2016-05-11 / In This Place

Dead Reckoning

« »
by Trish Adams

Poet Dylan Thomas eloquently wrote “After the first death, there is no other,” but what about when your cemetery dies? Such was the posthumous fate of about 3,000 souls—or, rather bodies—who lay in the wake of the Pepacton Reservoir, set to go into operation in the mid- 1950s. One of the more gruesome tasks, in addition to destroying nearly every artifact of those living in the villages of Pepacton, Arena, Shavertown and Union Grove, was the reinterment of all those buried in those villages “below the waterline.” Some had been peacefully at rest for more than 150 years. In researching this story, I was delighted to light on the character of “Uncle Don” Henry, who pursued his mission of finding relatives of the dead with the patience of a saint and the doggedness of an Internal Revenue agent. Imagine too, if your relatives were among the interred and your religious beliefs called for the resurrection and “glorification” of the worthy on Judgment Day? The idea of disturbing those graves must have been particularly discomfiting to the most religious, although certainly the Almighty’s powers would not be deterred by navigating relocated remains. For the living, however, uncovering the identities of the deceased, never mind their merits, proved very problematic, especially since so many graves were unmarked, marked only by a plain stone with no inscription or one whose inscription had worn entirely away. Those who were unclaimed were eventually interred in the Pep- action Cemetery (created by the City for that purpose), which you gravestone aficionados will be happy to learn is being restored, at DEP expense this spring. You can read all about that effort in the March 2, 2016 edition of the News online. Just search “Pep- action Cemetery” and it will pop right up.

March 24, 1950

City Hunts Next of Kin for 2,000 Graves

Uncle Don Henry, engineer in charge of the vast job of relocating some 3,000 bodies from cemeteries in the East Branch valley, said last week that next of kin for 2,000 graves have yet to be located. Pepacton cemeteries are the first four to be moved in order to make way for the multimillion dollar city dam which will impound the Delaware and provide big, thirsty New York city with additional drinking water the year round.

The cemeteries around the Pepacton area are: Edget, which holds 183 graves; Shaver, with 26 graves; Sickler, with one grave, and Flynn, with 11 graves.

Sixty-four-year-old Uncle Don, employed by the city since 1906, explained that before water is impounded in the reservoir the city gets in touch with all relatives possible so they may indicate to which cemetery the remains should go and choose an undertaker to do the work, paid for by the city. These claimed bodies are removed first; later the city will enter into an agreement with an undertaker for exhuming and moving of unclaimed remains.

When the time comes for the removal relatives will contact an undertaker who will see that the body is moved properly and with the utmost of care. The city will stand all costs in this operation.

In moving bodies at the Rondout reservoir each claimant of a grave was paid $40 for removal of the remains, refilling of a grave, purchase of new lot and re-interment in a new grave. For removal and resetting of an ordinary headstone or footstone it was $4 a stone. For removal and resetting of a monument containing more than one-fourth cubic yard $20 a cubic yard was allowed. For existing foundations under headstones, monuments, etc., price paid was 75 cents a cubic foot, and for removal of fences, copings and steps it was 50 cents a linear foot.

This whole job is one of great complexity and one requiring a great deal of cooperation, not only from the men who are assigned to the tasks of moving graves and so forth, but especially from the people whose kin are being moved. Henry said that they would like to locate each of the 2,000 next of kin who have not voiced their whereabouts or indicated what they want done with the remains of relatives. He explained that word of mouth is his best lead for learning identity of kin. Some of the people come to his office in Downsville, others call him up. Henry jots down all those wishes and sees to it that they are incorporated in the general moving campaign. More than 75 per cent of those buried are moved by direction of living relatives.

Uncle Don hopes that all who have relatives buried in the valley will contact his office and inform his department what disposition they wish made of graves in the valley.

July 28, 1950

Three Thousand Bodies Lie in Reservoir Area

The oldest marked grave in the Pepacton reservoir area according to Uncle Don Henry, BWS employee in charge of cemetery removals, was found in the old Rural Arena cemetery by means of a 2.8 foot by 1.5 foot by 1 1/8 inch slab with the following inscription:

In Memory of

Capt. Samuel Dunham who departed this Life

July 27th, 1792 AE 81

According to Mr. Henry, “every stone in the four major cemeteries and several small private plots of the area has been measured, and the inscription copied, says the Downsville Progress.

The four “large” cemeteries include the one at Shavertown containing 733 bodies, one at Union Grove containing 217; two at Arena, the “old” or “rural” one, containing 847 bodies, and the “new” or “village” cemetery, containing 315.

The minor, or smaller cemeteries in ‘the area are the Edget plot with 183 graves, the Shaver plot at the mouth of Cole’s Clove with 26, the Flynn plot between Pepacton and Shavertown with 15 and the Cat Hollow plot at the mouth of Cat Hollow.

The latter was formerly known as the “darky burying ground” according to legend, because of the fact that in the 1700’s a wealthy slave owner by the name of Cole settled in the mouth of the dove which bears his name and started a burying ground for his slaves, who also took the Cole name, in Cat Hollow.

The big problem, according to Mr. Henry, is contacting surviving relatives of the people buried in the plots. He said, “It need not necessarily be the nearest relative, but any person interested, as a friend in case there are no relatives.” In these cases the relatives or friends can specify the undertaker and the place of burial as long as the cemetery is in this or an adjoining county.

Unmarked graves that cannot be positively identified either by ground or map location by relatives or friends will be marked “unknown.” At a certain specified time all “unknowns” will be reburied in a separate plot in a new location, or will be attached to an existing cemetery. Careful records will be kept of old and new locations for possible use in the future.

Mr. Henry wishes to “spike” all rumors to the effect that unusual ly high wages will be paid and that workers at grave digging will be quarantined from families be cause of the “dangerous” nature of the work. He has answer- ed letters to this effect, also that the BWS does not hire the work done, but that this is the sole responsibility of the undertaker employed.

October 24, 1952

Dam 200 Feet High Will Be Valley Headstone

Joe Martin, writing in the New York Daily News, recently told among other events of interest to this valley, about the bodies to be removed. The story follows:

“Flooded, too, will be the earthen residences of the dead. Even now, in preparation for this, a macabre game of hide-and-seek is going on among the headstones.

“On smooth-grassed knolls above the towns and in churchyards bordering the river are 10 cemeteries housing an estimated 2,400 bodies. These must be transferred to cemeteries above the reservoir’s water line. But before the procession may begin, as many members as possible of this community of the dead must be identified. And that is why, on weekends when few visitors are about, you may see Donald Henry walking among the graves.

“Henry is 66, a tall man, wiry from years of tramping the Catskills on topographical surveys for New York city’s Board of Water Supply. To him has fallen the task of tracking down the next of kin of those in the burial grounds. They will be given a choice of having their dead reinterred in Delaware county or in any county adjoining it.

“‘The estimate of 2,400 was determined by surface evidence,’ Henry explained. ‘There are 302 monuments, 601 inscribed headstones, 84 unmarked graves and 612 slab or cobble headstones. Almost everyone off the 612 is unmarked—just a piece of native stone stuck in the earth to show that someone was buried there.’

“Of the total, 1,331 headstones bear inscriptions that tell enough to provide leads to nearest of kin. About 15 per cent of these relatives have already been found.

“But there are 1,041 stones that offer no clue at all. Either they were never inscribed or the years have erased their lettering. In order to trace the kin of those who lie beneath such stones, Henry has had to turn detective. He is roaming the valley, canvassing its dwellers for every scrap of information available concerning their ancestors.

“To expedite the search, The News, at the request of the Board of Water Supply, herewith publishes an appeal to all valley residents and former residents to communicate with the board if their ancestors are buried in the region.

“The dead whose kin cannot be found will be buried in plots paid for by New York city. In several instances, the dead were buried with rings, brooches and other ornaments that could lead to identification, and detailed descriptions of such articles are being kept on file by the board, just in case some relative turns up in the future. The file also gives the precise location of the original grave.

“When the water supply board has exhausted all efforts to trace kin, the city will advertise in two county newspapers for 30 days. The ads will inform the public that 60 days after the period of advertising concludes, the graves will be reopened and the bodies transferred. State law requires that only licensed funeral directors may disinter the bodies. Relatives are free to select the undertakers.

“The new graves of the unknown dead will be identified with small markers bearing numbers.

The other dead will be reburied under their original monuments or head stones.

“There are fads in graveyard inscriptions. In his peregrinations in the old cemeteries, Henry found that the most popular was simply: ‘Gone With the Angels.’

“Almost equally popular was the epitaph: ‘Look, Young Youth, as you pass by, As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so must you be. Prepare for death and follow me.’

This grim injunction has a special meaning now. It speaks, not merely to the valley’s living, but to the inanimate things that once were considered permanent. The valley’s headstone is already being shaped —a dam, 200 feet high.”

May 1, 1953

New York Prices for Body Removal Causing Concern

Apprehension is growing among plotowners and nearest of kin of persons buried in the ten cemeteries in the area of the Pepacton reservoir as the time for removal of bodies approaches. New York city has posted legal notices that removal of bodies from the eight cemeteries below Arena may begin today, May 1, and must be completed within 60 days.

However, plotowners are finding that they cannot have the work done at prices which the city has announced it will allow. Schedule of Prices

The schedule of prices which the city announces that it intends to pay are as follows:

Removal of remains, refilling grave, purchase of new lot and reinterment in new grave, $65; removal and resetting ordinary headstones or footstones, per stone $8; removing and resetting monuments containing more than one-quarter cubic yard, per cubic yard $70; for existing foundations under headstones, monuments and the like, per cubic foot $1.65; for removal of fences, copings, steps, etc., per linear foot $1.

One plotowner told The News that he had talked to two undertakers and neither is willing to remove a body for $65. For example, a single grave plot in the Margaretville cemetery costs $31.50; opening and closing of the grave costs $35. These two items alone are over the $65 limit set. Other expenses would be for the opening and closing of a grave in the old cemetery— New York law requires that the old grave be filled and leveled to its specifications; transporting the body to the chosen location and construction of new rough boxes in the new location. How About Unused Graves?

Another point not yet explained by the city is what is to be done about plots in the condemned cemeteries which contain unused graves. For example, an eight-grave lot may contain only four bodies in an old cemetery. The plotowner is giving up the space of four graves to the city, for which there is no announced compensation.

A monument concern told The News that it will cost more than the $70 per cubic yard and $8 per stone the city is allowing.

Plotowners of the Shavertown cemetery met last week to discuss the city’s prices. Many expressed anger at the situation. Another meeting of the owners will be held at Atkin’s store in Shavertown Tuesday evening. May 5, and further protest may be raised.

City will Re-Bury the Rest

Bodies unclaimed at the end of the 60-day period, or for whom there are no known surviving relatives or authoring persons, will be reburied by the city at a site still unannounced.

Cemeteries from which removed of bodies may begin today are the Cat Hollow burial ground, Edgett cemetery, Shaver burying ground, Sickler burying ground and Flynn burying ground in Colchester and the Shavertown cemetery, Union Grove cemetery and Weaver burying ground in Andes.

June 26, 1953

Many Bluestone Crypts Found In Valley Cemeteries

There is much of human interest in the work of removing 2,500 bodies from their graves in the section of this valley to be occupied by the Pepacton reservoir. The disinterment was begun about a week ago by four different undertakers, and about 150 graves have already been opened. Dates on the stones run back into the latter 1700’s. The reinterments are taking place in several cemeteries.

The East Branch valley, 50 and more years ago, was the home of a great bluestone industry. Quarries, like great woodchuck holes, jutted out from many a mountainside. The industry took part in the burial of the dead. Most interesting of the crypts found in the valley cemeteries are bluestone vaults. They were made from slabs of bluestone four inches thick, the edges mitered to fit perfectly. To be certain of an impervious enclosure the mitered edges were doped with hot lead. About 10 such vaults have already been unearthed in the midst of this bluestone industry. These vaults are as perfect as when put in the ground a half century ago. Many vaults of both concrete and steel are found. They are also in good condition. None has disintegrated.

The remains from the graves are reinterred according to the best funeral methods. Despite rumors to the contrary only one body is placed in a grave, the monuments are cleaned and set properly with concrete bases. In Margaretville the interments are in a new section of the cemetery, which will be graded when the work is done and will have perpetual care. Manufacturers of many kinds of cemetery equipment would find much of interest in this opening of 2,500 graves. Men who sell monuments could also leam much here.

The valley continues to be filled with false rumors regarding the work. One is that several petrified bodies have been found. This is not true.

Stones removed to the Margaretville cemetery are reminiscent of former days in the valley. Among the names are Shaver, Mann, Jenkins, Miner, Fletcher and others. There are gallons of Watershed history at nyshistoricnewspapers.org/middletown. Go see what you can dig up, but let the dear departed rest in peace!

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2016-05-11 digital edition