City likely to require test to answer burial puzzle at Ninth and New Hampshire
Some think victims of Quantrill’s Raid may have been buried at site
A Lawrence mystery that dates back to at least 1903 is likely to get solved by a 21st century hotel project in downtown Lawrence.
City officials confirmed they are likely to require the developers of a proposed hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire streets to conduct test excavations to determine whether victims of Quantrill’s Raid are buried at the site.
“We have not lost track of this issue,” said Scott McCullough, the city’s director of planning. “Our plan is to try to get it mediated with the property owners and get some test sites dug before construction begins.”
Several opponents of the proposed hotel project had argued to city officials that the site may well be an unmarked burial ground for several black soldiers who were killed in Quantrill’s Raid. A 1903 master’s thesis by a Kansas University student contends the site was a burial ground for victims of the raid, but historians haven’t been able to find any other corroboration for the claim.
The city’s position that test excavations should be done comes after the Journal-World reported on Wednesday that Kansas’ state archeologist had asked for test excavations on the site.
State Archeologist Robert Hoard sent a letter to City Manager David Corliss in March that said he wanted to discuss the possibility of test excavations occurring on the site before any permits are approved for development of the site.
Those tests did not happen, nor did city officials notify the city’s Historic Resources Commission that the state archeologist had an interest in testing the site. The city’s Historic Resources Commission in late April had a hearing to determine whether the multistory hotel project was appropriate for the area.
A few neighbors of the project mentioned the grave site issue, but McCullough said he does not believe staff members ever alerted the commission that the state archeologist had requested test excavations to occur before development permits were issued.
McCullough said that’s because his office read the letter to mean that the test excavations only needed to be done before a building permit or site plan was issued for the project. Now that the hotel has won its necessary approvals from the City Commission, the project is moving into the building permit and site planning stage.
A spokesman for the project’s development group — which is led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor — said the city hadn’t yet spoken with the group about doing the test excavations.
“The problem is that you have to pay the archeologist to do all this,” Fleming said. “It won’t be free, and we’re going to excavate the entire site anyway. I guarantee you we’re going to be digging way below six feet.”
But Fleming said he was open to having discussions with the city about the issue.
A neighbor who had originally raised the issue said she wasn’t aware the state’s archeologist had formally requested test excavations. But she said she’s hopeful the tests will now be done. She said having the tests done before construction digging begins would be beneficial.
“In archeology, context is everything,” K.T. Walsh, an East Lawrence neighbor who had raised the issue, said. “How the bones lay, their exact location all can help you piece together a story.”
Hoard, who was out of the office this week and unavailable for comment, also indicated in his letter that a pre-construction excavation would be preferable.
“If burials are present in the lot and disturbed during construction, it would be an unfortunate situation because of the social and historical importance of the burials,” Hoard wrote.
If remains are found on the site, there are state laws that dictate how the bodies must be treated or removed. The grave site issue, however, is not the type of issue that would stop the hotel project from moving forward. Even opponents of the project concede that point.
“It is not about stopping the project It is about our Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, about our Civil War history, and about telling our story,” said Walsh, who previously had spoken against the hotel project. “This could be particularly important in helping understand the long-ignored history of black soldiers who fought in the Civil War.”
Or, Walsh said, it could just be an Al Capone’s safe type of incident, for those who remember Geraldo Rivera’s anti-climatic safe opening.
“I don’t know that there are bones there,” Walsh said.
But the 1903 master’s thesis by Lizzie Goodnight raises the question. Some well-documented history also raises the possibility. It is known that an encampment of soldiers were stationed across the street from the Ninth and New Hampshire Street lot.
The story goes that black soldiers were buried in an open trench that was part of construction of the St. Luke AME Church. The letter from the state’s archeologist said property records confirm St. Luke AME bought the lot just 10 days before Quantrill’s raid, so it is conceivable an open trench existed on the property at the time of the raid.
The church following the raid, for reasons not entirely understood, then stopped construction of the church and began work at 900 New York. Neighbors contend that historic property maps show that the site of the church construction has never been built on, and thus has never been excavated since the raid.
Fleming said he thinks it is unlikely that graves are on the site, given that no other historical researcher since 1903 has found evidence of it. But he said construction crews will be instructed to be on the lookout. The hotel project, which is expected to begin work before the end of the year, will excavate the entire site to make way for an underground parking garage.
“We’ll either confirm or deny, that’s for sure,” Fleming said. “It won’t be a mystery for much longer.”