It’s a quiet stretch of lawn that belies the intensity of events that made it that way.
It’s hard to put yourself there emotionally, 90 years later. But if it helps to relate, imagine how you felt this week with news of the 17 slaughtered without warning in Parkland. Then imagine 674 sisters, brothers, grandparents, toddlers, killed without warning by a force of nature and released from the hands of men, black body on body, into a West Palm Beach pit.
A sign marks the fenced-in resting place off Tamarind Avenue and 25th Street: “Hurricane of 1928 mass burial site,” it says. There’s a curving, tree-shaded walk, a bench here and there and a grassy field that served as a burial ground for paupers.
And now workers are about to lay train tracks across the northwest corner of that tract and along 25th Street. In advance of that work, city crews this month began digging trenches to replace old water and sewer mains.
What the hardhats may find is anybody’s guess. The street is known to lie atop bodies not contained by the official outline of the burial site. For that reason, the Florida Department of Transportation has hired an archaeologist to stand watch.
“We’re concerned about all of it, because they might find some remains where they’re digging now,” said Dorothy Hazard, whose husband, Robert, founded the Storm of ‘28 Memorial Park Coalition, a nonprofit honoring the memory of the hurricane victims. “They could very well come across bodies where they are digging, at 25th Court, 25th Street and all around in that area.”
Transportation officials see The Northwood Connection rail project as the way of the future.
At a time of increasing road traffic, the project aims to provide an alternative to highway commutes between West Palm and the county’s northeast. It will link the CSX tracks, which carry Tri-Rail passenger trains, to the FEC tracks several blocks to the east, a coast-hugging line. That will let Tri-Rail carry passengers as far north as Jupiter, instead of stopping in Mangonia Park.
FDOT’s “Archaeological Monitoring and Unanticipated Finds Plan” for the project acknowledges the presence of the mass grave and paupers field and directs that if human remains are unearthed, work in that area must stop immediately and an environmental specialist must block off the location and minimize further impacts.
If tests show the remains are less than 75 years old, they go to the medical examiner. If they’re 75 or older, FDOT has to report to the state’s Bureau of Archaeological Research, to coordinate with the city and figure out what to do.
“We are conducting construction as sensitively as possible and in a manner that is respectful of the area’s cultural and historic significance,” city spokeswoman Kathleen Walter said.
According to Kathryn O’Donnell Miyar, the bureau’s human remains investigator, no remains have been reported yet at the site, where the city began digging about a week ago.
The archaeologist hired by FDOT will oversee work by the city and the Florida East Coast Railways, which is contracting out the track work. The rail work will consist more of building up a track bed rather than digging, said Lynn Kelley, senior environmental specialist with FDOT.
The rail work should start in roughly six months, after the city utility work is done, and will take about a year to complete, Kelley said.
Dorothy Hazard notes that remains were found when 25th Street was built and that subsequent tests verified the nearby presence of others. The mass grave extends well beyond the fence erected to memorialize it, she said.
“Our viewpoint is, because there are remains there, if remains are found at this time, I’m sure there are quite a few people in the community who would like to see a ceremony given to the remains, and that the remains are re-interred, and that people in the community know where the remains are re-interred, and give us the opportunity to be there when they uncover and re-inter them,” she said.
“We’d also like some acknowledgment that they did find the remains and did re-inter them. Some kind of plaque could either be put near where they find the remains or in that area, so people will know there were remains in the street and they were properly taken care of and re-interred. …
“This is very important, not just to us but the community.”
City and FDOT officials met Tuesday with members of the Storm of ‘28 Coalition and the Northwood Hills Property Owners Association to update the residents on the project.
The meeting went well, but “Our concerns are still the same,” Hazard said. “They’re saying that there are laws out there protecting remains. But we just want the people in the community to be assured things are done in the way that they need to be done. We’re still holding ground as to what we have said. We’re praying they will follow through.”