Thursday, February 12, 2009

Burying Ground Yields a Secret

Tourists Misstep Reveals Unknown Granary Crypt

Granary Burying Ground in downtown BostonErik Ewers of Swanzey, N.H., and Steve Gagnon of Cotuit talk about the Granary Burying Ground in downtown Boston. (By John Ellement, Globe Staff)

The grassy earth held strong for almost 300 years, withstanding the footsteps of the millions of tourists who have traipsed through the Granary Burying Ground and wandered off the footpaths for a closer look at the weathered headstones of historic figures.

It held strong, that is, until the last day of January, when a woman on a self-guided tour of the hallowed cemetery in downtown Boston took a fateful step. The ground gave way, and the woman fell hip-deep into a hidden granite stairwell leading down into an unmarked brick crypt.

The woman, who was not injured, accidentally discovered a long-forgotten entrance to a tomb in the city's most famous graveyard, less than 10 yards from the stone marking the resting place of Paul Revere. It served as a reminder that in Boston, the nation's revolutionary roots are literally underfoot.

"Somebody put weight in just the right place, like the straw that broke the camel's back," said Kelly Thomas, who leads the city's Historic Burying Grounds Initiative.

The woman's foot did not crash into a coffin or even come close to coming in contact with any bones in the hole, which opened up to be about 3 feet deep and 18 inches across.

She fell into a stairway that leads into the tomb like a basement bulkhead. The 8-by-12-foot brick crypt remains intact and structurally sound, Thomas said. The stairs leading to it had been covered by a slate slab that appears to have broken some time ago, allowing dirt to pile on the upper steps. The soil slowly weakened, Thomas said, and finally gave way under the woman's weight.

"Things fail. Mountains become dust," Thomas said. "That slate slab deteriorated."

The burying ground has increasingly become a must-see for visitors to Boston because of the number of historic figures interred there, including Declaration of Independence signers Samuel Adams and John Hancock, as well as the five victims of the Boston Massacre, said Sam Jones of The Freedom Trail Foundation.

"The graveyard is not designed to put up with the abuse it gets from the visitation it receives," said Jones, adding that private donations are needed for cemetery upkeep as the city wrestles with a budget shortfall.

The cemetery is home to an estimated 5,000 remains in a jumble of graves, tombs, and monuments, making it hard to determine who is buried in the crypt the woman breached.

Records at the Massachusetts Historical Society indicate that it could possibly be the grave of Jono. Armitage, who appears to have died in 1738. Jonathan Armitage was a Boston selectman in 1732 and 1733, city records show, and Captain Jonathan Armitage served on The Committee of Fortification in 1733.

The identity of the tourist who put her foot into history, however, will remain a mystery. The city refused to release her name, citing privacy concerns.

The hole has been temporarily covered with a sheet of plywood and a slab of modern white concrete and set off by four bright orange traffic cones at each corner. Structural engineers will examine the crypt, and it will probably be resealed with a slab of reinforced concrete and reburied.

There is no timeline for repairs, and the Tremont Street cemetery remains open, although heavy ice on the walkways kept the gates locked yesterday. That left Erik Ewers disappointed as he stood looking in through the black metal fence.

"You look at these tombstones, and each tombstone represents an individual life, existence, a career, a family history," said Ewers, a film editor for documentarian Ken Burns who tried to visit the site yesterday. "For me, graveyards are like a thousand untold stories."

Craters and other hazards from crumbling tombs are not uncommon in the city's 16 old burying grounds, which date to the 1630s and have long been punished by shifting soil, traffic vibrations, freezes, and thaws.

The techniques used to fix the problems can be as old as the cemeteries. Heavy machinery cannot be lugged onto the fragile earth, so excavating must be done with shovels. That means frozen ground can delay repairs.

Contractors who specialize in historic masonry do their best to shore up the structures from the outside so they do not disturb the graves.

"You end up really caring for the people," Thomas said. "It's really strange. You don't know them, they've been dead for hundreds of years, but still."

David Butler of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

***The above report was taken from the Boston Globe. You can watch a short video on this subject at the link below.- cbh

No comments: