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Your Underground Neighbors

Some Dunbar/Spring residents are discovering they have a grave problem

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The old trees that dominate Dunbar/Spring neighborhood once shaded rows of graves. Now, the trees break sidewalks with their sinuous roots and shade the houses of the living--and all too often, when the living residents dig through the roots and hard clay, they see dead people.

Dead bodies keep surfacing in the university-area neighborhood. Since 1949, at least nine graves have been unearthed inadvertently.

A man's skeleton was uncovered in 2005 when Deron Beal was digging a posthole. It all started when Beal found some small bones while repairing a mailbox a dog had knocked over. A few shovelfuls later, bigger bones appeared.

"I fought through the caliche, and about 12 to 18 inches down, a long bone popped up and waved. Of course, the wave was a rather papal gesture lacking any real hand movement, or hand, for that matter," Beal jokes.

He called 911, and was told by the police and a pathologist that the bones were probably just those of a big dog. But Beal had his doubts, so he dug further, following the apparent line of the spine.

"About two feet in, I poked through a cavity at the end of the spine. I felt with my finger since I couldn't see. I felt a row of flat, smooth, human teeth. I had stuck my finger up through the jawbone and was feeling around inside of a moldering skull's mouth cavity. That was a creepy feeling."

Beal called back the embarrassed police officers and pathologist. They roped off the street, and a University of Arizona team began a dig. They collected the remains for reburial by the appropriate cultural society.

Beal found out that the towering Italian cypress tree in his yard marked an entry gate to an old cemetery. The Dunbar/Spring neighborhood sits just southwest of Stone Avenue and Speedway Boulevard--and exactly on top of the Old Court Street Cemetery, which was bordered by Second Street and Main Street to the south and west. The cemetery had thousands of burials from 1875 until it was closed in 1909 and subsequently parceled off to developers, according to Homer Thiel, a project director for Desert Archaeology Inc. Thiel has excavated historic graves for the city, including the one Beal found.

When the cemetery was closed, only a small number of people who saw the notices in the newspapers were also able to afford reinterment for loved ones in new cemeteries. Burials within city limits were outlawed in 1909; Evergreen and Holy Hope cemeteries were then opened on what were the outskirts of Tucson on North Oracle Road. Thiel estimates thousands of occupied graves were left in Dunbar/Spring--and still lie under current homes and businesses.

Beal's story is tame compared to others. His neighbor was under his house fixing some pipes when the wet earth caved in on a rotted casket. As the story goes, the neighbor, flailing in the remains, jerked back in revulsion and knocked himself out on his floorboards. He woke up face to face with, what Beal terms, a "gruesome, not-so-living piece of our shared Tucson history."

No city or cemetery records exist to determine the exact numbers buried in the Old Court Street Cemetery, but Thiel says Catholic burials alone numbered 4,513, according to church records. There were probably twice that number between various fraternal orders, Protestants, Jewish burials and others.

One of the forgotten bodies belongs to "Pie" Allen, a famous Tucson mayor of the 1870s who got his nickname selling pies to the cavalry. While his headstone is at Evergreen Cemetery, his body is still somewhere in Dunbar/Spring, according to Thiel.

"If a former mayor was left behind, it is certainly possible less notable people were forgotten," Thiel says.

Thiel has found fewer than 100 gravestones in Evergreen, Holy Hope and other regional cemeteries that were taken from Old Court Street--and 54 of those are just the stones without the bodies.

"There are more than seven old burial grounds in the Tucson city limits," Thiel says. He estimates 10 to 15 historic graves have been officially discovered citywide each year. "I'm pretty sure people are finding human remains and either not knowing what they are or not bothering to report them, so who knows how many are actually dug up or washed out every year?"

The city doesn't want to repeat past mistakes.

"South from Dunbar/Spring at Stone and Alameda (Street) downtown, there was the old federal, or national, cemetery. For 20 years, it was Tucson's primary burial site for both the military and civilians before Old Court Street Cemetery. The new courthouse is going up right in the middle of it," Thiel says.

The Joint Courts Archaeological Project has put up a fence around the foundation dig, to protect the site from prying eyes for the duration of body retrieval, which is scheduled to last through the year. Archaeologists will systematically and carefully excavate the entire site, including more than 1,500 graves, for historical preservation. A clergyman was called in to bless the site at the onset of the dig. Recently, the archaeologists uncovered a pre-historic Indian pit house, circa 800 B.C. to 200 A.D.

If you should find remains while digging around in your own yard, call the police--after you catch your breath.

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