Planners make effort to save forgotten graves from ruin

Officials hope to add cemeteries to list

May 27, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The lone gravestone stands in a heavily wooded corner of Columbia, marked with just the barest of details: name, rank, regiment.

A Civil War veteran's final resting place, it is hidden near the Middle Patuxent River on what was once a farm. Flowers and flags won't likely grace the grave tomorrow for Memorial Day because hardly anyone knows it exists, and even some who do can't find it.

County planners, who learned about the spare cemetery from a resident who discovered it while hiking, want to add it - and seven other burial grounds - to Howard's Grave Sites Inventory.

"It's to prevent any of these from being disturbed by builders or contractors - to preserve the history of the county," said George Beisser, a Department of Planning and Zoning official who oversees the inventory.

Time and neglect render some memorials enigmatic.

The soldier's grave in Columbia is nearly impossible to find without a guide, so wild is the land, and county officials no longer know the name of the resident who discovered it. But Stephen Bockmiller, a former planning and zoning employee who is working on a book about Civil War cemeteries, glimpsed it once last year.

He remembers a simple tombstone with the imprint of a two-scalloped shield and no inscription apart from the military identifiers. Next to the grave was a depression in the soil about the size of a casket - the suggestion that, perhaps, the veteran did not lie alone.

"He was a quartermaster sergeant in the 1st New York Cavalry," Bockmiller said. "I don't remember his name."

He trekked back Friday afternoon in the pouring rain, hoping to visit the grave again. But it proved elusive.

The land was once the soldier's farm, Bockmiller said. Now the Columbia Association owns it, according to county records, and the forest that covers every inch shields the grave from all but the most intrepid visitors.

Fallen trees block what semblance of a trail runs through the property. Sticker bushes grow like weeds. "There's no good way, is there?" Bockmiller asked.

Lightning finally put an end to any hope of finding the soldier.

People whose houses stand near the grave were surprised to hear about the piece of 19th-century history near their 20th-century subdivision.

"This is news to me," said Rebecca Copeland, a resident of the Kings Contrivance neighborhood. "We've lived here about six years; we've never come across it.

"Maybe I'll go out this weekend and see if I can find it."

Unnoticed cemeteries aren't unusual in Howard County because burials on farms were common in this once-rural community. Many sites are tiny, private affairs - nothing like the sprawling memorial parks of today - and many do not have a caretaker.

Kristin Kraske, president of the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites, lives a few miles from the soldier's grave and has heard about it, though she has never seen it. A one- or two-person cemetery is particularly small, but she knows of some scattered around the county that are not much larger.

"It's interesting that they're alone," she said. "You wonder why they're out in the middle of nowhere and no one else is out with them."

County Executive James N. Robey filed legislation last week asking the County Council to add this site and the seven others to the county's 7-year-old Grave Sites Inventory. Council members are expected to vote on the measure in July.

The inventory records the locations of all known cemeteries in Howard County - 181, not counting the proposed additions - as a measure of protection for them. State law prohibits anyone from disturbing graves, but their survival is threatened if their existence is a secret.

Other candidates for the inventory include a family cemetery on Rogers Avenue near the Ellicott City historic district and a single grave in the Woodstock area of Patapsco Valley State Park.

Kraske thinks the gesture is worthwhile. "I think it's important so we know that they're there, that they exist," she said. "To me, that's hallowed ground."

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