Graves of some who died at RI institutions lie under highway

Many of the Rhode Island drivers who drive on Rhode Island's highways to get to work each day don't realize they might be passing by the graves of people who died at state institutions in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

Graves of some who died at RI institutions lie under highway

Many of the Rhode Island drivers who drive on Rhode Island's highways to get to work each day don't realize they might be passing by the graves of people who died at state institutions in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

The location of the graves beneath the highway in Cranston, Rhode Island, was publicized in a WPRI-TV story Monday about a woman searching for the gravesite for her great-great-grandfather.

Maria da Graca spent more than a decade searching for his grave. At one time, she feared he might be under the highway.

Route 37 was constructed between 1963 and 1969 on part of State Farm Cemetery #1. There are approximately 1,200 gravesites that hold 3,000 people. Charles St. Martin, spokesperson for Rhode Island Department of Transportation, stated that a thousand of these graves should be moved.

He wrote Tuesday in an email, "It was at a time when regulations are far more lax than now." This would never happen right now.

St. Martin stated that the planning was done prior to 1966's federal legislation to protect historic and archaelogical sites. Therefore, historical or environmental surveys were not conducted. He also said that there weren't any grave markers at the time the highway was built, as the original wooden stakes used to mark graves had lost their value.

Some grave markers were also destroyed by fire. According to the Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Commission, the cemetery was located near railroad tracks. The steam engines ignited sparks and set fires which consumed the markers. The cemetery became overgrown and began to deteriorate.

According to the commission, many coffins were damaged by rain in 2006 and had to be removed.

St. Martin stated that this was when transportation officials realized the graves were present. It is not aware of any state highways built over cemeteries. It doesn't plan to move graves under Route 37.

He wrote that he was most sympathetic to the family of all those who were buried in unmarked graves long ago, but that this was the extent of his knowledge and records.

The department has not received any inquiries from the relatives of those who have lost loved ones. The majority of people who died in state institutions for the poor and people with mental illnesses were buried by their family members elsewhere.

Antonio Coelho was likely to be buried in #3 institution cemetery when Da Graca died in 1941. Coelho arrived in Rhode Island from Cape Verde in 1891 to purchase a packet ship. Coelho was forced to live in the state institution because of the intentional sinking of the ship by the captain.

According to the DOT, his grave is likely one of 577 that were moved into cemetery #2 in 1975 to make room for an industrial complex. However, WPRI's da Graca said she's not certain he's there. She will continue to search.

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