Michael J. Crumb
Des Moines, IA — A man stumbling upon a human jaw while out walking his dog was the first sign something was amiss. Then officials uncovered something more: more than 600 sets of remains, long ago buried and forgotten, on the site where luxury condos were supposed to be built.
The remains, found on a site overlooking the Mississippi River in Dubuque, have left the nearly $60 million condo plan in limbo, and the developer has sued the nuns who sold him the property. No one is exactly sure why — or how — no one knew the pre-Civil War remains were still there.
Whether the graves were lost because wooden markers deteriorated, stone tablets were reused or the sites were never marked in the first place, the excavation by the state’s archaeologist’s office has put the project on hold for two years with no start date in sight.
“We were told they have been cleaned out and that’s what we believed,” said developer A.J. Spiegel. “It was a true shock, a moment of, ‘What do we do now?'”
Spiegel and his company, Peosta, Iowa-based River Pointe Development LLC, have filed a lawsuit against the Sinsinawa Dominicans Inc., an order of nuns now based in southwest Wisconsin. Their attorney claims the religious order didn’t know there were any remains remaining. The diocese, which owned the land before the nuns, says it believed they had all been moved long ago.
The lawsuit, filed in Dubuque County District Court in May, claims the nuns did not disclose that bodies were still buried in the old Third Street Cemetery, also called Kelly’s Bluff Cemetery, when he bought the property in 2002 for $1.5 million.
Iowa law requires property owners to pay for excavating a site for human remains, and Spiegel is seeking compensation for those costs, the relocation of the remains and the lost use of the site. No dollar amount was listed in the lawsuit, which is scheduled for trial next August.
He said there are no immediate plans to develop the land, where he had hoped to build two 12-story towers.
“It’s very unmarketable because who would want that responsibility?” he asked. “So we will proceed to clean up the entire area for remains.”
The graveyard was the first Catholic cemetery in Dubuque and possibly the state, with burials from 1839 until it closed in 1856. Ownership was transferred from the Archdiocese of Dubuque to Sinsinawa Dominicans Inc. shortly after World War II.
Attorney Glenn Johnson, who represents Sinsinawa Dominicans, said the nuns did not know the site still contained human remains. As part of the land’s transfer, he said, the diocese was supposed to move the remains to another cemetery.
“There must have been some remains they could not locate,” Johnson said.
The Rev. Loras Otting, the diocese’s archivist, said church officials believed that the remains had been moved long ago. Otting, who has the original burial registry dating to Aug. 4, 1839, said many of those laid to rest there were poor, and no marker or stone was erected.
“Or they put up a wooden marker and those deteriorated, and if there were stone markers, they were taken years later for sidewalks,” he said.
The registry contains the names and ages of 819 people buried in the cemetery, but no map has been found showing where the graves were. Otting said the registry indicates the remains were moved in the late 1860s and buried in a common grave at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Key West, Iowa.
“Everyone thought at the time they got as many as they could,” he said.
River Pointe had begun moving soil and doing initial grading work on the property when a local attorney walking his golden retriever found a human jaw in June 2007.
“I was shocked the bones were that visible,” said Francis Henkels. “It was pretty clear. It wasn’t just a couple of bones, there were quite a few bones.
“I tend to look down a lot — I’m a fossil hunter and I tend to gaze down — and I saw something that just appeared to be out of place and it turned out to be human bones,” he said.
That led to an excavation by the state archaeologist’s office. Shirley Shermer, director of the state archaeologist’s burials program, said there were remains of at least 600 bodies at the site, mostly in unmarked graves.
“In these old, historic cemeteries, if it is closed and no longer used, some of the graves are moved,” she said.
“Sometimes, if the local belief is all the graves have been moved, more than likely only some of them have been moved.”
She said her staff is about three-quarters of the way through its analysis of the remains. But unless other documentation surfaces, such as a map identifying the graves, it’s unlikely the remains will ever be identified, Shermer said.
The remains, mostly fragments, will be reburied in a common burial vault at Mount Olivet Cemetery.