by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012
They buried the bodies in the 1840s. Graves were moved. At some point. Other graves were left behind. Every now and then, when nobody remembers the they’re here, skeletons resurface. It happened in 1960. It happened in 2001.
A work crew from the Jacksonville Electric Authority, installing a manhole in January 2001, found a human skull in the middle of downtown. Two days later, a crew digging a trench for a water main found three more skulls. Six days later, the same crew turned up another skull. Nobody knew the skulls were here in the ground beneath their cars and their feet or as they worshipped in nearby St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, the grandest religious structure in the city.
Archaeologists came 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, anything at all except that they lived and died and here are their bones. The rising of anonymous skeletons from ground intended for a townhome development hit workers and nearby residents with the ultimate anonymity of human life.
St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral sits atop Billy Goat Hill, ironic convergence, Dionysian animal and cathedral. 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 organized 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 in and building up from the middle of the street.
As most central cities, Jacksonville grew on a grid, but St. John’s 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.
In 2001, city officials said a cemetery existed here once, founded sometime between the first Episcopal services in the city in 1829 and the church’s consideration of purchasing the remainder of the hill. Electric authority workers were digging the two-acre site so that St. John’s Episcopal might jumpstart downtown housing, a townhome project called Parks at the Cathedral. According to city records, no cemetery should remain. (Bad pun.) City records showed the church relocated the cemetery in 1859, though its relocation site seemed less than clear. The city’s historic preservation planners said that perhaps unmarked graves were overlooked during the relocation. The cemetery buried or lost in Billy Goat Hill precedes even the oldest acknowledged city cemetery, established by Charles Willey in 1852.
Paul Krutco, senior director of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission and director of the Downtown Development Authority, said 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.
And it’s happened here before. On October 28, 1960, the Associated Press reported, “Workmen digging under a street near Downtown Jacksonville have unearthed parts of three human skeletons. Elderly residents said a cemetery once was located in the area near St. Johns [sic] Episcopal Church.”
In his 1925 History of Jacksonville, Florida, T. Frederick Davis notes that the Episcopal Church in Jacksonville dates to before the city’s incorporation and just seven years after its founding. The church cornerstone was laid on Sunday, April 24, 1842. “In building the first church,” he writes, “every person who contributed a certain sum of money was given a deed to a pew in his own right.” After telling us whom the choir comprised, of what the communion service consisted, and how Mrs. A.M. Reed’s servant carried her melodeon on his shoulders, he says, “A burial plot was provided north of the church for members of the congregation, and the ashes of some of Jacksonville’s early residents still occupy the original graves, although most of the bodies were removed many years ago to the old city cemetery on East Union Street.”
Most of the bodies. Many years ago. You never know who might turn up next. And you won’t know who they are when they do. The living always stand on the dead, in unimaginable numbers, back through unfathomable depths of time.
Once there was a cemetery on Billy Goat Hill. When the cemetery moved, the city claimed about 2,000 residents. The bodies interred here were the bodies of the beginners. And those who remain 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.