The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) today hosted a memorial service to honor the lives of 71 men, women and children who were re-interred last year at State Institution Cemetery No. 2 on the Cranston/Warwick line. The event featured representation from numerous State and local agencies and organizations, both public and private, as well as some descendants of the deceased.
RIDOT arranged to have clergy members present to represent the faiths of the 71 individuals who were re-interred. Additional highlights included music, flowers on each gravestone, and a wreath laying ceremony by a national representative of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
“Ever since the remains of individuals were discovered, the Department has been committed to the task of seeing that they would be re-interred with dignity and honor and that their graves would not be lost,” RIDOT Director Michael P. Lewis said. “I am proud to stand here today to see the fulfillment of that pledge.”
Heavy rains and subsequent erosion exposed human remains in late June 2006 on the northern side of Route 37 in Cranston, behind the former Davol manufacturing building on Sockanosset Cross Road. It was determined that the remains, dating from the 1887 to 1917, were from the unmarked State Farm Cemetery.
When Route 37 was built in the early 1960s, State and Federal laws did not mandate the many approval and review processes RIDOT follows today prior to construction. With the property simply marked on most maps as state-owned, and the original wooden markers long deteriorated, the highway was inadvertently constructed over a portion of this cemetery.
To correct the drainage problems with the highway, RIDOT needed to construct a new drainage swale on the side of the highway, which required minor excavation. During this phase, the majority of the remains were discovered and removed with the assistance of an archeologist. RIDOT hired archeological firm PAL, Inc. of Pawtucket to carefully remove the remains, catalog them, identify them, and conduct genealogical research to identify lineal descendants.
The process of identifying the remains was difficult because of the lack of headstones; however RIDOT discovered lead coffin nameplates with nearly every grave shaft. The findings were evidence to the sparse lives these people lived and how they were laid to rest. Along with their skeletal remains, only glass buttons from the hospital gowns they were buried in, along with an occasional ring or hair comb, were the only items recovered.
In the late nineteenth century, the State Farm (later renamed as the Howard Complex) was overcrowded with poor sanitary conditions. Diseases, particularly tuberculosis, were rampant among the population with a high death rate. Records indicate that approximately one quarter of the persons who died at the State Farm were buried there. They were brought to the grave by a horse driven hearse, often by a prisoner from the then House of Corrections. Their graves were only occasionally adorned with buttercups and other wildflowers that happened to be growing in the cemetery. There were no mourners and no other family to claim them for reburial elsewhere such as a family plot or private cemetery.
RIDOT was able to locate detailed information on each person, including where they lived in State care, how they died, their nationalities and their religious preference. The Department has had correspondence from numerous individuals trying to ascertain if they were related or not to one of the re-interred individuals. Connections were made with actual descendants, some of whom were in attendance at today’s ceremony.
Working with the cities of Warwick and Cranston, the Pawtuxet River Authority, the R.I. Veterans Cemetery and numerous other agencies, RIDOT was able to rebury these people at the State Institution Cemetery No. 2 in June 2008. In April, RIDOT installed granite markers at each gravesite and later planted grass seed in preparation for a memorial ceremony to bring closure for these individuals and their families.
Lastly, RIDOT will be working to develop a vertical monument for the State Farm Cemetery so the original cemetery will be properly identified in perpetuity. The memorial is being designed by the award-winning firm of Bradford Associates, who last assisted RIDOT in developing the 1st Regiment Memorial at Patriots Park in Portsmouth.
Contact: Charles St. Martin, 401-222-1362 ext. 4007