Q. Are there any open cemeteries in East St. Louis?
— Kathryn Kessler, of Collinsville
A. No, and the reason is simple: Since 1912, cemeteries in the city have been outlawed, according to Barbara Jacobus, now of Belleville but whose family has East St. Louis roots.
That may surprise some, but if you’ve ever been to New Orleans, you know why. Because of the area’s swamplike character, Big Easy residents quickly found that their dead relatives and friends rested anything but easy. Combined with the frequent flooding, the soil conditions wouldn’t let them stay buried.
As a result, the deceased were buried above ground in elaborate stone crypts and mausoleums. Over time, they have become known as Cities of the Dead with their decorative artwork embellishing the tombs. Now they are must-see tourist attractions.
Founded in 1820, East St. Louis faced the same dilemma. According to the 1881 history of St. Clair County, residents started burying their dead near where they lived, which, at that time, was understandably near the river. It took the flood of 1844 to force them to look for other digs.
“Many a ghastly skeleton, by that flood, was washed from its resting place to meet the gaze, perhaps, of the friends that had but a short time ago followed it to its lonely abode,” according to the section on East St. Louis cemeteries
To prevent such natural exhumations in the future, residents next chose to use an old Indian mound between what once was Collinsville Avenue and Fourth Street at the foot of Ohio Avenue.
“The mound was about 400 feet in diameter at the base and 40 feet in altitude,” the 1881 history stated. “At that time (1844) and for years afterward it, was covered mostly with heavy oak timber.”
But this, too, was only a temporary answer, according to the memories of a Mrs. M.J. Walsh in the Feb. 21, 1921, issue of the East St. Louis Journal.
“The city limits ended at Illinois and Collinsville avenues,” she said. “Where Schleuter’s drugstore now stands was the city cemetery. It was quite a mound, but was later (1871-1872) taken down, the dirt being used to fill up the grade for the east approach to the Eads Bridge (which opened in 1874).”
Again, residents were subjected to grim reminders of what that centuries-old mound had concealed.
“For months, a grinning skull might have been seen peering from the fresh-cut bank of the mound at the passerby, and so close to the street that the hand of the pedestrian could touch it as he passed,” the 1881 history noted.
Still, residents were determined to find hallowed ground for the deceased. According to a 1908 East St. Louis Journal article, there had been what was called City Cemetery at 15th and Lake.
“In it were buried the English adventurers and pioneers who died when the surrounding country was a wilderness infested with Indians,” the article stated.
But that cemetery, too, had been long abandoned by the time the story appeared. Then, residents apparently hoped a westward move away from the river might be the answer to their problems. According to Jacobus, St. Henry’s Church in East St. Louis started a Catholic cemetery at 2900 State St. while a Protestant burial ground was established four blocks farther east.
But those hopes turned out to be like whistling past the graveyard. By 1907, the St. Henry’s cemetery, which reportedly was established in 1870, was abandoned in favor of the newer Holy Cross Cemetery in of Fairview Heights. The final straw came in 1912 when East St. Louis passed an ordinance banning cemeteries in the city, Jacobus said.
It was necessary for peace of mind, but it still could pose a hardship for families who found themselves grieving a deceased loved one and having to make a long, difficult trek to a cemetery miles away.
“I know my grandfather passed away in March 1913 and the weather was so bad,” Jacobus said. “It was icy, and they had to try to get him from his home, because they had the wake in their home, and then get up Edgemont Hill into the cemetery, which was really a chore. We forget how easy our lives are today.”
Slowly, bodies were moved from the St. Henry’s cemetery to Holy Cross and Mount Carmel. Then, in July 1925, East St. Louis passed an ordinance to have the cemetery removed, and Holy Cross agreed to pay to dig up the few bodies that remained. At the time, city Commissioner of Health John T. Connors (pro tennis star Jimmy’s grandfather) speculated the site might be turned into a playground, but it eventually became home to the National Guard Armory.
Those who claimed the bodies of their loved ones at the protestant cemetery had them reburied at Mount Hope in Belleville, Jacobus said. Today the location is the site of Clark Junior High School. Tombstones from the old city cemetery were used to line the lagoon in Jones Park, according to Bill Nunes, who has written numerous books on East St. Louis history.
Now, the closest thing you’ll find to a burial ground in East St. Louis is the old St. Philip Parish cemetery on Church Lane just west of Illinois 157.
According to the U.S. Golf Association, what is the maximum allowable height of a golf tee?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: Because of human encroachment, the bird populations on and around Pelican Island on Florida’s east coast were already under pressure in the mid-1800s. Many exotic birds were being killed simply for their feathers, which reportedly were worth more than their weight in gold when used as plumes for women’s hats of the day.
Eventually, Frank Chapman, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and fellow naturalist William Dutcher took their concerns directly to President Theodore Roosevelt at his home in New York. A noted conservationist, Roosevelt on March 14, 1903, signed an executive order establishing the 5,376-acre Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the first such refuge in the country.