“The cemetery is a memorial and a record. It is not a mere field in which the dead are stowed away unknown; it is a touching and beautiful history, written in family burial photos, in mounded graves, in sculptured and inscribed monuments. It tells the story of the past- not of its institutions, or its wars, or its ideas, but of its individual lives, of its men and women and children, and of its household. It is silent, but eloquent; it is common, but it is unique. We find no such history elsewhere; there are no records in all the wide world in which we can discover so much that is suggestive, so much that is pathetic and impressive.” –Joseph Anderson
Autumn is here, and while we listen close for the things that go bump in the night, there is no better way to spend the bright hours of a crisp fall day than a stroll through a cemetery in the fresh October air. If you missed our Linden Grove Cemetery Tour in September, the cemetery is always open until five for a self-guided experience. While it holds great historical significance, Linden Grove is not the oldest cemetery in Covington. Few remember the town’s first graveyard: The Craig Street Burying Ground. Now an unassuming plot of land, anchored into the background by the 6th Street underpass and zipped shut by the old C&O Railroad Bridge approach, it was once the final resting place of those first to call Covington home. Let us then relate these distant memories, lest we forget something so dear to those who came before us.
Established in approximately 1815 with the creation of the town, the Craig Street Burying Ground was the first public cemetery in Covington. Records of its origins and dedication are scarce, but the first legal documentation of it dates to 1823, in a deed traced back to the Gano family. The deed defines the borders as “lines running at right angles with the South and West line of the land purchased of Thomas Kennedy”. Its boundaries were ill-defined until about 1876, in which a survey states that it faced on Craig Street between Willow (now Kentucky) Street on the North, and Bremen (now Pershing) street on the South.
Craig Street was the major burial ground for Covington until Linden Grove Cemetery was established in 1843. Surrounded on all sides by the sprawling city, it had no room for growth. While there is no exact date on the figure, most sources state that in the 1860s it was in noticeable disrepair, and there had been few to no burials for at least a decade. In 1868 it was decided by the Covington City Council that there was need for a new burial ground, in a place of solitude and beauty. A Special Committee was appointed by the City in 1871, to appraise the burial ground and propose a solution. One Mr. Leathers, a member of the committee, describes it as “overgrown with briars and weeds, almost impossible to walk through it, and where graves are marked by head stones, the names are becoming obliterated by time and dampness from the undergrowth that has taken possession of the graves; and in a word, your Committee would say that the Cemetery of the Pioneers of our City could not be placed in worse condition unless the miserable fence that surrounds the enclosure was thrown down and the hogs and cattle permitted to roam and root at pleasure”. The Committee hoped to make the area a park, or similar public area.
In June of 1872, the Covington Journal posted a public notice of the Council’s decision based on the survey’s findings. “To the Citizens of Covington…You are requested by order of Council to remove your bodies of your relatives from the Craig Street Burying Ground. Council, seeing the total neglect and wanton desecration in that place of the dead, have purchased a large and desirable lot in Highland Cemetery, which is to be dedicated to the Pioneers of Covington. All bodies remaining in the Craig Street Graveyard after the expiration of two months from the above date, will, with honor and respect, be removed by the City Council to the lot reserved for that purpose in Highland Cemetery”. Work began in the next month, and while family and friends took the remains of their loved ones, the majority of the remains were still interred. The excavation process drew crowds of fascinated bystanders. Most of the bodies were unidentifiable, due to time and a lack of a headstone. The majority what was exhumed amounted to blackened bones, which were carefully removed and put into a numbered box to be reinterred. By August, 317 bodies had been moved. Of those, 214 were reinterred in the Highland Cemetery devoted to the Pioneers of Covington. By December 1872, 1700 bodies had been removed from the burial ground, and most of them reinterred in Highland Cemetery. It was previously thought that no record of this transfer had been kept, but Highland Cemetery’s record books include entries on those exhumed and moved from the very beginning of the Craig Street project in carefully kept entries, many times including the names of the individuals, thought to be lost long ago.
In 1873, the levelling operation that accompanied the project graded the land down to street level, selling the soil of the hallowed ground for a total of $1,472.25. Accounts varied on the amount of remains still interred, but it was agreed that enough had been done that none would be displaced in the process. Those in charge of the project alleged that any graves remaining were five feet or more under street level, and would not be disturbed.
The very next year, a resolution was passed to suspend all work on Craig Street and let it remain a burial ground, on account of those still interred. Given the amount of time and money already spent on the project, it was allowed to continue. Later, in 1876, R.M and John S. Gano filed a case against the City of Covington to reclaim the land previously donated, and for $3,000 in damages. The suit was decided, originally, against the plaintiffs, on the grounds that the land had been initially donated as a burial ground, and had not, as of yet, ceased to be one. The Court of Appeals, however, found against the City, and later settled for the Gano heirs and third parties, appointing a surveyor who subdivided the land into lots. The lots were ultimately sold in July of 1883 for a total of $10,453.
After the litigations in 1874, work to exhume human remains came to a standstill. In 1877 it was said that 27 bodies still remained in the old burial ground, but were deemed at sufficient depth not to be disturbed. For a long time there was no mention of it, even after construction of the C&O Railroad Bridge approach began. While it is not legally documented that there were any disturbances of the dead after 1877, some residents from the Craig Street area have mentioned that caskets and remains were being “discovered” by construction as late as the 1920s.
“But cemeteries, too, are merely transitory in ageless time, and in their turn they, one by one, give way to a newer one, and eventually, like all aged and unused things, become abandoned and eventually obliterated. However, for the many generations in which they serve their solemn purpose, cemeteries call to the witness of the living the memory of the dead. So, the history of cemeteries is an integral part of the community in which they have existed. Truly they embody the last relics of a period in the life of that community, and they are peaceful, restful places that, so long as a vestige of their purpose remains, are hallowed havens of repose for the spirits of the living, as well as the bodies of the departed.” –Charles S. Adams
The Craig Street Burial Ground no longer exists, but its legend lingers. Though educated guesses have been given, there is no real way of knowing just how many people were buried there, let alone if all had been safely exhumed and reinterred. Many years have passed since the site itself has been touched by construction, and no remains have been reported for some time. But as October nights creep dark over Covington, and you find yourself in that quaint corner of Craig and Pershing by the railroad tracks, it could be thrilling to imagine what that place would have looked like long ago, and what of it might remain underfoot. With respect to all that have lain and may lie below….tread lightly.
Written by Stephanie Zach, Library Associate, Local History and Genealogy Department
Contact Stephanie @ Stephanie.Zach@kentonlibrary.org