By Heather Willard, The Pueblo Chieftain
Three life-shattering events ranging from 1904-1921 that resulted in tremendous loss of life in Pueblo provide a backdrop for scientists seeking mass graves in Roselawn Cemetery.
Students from the Colorado School of Mines, led by archaeologist Michelle Slaughter, are searching the oldest portion of the cemetery for mass graves that may have served as the final resting places for many who died during the Great Flood of 1921, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and a train wreck in 1904.
The Roselawn Cemetery Board of Directors tasked the students with finding these potential, unmarked sites.
The project started last year, but due to COVID-19 and weather restrictions, survey work was delayed.
Slaughter and company returned to Roselawn on recently to continue the search.
All three events were devastating, and many of those who died during these events never received proper burial.
On June 5, 1921, a flood that extended across the entire Arkansas River Valley finally retreated, leaving thousands of acres of farm land inundated with flood waters and several more thousand destroyed entirely.
“The exact extent of losses to life and property will never be known,” stated a water-supply paper published by the Department of the Interior and United States Geological Survey in the year following the flood. It later states that officially, 78 bodies were recovered; however, “many bodies that were washed downstream were not recovered.”
In 1918, Pueblo was struck by the Spanish flu pandemic, and somewhere between 900-1,098 deaths were reported within the city. Over 600 lost their lives during October, November and December of 1918 alone.
On Aug. 8, 1904, the Missouri Pacific Flyer crashed due to a railroad-bridge failure over an arroyo (dry creek bed) near Eden with 125 passengers on-board. Over 100 of the passengers were reportedly killed during the initial reports as law enforcement sifted through the wreckage. Ultimately, around 97 individuals lost their lives to the tragedy.
During each of these events, historians believe local officials possibly turned to mass graves in order to handle the overwhelming loss of life, possibly within Roselawn’s limits.
This year, Slaughter, regional operations manager with Alpine Archaeological Consultants, Inc., and Colorado School of Mines student Sigourney Burch are hoping to find out if these graves are fact or legend.
Here’s why some believe mass grave sites exist at Roselawn
Roselawn Cemetery Board Director Lucille Corsentino explained that 24 individuals from the Eden Trainwreck are listed on manifests of the cemetery, and their burial locations are known. However, there were 97 reported fatalities.
She said some bodies would have either gone back to their homes or were buried elsewhere in Pueblo. Some of the graves found from the Eden tragedy are labelled “unmarked,” and listed in the “u’s” of the cemetery manifests.
However, the bigger question is whether there are deceased in Roselawn from the 1918 pandemic or 1921 flood.
Former Roselawn Executive Director Kevin McCarthy came from a long line of funeral workers.
McCarthy, who died in 2019, often said that his family spoke about the possibility that the cemetery served as possible mass grave sites.
“His grandfather had told him this story that in the 1921 Flood, there were (too many) people in the morgue — they were overrun,” Corsentino said. “So, what his grandfather told him, was they came out here and dug a trench and started putting the bodies in it. Back then, there was no air conditioner, and they’d run out of refrigeration units.”
She said that McCarthy always eyed the historic portion of the cemetery as a potential site for the mass grave, which could have been continued from the 1918 tragedy into the 1921 tragedy.
“It just didn’t stand to reason that there was that much vastness with no headstones,” she explained.
During 1918, the morgue was also overrun with dead Pueblo residents.
The Spanish flu pandemic had taken hold, known colloquially as the “Purple Death.” Corsentino said many individuals would start to show symptoms one morning and be dead by nightfall; or if they survived the initial onset, they would pass a few days later from complicating pneumonia.
“Their skin would turn purple from lack of oxygen and victims would die by drowning in their own body fluids,” Corsentino said. “Multiple deaths in a single family were very common. It definitely changed life in Pueblo.”
Corsentino said that one complicating factor in identifying the deceased is the lack of specific records from the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment. Some were likely lost in the 1921 flood, but the remaining records site only numbers of the dead and no specific names.
“It’s kind of a shot in the dark,” she said. “But in 17 years time, there were three great tragedies in Pueblo.”
Mines students search underground in a non-invasive manner
The team of Colorado School of Mines students scanned every inch of the field at Roselawn with the help of adjunct Mines professor and geophysicist Ryan North.
To scan under the soil, the team used a mobile ground penetrating radar (GPR). The unit sends a radar pulse into the ground, sending data that indicates any modulation in the density of the earth through a set depth.
Some items are easy to find, such as modern vaulted coffins. Older styles of coffins are also perceptible, but how the bodies were put into the mass graves is unknown.
“We were doing very targeted lines last time,” Slaughter explained. “Last October we used GPR and DC-resistivity, because we thought maybe the two would complement each other, and with the two we could maybe get a definitive answer, which we didn’t.”
She explained that the silt-laden soil was not conducive to the electrical method for searching, and the team is just using GPR now.
If the data definitively points toward a mass grave, there may not be any further movement on the project. Scanning the area from above-ground is relatively non-intrusive. Other more invasive methods, such as unearthing an area, have not been discussed as possibilities due to the level of complexity and respect that must be maintained.
However, if there is evidence of burials across the open space of the cemetery, the cemetery’s staff plans to create commemorative plaques acknowledging the tragedies that Pueblo weathered.
“They definitely want to acknowledge there are people here, and even though we don’t know who they were, they mattered to somebody and should be remembered,” Slaughter said.
Results may be inconclusive, but helpful
This is Slaughter’s second cemetery search. She last worked at the Russell Gulch Cemetery to map an area of the graveyard that was conspicuously empty of headstones.
“Again, you’re wondering, well why?” she said. “Is it just, that’s how it is, or were there people who couldn’t afford a memorial, a headstone of some sort, or had no family.”
She said the results were inconclusive, but that is common when searching for unmarked graves. Human bodies can decompose quickly when exposed to nature, Slaughter explained.
“If you take the GPR over a row of marked graves, these people are almost certainly all in caskets, and they take a long time to break down,” she said. “So, there’s something under the ground to see. If these people (in the field) were just wrapped in a shroud and put in the earth, then a hundred years later, there’s not much to see.”
North has worked with the U.S. Army and now also works with NecroSearch International, Inc., to locate lost, clandestine or anticipated graves.
He discussed how bodies can decompose and easily be lost in the soil.
“You’re like 70% water, right, so if they dig a hole and put you in the ground, it doesn’t take very long for you to become very similar to the soil,” he said. “Depending on the site, it can be six months or a year and then you’re no longer a very good target.”
He said that sometimes bodies leave very few anomalies in the soil for GPR to detect, even when a location is known.
“It depends on the condition of the body, what all they had on them when they were buried, and local geology and weather,” North said.
He explained that body farms are used to test decomposition rates and help scientists and law enforcement find bodies, both above-and-below ground.
A remembrance tree, or just a tree?
Another hopeful lead for the team is a dendrochronological expert who has been tasked with dating a tall, singular tree that sits in the center of the field. Also a lone deciduous amongst the cemetery’s conifers, the tree is thought to have perhaps been planted as a memorial for the individuals in the mass grave.
“So we’re wondering if it was planted deliberately to memorialize these people,” Slaughter said, noting that tree dating was not originally in their scope of work.
“They will take corings from the tree, and then date the tree. If it was planted in 1963, then it has no relevance. But if it was planted in 1922 or 1921, then it’s significant. But that was a portion of the project that happened organically, we didn’t plan on it.”
GPR readings around the tree show many anomalies, Corsentino said.
Burch, the Colorado Mines student helping the project, said she was happy to have been picked to work on the project, which she originally did not think she would have the chance.
“I’ve always had a passion for the more humanitarian aspects of geosearching,” she explained. “Michelle (Slaughter) said we had this project, and had been working on it a year ago with previous students, but it had been delayed due to COVID. So, it opened up for me to take over.”
Corsentino said Slaughter and Burch’s work will hopefully allow the legends to be laid to rest, and allow for the cemetery and community to honor the individuals lying beneath the ground.
The cemetery board aims to erect three commemorative memorials with information on each tragedy for the community. If all goes to schedule, the board will host a memorial for the flood victims, train and flu victims on June 3, 2021.
The event will mark 100 years since the flood.
Anyone with information that might pertain to the individuals thought to be buried in Roselawn Cemetery’s historic section can contact Roselawn’s office to help the team by calling 719-542-2934.
“I’m still hoping there are people in Pueblo that might know something about this cemetery, like their great-great-grandfather drowned in the flood,” Slaughter said.
“Anything that anyone might know — because you would just think with something like that more people would know, there would be records. It’s just this giant mystery.”