natural strata.
Penetrating radar waves work better in some soils than others, Lake City’s dry rocky soil being particularly conducive while soils in other areas with marshy conditions and a high water table are less ideal.
Radio waves create a two-dimensional cross-section profile of the subsurface which is transmitted back up onto the monitor and stored in the digital control unit.
Intently scanning the image on the monitor as he pushes the cart along, Turner scans for soil anomalies, specifically vertical white-colored “columns” on the computer screen which indicate the presence of a grave.
Ground penetrating radar has been used in the Lake City area in limited instances, most notably in July, 1989, when the radar was used to detect the location of the five men interred at the Packer Massacre Site south of town. Discovery of the men’s shallow burial pits at that date allowed the bones to be disinterred and analyzed as part of the study headed by Dr. James Starrs of George Washington University.
During his three days’ work surveying in the IOOF and City cemeteries Sunday through Tuesday, September 17-19, Turner observed that there was little apparent pattern to how the graves in the lower cemetery were dug. Interments in the 141-year-old cemetery were uniformly on the traditional east-west axis but otherwise there is little apparent pattern to the excavations. Groupings of graves do exist throughout the several-acre tract, perhaps indicating families, but in the majority of instances, it is merely a solitary grave located on the hillside.
“It appears they came out here and dug wherever they wanted to,” Turner surmises, “there’s no real pattern to how the graves are arranged.”
Higher up in the City Cemetery, near the entrance gates off of Highway 149, several rows of 50-75, even 100 unmarked graves have now been surveyed in long, wavering lines. Some of the lines, such as paupers’ row on either side of the entrance gates, stretch the entire length of the cemetery to the north and south. Also of interest is that access down into the cemetery along what has been dubbed a “carriage path” is really not a pathway at all and is instead packed with graves which have been driven over in accessing the cemetery for decades.
Turner’s subsurface radar work in Lake City is the result of GeoModels, Inc.’s $14,000 contract with Hinsdale-IOOF Cemetery District.
“It’s something we’d been hoping to do for four years,” says cemetery board member Nancy Chambers. The work was needed, she explains, to help in identifying vacant grave plots in the upper IOOF cemetery which is still in active use. While Turner was here, the decision was also made to map out gravesites in the lower City Cemetery which has not been in active use for decades.
“We knew we’d be running across a preponderance of unmarked graves in the lower cemetery,” says Chambers, “although we weren’t prepared for the sheer volume.” Chambers made a quick walk-through counting survey flags while Turner was still here and says she finally lost track after 500.
The total number of unmarked graves in the cemetery has been tallied at an astounding 845, not including unmarked graves within fenced enclosures, a highly disproportionate number in comparison to the much smaller number of graves which actually boast tombstones.
The upper IOOF Cemetery had fewer surprises, according to Chambers, with perhaps just 15 graves which were identified as being unmarked. That number will further shrink later this fall when the cemetery district receives an order of 11 markers for unmarked graves. The markers are furnished by San Diego-based Honor Life, owned by Josh Willis, which engraved and installed the new memorial in Veterans’ Park at Hinsdale County Courthouse.
The discovery of such a large population of unmarked graves in the City Cemetery — easily twice as many as living souls in present-day Lake City — presents its own unique challenges.
The outlines of graves in the upper cemetery were identified by Turner in vivid orange spray paint. At the cemetery district’s request, he changed tacts, however, in mapping the lower cemetery.
“For one thing, I would have run out of paint,” he says. For another, the orange paint won’t outlast this winter’s approaching snows, whereas the small plastic flags on a metal rod will last longer.
Chambers says she and fellow cemetery board members Linda Pavich and Robyn Hudgeons continue to debate how best to permanently mark the hundreds of newly-found lower cemetery graves.
Even at a spartan $100 per marker listing its occupant as “unknown,” the cost for even a small engraved stone marker is in excess of cemetery district finances. An alternative, short-term remedy is 2’ lengths of metal rebar which have been driven into the ground along side the survey flags by a corps of volunteers including Gene Bryson, Babe Vickers, Linda Pavich, Cindy Lycholat, Henry Rothschild, and Marty Priest.
Hinsdale Cemetery Board continues to discuss more permanent options for marking the unmarked graves, one potential being individual 3’-long hollow metal fence posts at relatively affordable $18 or less per piece which could be used as permanent identification for the grave locations.
At this late date and barring the discovery of unknown records, it is doubtful that exact identifications for occupants of the unmarked graves will ever be known. A perimeter fence for the old burial ground wasn’t actually installed until the 1950s when seasonal resident Harold Stewart contributed funding.
Burials in the cemetery — the bulk occurring in the late 19th Century — apparently occurred on a haphazard basis and no written burial locations were kept. The land formerly comprised part of the old Greenfield Ranch, now incorporated into San Juan Meadows Subdivision and as late as 1985, when the land was acquired by Hinsdale County, was privately owned by the Carl White Estate.
The first recorded burial in the City Cemetery was William F. Ryan, Hinsdale County’s first coroner, who died of consumption in January, 1876. Ryan is best recalled as the county official who formerly charged Alferd Packer with murdering his fellow prospectors in 1874.
Many of the graves in the cemetery were originally marked with wooden markers which deteriorated and have since disappeared. The oldest surviving tombstone in the cemetery is a locally-crafted sandstone memorial which was made by George Gardner in October, 1876, for the San Juan Central Faro dealer Benjamin House.
Two of the best known graves in the lower cemetery are George Betts and James Browning who were lynched for killing Hinsdale Sheriff E.N. Campbell in 1882. In addition to an area for Bluff Street gamblers, others distinct areas of the City Cemetery were reserved for the town’s Irish-Catholic residents, Russian immigrants, and a section for the town’s African-American residents.
Several large family plots are also located in the City Cemetery, including members of the Hunt, Rawson, Thompson, Ramsey, Griffiths, and Halpin families.
By contrast to the unorganized method of burials in City Cemetery, the upper IOOF Cemetery was started by the local Odd Fellows Lodge in 1877 on a tract which was intricately surveyed into plots, lots and blocks dissected by First through 10th Streets and Central, South and North Avenues.
A plot map exists for the IOOF Cemetery with handwritten notations identifying the location of individuals who have been interred in the cemetery over the course of 140 years.
Oldest marker in the IOOF Cemetery is an imported marble pillar for Andrew Hopkins, a 22-year-old Illinois native who died in April, 1877. Still in active use today, the IOOF Cemetery was traditionally the final resting place for fraternal lodge members, their families, and members of the local business community.