City: Human remains found at Henry Street bridge construction site in July

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Six months after human remains were discovered at the site of the future Henry Street Bridge, the city made the finding public in a press release Thursday.

The discovery occurred on July 18, according to the press release from the Indianapolis Department of Public Works. Just two months prior, several historians raised concerns that the $21.2 million bridge project would involve construction over a historic African American cemetery that they believe likely still contains hundreds of human remains.

During utility work-related excavation, archaeologists discovered a piece of human bone that has since been identified as the fourth metacarpal from an adult’s right hand, the release said. The city recently finalized a contract with Jeremy Wilson, the head of a bioarcheology lab at Indiana University Indianapolis, and he was given the remains Jan. 16.

“Now that we have finalized contracts for an Indiana University Indianapolis laboratory supervised by bioarchaeologists and forensic anthropology professionals, we can begin providing detailed updates regarding the process to our residents,” Indianapolis Department of Public Works Director Brandon Herget said in the release.

It’s not the only time remains have been found at the site, which was occupied by the city’s first public cemetery for most of the 1800s.

In December, developer Keystone Group discovered fragments of human remains at the Eleven Park construction site on the western edge of the White River. The proposed $1 billion development is expected to include a 20,000-seat Indy Eleven soccer stadium, at least five 10- to 20-story apartment buildings, a hotel and office space, and a 4,000-seat entertainment venue.

The site was most recently home to the Diamond Chain Co., which operated at the property for more than a century. Its massive plant at 402 Kentucky Ave., built in 1918, has been demolished.

Both Keystone and the city of Indianapolis are working with Zionsville-based archaeology consultant Weintraut & Associates Inc. and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources/Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, or IDNR/DHPA.

The remains found in July were found less than five feet into the ground, but appeared to be surrounded by newer, rather than historic soil. There wasn’t further evidence of human remains, the release said.

Two days after that discovery, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Historic Preservation & Archaeology and Indianapolis Department of Public Works were contacted. A deputy with the Marion County Coroner’s Office then arranged a site visit and cleared the site upon learning that the bone had been recovered.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers was also contacted, per the stipulations of the memorandum of agreement signed for the Henry Street Bridge project.

“The Department of Public Works has made the commitment to go above and beyond what is required by state law regarding accidental discoveries found during construction of the Henry Street Bridge,” Herget said in the release “By working with the community, we have made significant changes to both our construction practices and how we will report our findings to the community so that the complex story of this site will not be lost to history.”

Since May, Deputy Mayor Judith Thomas has convened with a community advisory group made up of local historians, including Leon Bates and Eunice Trotter, vocal critics of the initial plan. In an interview with IBJ, Bates  said he regretted that the city’s announcement of the findings came months after the discovery, but said the level of transparency is higher than what private developer Keystone has committed to.

In the release, he said the discoveries of human remains “are exactly what some members of the city’s [Community Advisory Group] have expected, and there is every reason at this point to expect more remains to be uncovered before the projects are completed. It is my hope that Keystone Group will join with DPW, CAG and the community in being open and forthcoming with discoveries on their projects at the old Greenlawn Cemetery site.”

A call to Keystone Group communications director Alexandra Miller was not immediately returned Thursday.

The city is currently in the process of acquiring the right-of-way from 402 Kentucky Ave LLC for the bridge that will include an extension of the Cultural Trail and connect downtown to the White River’s western edge.

Both project sites have stirred controversy. A portion of the property served as the city’s first public burial grounds, starting in 1821, with that land being named Greenlawn Cemetery in 1860, according to records from the Indiana Historical Society and research by DeeDee Davis, a digital scholarship services specialist at IUPUI’s Herron Art Library. The remains of thousands of Black residents were buried at part of Greenlawn, also known as the City Cemetery and Union Cemetery.

The cemetery, which eventually encompassed most of the nearly 18-acre site, included an area set aside for Confederate soldiers who died at the Indianapolis prisoner of war camp, with a monument erected in 1909 to honor those soldiers. (It was later moved to Garfield Park.)

While most of the  graves were moved to the Crown Hill and Holy Cross cemeteries by the early 1900s, not all of them made it out before the site was sold for redevelopment in 1914—first as a baseball stadium for the short-lived Indianapolis Hoosiers of the Federal League and three years later as the manufacturing facility.

The Confederate soldiers’ remains were moved in 1931, when a Crown Hill plot was dedicated for that purpose.

But records of other remaining graves had slipped through the cracks. In fact, multiple graves were uncovered at the site over the years, often during expansion or remodeling by Diamond Chain. The most recent discovery was in 1999, when two graves were unearthed as part of an effort to accommodate new machinery by lowering part of the facility’s floor.

Some historians have called for a full archaeological dig of the site, while parties representing both the Keystone Group development and the Henry Street Bridge project decided on a plan that includes halting construction when remains are identified rather than searching for remains first.

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