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Cemetery Dispute Mars Housing Plan

August 11, 1994|SUSAN WOODWARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Exactly what lies six feet under an old Civil War headquarters in Wilmington is being disputed, as plans to build affordable housing on the property move ahead.

Archeological studies have found nothing under the development area except dirt, marine shells, glass and the odd golf ball core or plastic gaming chip.

But historians who operate the local Drum Barracks Civil War Museum believe the planned 38-home development would be directly over the bodies of seven or more nameless Civil War soldiers.

Museum director Marge O'Brien and her assistant Marc Weiser said the soldiers are buried in a cemetery somewhere near McFarland Avenue and Denni Street. The roads mark the eastern boundary of the 5 1/2-acre site where Urban Redevelopment of America plans to start building next month. The company bought the land from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in December.

With no marked graves and only a rough 1872 map of the barracks to go by, O'Brien and Weiser admit that the location of the cemetery cannot be pinpointed. But they have uncovered the service records of 24 men who were buried in a barracks cemetery between 1862 and 1866.

In Compton, a memorial in the Woodlawn Cemetery has been erected to honor 17 unidentified men who were removed from a Wilmington fort cemetery in 1887.

O'Brien and Weiser are worried about the bodies of the other seven men, plus any more people who were buried in the area after the war.

"These men gave their lives f or this country. Don't they deserve more than being buried under housing?" O'Brien said.

But Gene Wilson, vice president of the development company, said no evidence of the cemetery was found by the Archaeological Resource Management Co. in Anaheim, which was hired in response to the concerns.

Archeologist Carol R. Demcak researched the history of the area, surveyed the site and dug four three-foot pits on the land in May and June. She concluded that no Civil War period artifacts or graves exist there.

The cemetery, she said, must be in another part of the old Drum Barracks compound. In that case, the cemetery may have been covered by houses or streets long ago.

O'Brien and Weiser said they are not convinced that Demcak's findings are conclusive.

"Only one of the four test pits is close to the site (where) we believe the bodies are buried," Weiser said. "And the bodies could easily be seven to eight feet down."

He said the museum is trying to solicit the help of an expert from Cal State Long Beach to do radar testing, which would detect any anomalies underground before the development proceeds.

"It's just too big a lot to come in and excavate the whole site, but if they don't come in and do ground radar, there's definitely going to be that question: Did they build over bodies?" Weiser said.

On the other hand, Demcak said radar testing will not work because overhead wires and a railway line through the center of the development site will create electrical fields that will interfere with radar.

"We could have asked for half of Wilmington to be dug up, but it did not seem appropriate, based on the fact that we couldn't determine exactly where the cemetery was located," Demcak said. "I am convinced that there is no historic cemetery in that (development) area."

The Wilmington Drum Barracks were the U.S. Army Headquarters for Southern California and Arizona from 1861-71, providing both a strong military presence for the Union and a supply depot during the war.

Historical records indicate about 7,000 soldiers passed through the barracks.

Cavalryman Edward Welch, who the records say "died of disease" at the barracks on Jan. 11, 1866, was one of more than 100 soldiers buried at two cemeteries in Wilmington.

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Most were buried in an old cemetery at Fries Avenue and Ross Place. A historical report by Walter Edwin Holstein in 1931 said human bones from some of those bodies were discovered during excavation for a sewer line.

O'Brien and Weiser said they hope the same type of discovery is not made again.

"People are superstitious about these things," Weiser said. "I personally wouldn't buy a home if I knew there had been a cemetery there."

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