March 30, 2017

Skeleton Park earns its name

City continues plan to revitalize McBurney Park while maintaining history of former cemetery

Exhumation of the cemetery in McBurney Park was abandoned in 1893 after the community learned that the buried bodies weren’t fully decomposed.
Exhumation of the cemetery in McBurney Park was abandoned in 1893 after the community learned that the buried bodies weren’t fully decomposed.
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City officials are working on a long-term project to ensure the cemetery beneath McBurney Park stays underground.

In May, Alec Ross found a decrepit headstone near the park’s baseball diamond.

The former co-ordinator of the McBurney Park Neighbourhood Association was playing catch with his son when he spotted the gravestone of Mary McLeod — a 27-year-old Kingston resident who died in 1834.

McBurney Park, better known as Skeleton Park, started as the Upper Burial Ground in 1819.

“Seeing the stone revealed just kind of made history very real,” Ross said. “I’ve seen other stones in the park, and even some bones during construction years ago.

“You’ve heard about these things before, but actually seeing one and seeing a name on the stone ... made me very protective.”

Ross reburied the headstone himself.

“It kept on getting uncovered because kids started finding it,” he said, adding that community members took turns ensuring the headstone remained covered over the summer.

Ross said they affectionately referred to the headstone as Mary.

“[It was] like she was a friend,” he said. “We just wanted to protect [the stone] from being wrecked.”

If a resident finds a headstone, they’re asked to call the City of Kingston’s customer service line. Public Works and an archaeologist are sent to conceal the marker with soil and turf.

This process is governed by Section 68 of the Cemetery Act of Ontario, which reads, “No person shall disturb or order the disturbance of a burial site or artifacts associated with human remains except on instruction by ... the coroner or pursuant to a site disposition agreement.”

According to city officials, when maintenance workers came later in the summer to investigate Ross’ find, the headstone was no longer visible.

The cemetery was Kingston’s primary burial ground until 1850, when Cataraqui Cemetery was built.

According to heritage consultant Carl Bray, there’s uncertainty about how many people are buried under the park.

“There would probably be several thousand buried there, but no one will probably ever know,” he said, blaming a lack of formal record-keeping.

Bray is the founder of Bray Heritage, a consulting firm that works with Kingston’s heritage group to manage historic sites in the city’s urban areas.

Bray Heritage drafted the McBurney Park Landscape Renewal Plan in 2004. The study led to a 74-page document review of Skeleton Park’s history, current purpose and future.

The city commissioned the study with hopes of improving the park’s conditions.

Part of the project was to conduct archaeological investigations on the site.

“Basically the graves are unmarked,” Bray said. “Archaeological investigations have shown that the graves are often multiple graves — four or five [bodies] stacked on top of each other.”

The cemetery was closed in 1864 after reaching capacity. After the closure, there was no maintenance on the site and the area fell into disrepair. Livestock grazed on the grounds and locals vandalized gravestones.

According to Bray, there were rumours of grave-robbing. He said Queen’s medical students were often accused.

In the late 1880s, a growing residential area surrounding the old cemetery pressured the city into action. Officials decided to build a park on top of the cemetery.

“The various denominations [who had buried their dead on the grounds] started removing bodies but it became a very futile process,” Bray said, adding that exhumation was a grotesque process.

“Many of the bodies hadn’t decomposed.”

Kingston has shallow soil with a layer of bedrock beneath it, Bray said, so bodies were buried closer to the surface because of it.

The ground’s high level of water retention also prevented bodies from decaying properly.

Cholera, diphtheria and typhus were rampant in the early 1800s and the diseases are the suspected cause of death for many buried in Skeleton Park.

Community members feared the viruses were contagious when the bodies were dug up.

They also didn’t want to disturb the graves, Bray said.

“[The city] realized at the time that there was no way they could properly reinter the bodies,” he said. “They would essentially just have to leave it as a mass grave.”

That mass grave is now the base of Skeleton Park.

“Gravestones will work their way to the surface,” Bray said, adding that two unreadable gravestones will often emerge on the west side of the park during spring thaw.

Rumours about the park have become a part of the neighbourhood folklore, he said.

“There are pretty apocryphal stories in the north end about people finding bones popping up through the surface,” Bray said.

The Whig Standard reported in 1992 that a femur bone was found beneath Alma Street. Following the Landscape Renewal Plan in 2004, an archaeological investigation was commissioned to prepare for construction around McBurney Park.

According to the resulting report, “these investigations located the former cemetery boundaries as being larger than the current Park boundary and, consequently, identified a number of burials under Alma Street.”

In 2007, Alma Street was converted into a one-lane road to accommodate the remains beneath it.

“[The road width was reduced] in order to dignify the remains that were underneath there,” Bray said.

“It’s kind of a sad reflection of the morals and the ethics of the time, that people didn’t really care for the cemetery the way they should have.”

Kristine Hebert is the Parks and Open Space Planning Co-ordinator for the City of Kingston. She helped oversee the landscape renewal of Skeleton Park, beginning with the hiring of Bray Heritage to design a program that would marry the community’s hope for the park and reality of working with a gravesite.

The recommended design included repaving pathways through the park, installing new street lamps as well as expanding the basketball court and children’s playground.

According to Hebert, the city had approved the park’s phased budget plan. Noted on the renewal report, the overall cost for completion of Bray’s recommended design was $233,000.

Hebert said the figure is inaccurate.

“Because of the archaeological component [of the plan], we also have to add a lot of hidden costs of anything that goes in there,” she said, adding that the new cost is double the original estimate.

“Everything has to be hand-dug,” Hebert said. “You can’t go in with a backhoe. That adds hours and hours to the clearance of areas.”

The project is city-funded. Hebert said there are restrictions when working on a gravesite.

“The restrictions were that we couldn’t remove anything below the sod level unless we had an archaeologist on site,” she said. “When we do any work in the park, the archaeologists would have to go and clear the areas first.”

According to Hebert, the city’s long-term strategy is to continue to raise the ground elevation for park features as they’re erected, like trees or new pathways.

“Ultimately we’d like to raise the elevation of the grassed area,” she said. “To protect what’s underneath it and ... make it easier for people to maintain it.”

Hebert said that there is no official end-date for the plan.

The city receives about one call a year from the media or a community member that another grave marker has become visible.

Hebert said that in the last five years, she’s only heard of two cases where a gravestone is found.

“Typically, it’s when it’s very dry out,” she said. “The grass starts to dry faster where the markers are closer to the surface.”

“They go in and put dirt and more grass seed or sod around,” she said, “There is a concern.”

Hebert said that the park has not been easy to work with.

“Because of the buried artifacts, the skeletons and what, it’s very difficult to dig down and do anything,” she said, “... but certainly we know there is a process and we know how to deal with it now.”

— With files from Terra-Ann Arnone

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