Cathedral District: The Bodies in Billy Goat Hill

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

They buried the bodies in the 1850s, but nobody knew they were here.

A work crew from the Jacksonville Electric Authority, installing a manhole in January 2001, finds a human skull in the middle of downtown. Two days later, a crew digging a trench for a water main finds three more skulls. Six days later, the same crew turns up another skull. Nobody knew the skulls were here in the ground beneath their driving their cars and walking and worshipping in nearby St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral, still the grandest religious structure in the city.

Archaeologists have come to the center of the city to brush off skulls and put bones into plastic bags and boxes and sift through soil. No records exist to say to whom these skeletons belonged. No markers indicate their names, their dates of birth and death, their lives, their accomplishments, or anything at all about them except that they lived and died and here are their bones. The living walk around with their skeletons buried within them, but the rising of anonymous skeletons from this ground intended for townhome development haunts the workers and nearby residents with the ultimate anonymity of human life.

St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral sits atop Billy Goat Hill, ironic convergence, Dionysian animal / cathedral, one of the loveliest buildings in all the city. Construction of the cathedral ended in 1906 on the foundation of the former Episcopal church building. Its square bell tower, adorned with open-mouthed gargoyles, eagles, and Celtic crosses, rises over the cruciform church structure. The church itself, however, precedes the cathedral, the building.

Episcopal services began in 1829, three years before the city was incorporated, and the parish was incorporated in 1834. In 1842, the church was granted the zenith of Billy Goat Hill, not much of a hill, as hills go, but the highest ground within the city limits at the time. The church bought the rest of the square. When the Civil War came, Union soldiers burned the church to the ground. The church came together in temporary structures, a residential district grew up around it, and the city granted the church the anomaly of remaining and building up from the middle of the street. As most central cities, Jacksonville grew on a grid of streets, but St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral planted its own block, its own signature space, between Newnan and Liberty Streets, interrupting Market Street. By the time the current cathedral was finished, the church was the apex of the residential district surrounding it, its own block, its own region, defining its locality. Billy Goat Hill crested the Cathedral District. The Cathedral District reclaimed Billy Goat Hill.

Now, city officials say a cemetery did exist here once, founded sometime between the first Episcopal services in the city in 1829 and St. John’s Episcopal’s consideration of purchasing the remainder of Billy Goat Hill. According to city records, no cemetery should remain here. City records show the church relocated the cemetery in 1859, though its relocation site is less than clear. The city’s historic preservation planners say that perhaps unmarked graves were overlooked during the 1859 relocation, some coffins abandoned in the ground here.

The buried cemetery on Billy Goat Hill precedes even the oldest acknowledged city cemetery, established by Charles Willey in 1852, but electric authority workers have been digging the two-acre site so that St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral might jumpstart their benevolent ambition of developing downtown housing in this city-without-a-city called Jacksonville, a townhome project called Parks at the Cathedral.

Paul Krutco, senior director of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission and director of the Downtown Development Authority, says that when you redevelop the older part of a city, these are the kinds of things that can happen. Edgar Allan Poe’s tell-tale hearts and black cats.

Once there was a cemetery on Billy Goat Hill, but the cemetery was moved in 1859. At that time, the city claimed about 2,000 residents. The bodies interred here were the bodies of the beginners. And they have no names. No identification. In the beginning of the city, they lived. Not only are they nameless. Not only is the living of their lives obliterated. But they were not even disinterred. Not only did a city leave them behind. A cemetery left them behind. In Billy Goat Hill.