Cast-iron coffins unearthed in Sam Houston Park
About a month ago, a team of electricians installing lines in Sam Houston Park confirmed a suspicion that archeologist Roger Moore has had for more than 10 years. While digging trenches for electrical lines in the park, construction suddenly came to a halt Jan. 24 when contractors hit more than just a bump in the dirt: a 6-foot-long cast-iron coffin, believed to be from as far back as the mid-19th century.
Nearly three weeks later and about 15 yards away, contractors found a similar casket. Moore was not completely surprised.
"It was well known that the park once encompassed two cemeteries that were moved in the mid-20th century," said Moore, who owns an archaeological firm contracted by the city. He said the graves were reburied in different cemeteries in the area, prior to the land purchase by Houston officials. "It's clear that they missed some," he said.
In 1992, again during construction in Sam Houston Park, crews installing the Neuhaus Fountain also found a coffin. This was the first indication that all the graves may not have been exhumed, said Moore, who was also the archeological consultant on that project.
About half a century before Sam Houston Park became the city's first park in 1899, the northern part of what are now its grounds housed two cemeteries, one belonging to the Masonic fraternal order and another to the Christ Episcopal Church.
Established in 1856, the Episcopal cemetery was sold to the city in 1948. The graves were then moved to Glenwood Cemetery beginning in 1871.
The Masonic cemetery, dedicated in 1856, included the plots of many prominent Masons, including Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas. A section in Glenwood Cemetery was dedicated as a Masonic burial ground. By 1959, all of the graves from what is now the park were moved to Glenwood. The Masons also sold the land to the city.
From mere appearance, it's clear that all three caskets found at the park are historical. "It's not like a modern-day casket that looks more like an enclosed bed," Moore said. Following the contours of the human body, the coffins are shaped more like an Egyptian sarcophagus, with round glass plates - now found shattered - at the head of the structures where a face could have been viewed.
The coffins were constructed out of cast iron, material that became popular for funeral boxes during the Civil War - when soldiers' bodies were being sent home - because it tended to better preserve bodies than wooden caskets, Moore said.
For security purposes, the locations of the coffins are not being released. Records show who was buried in the two cemeteries in Sam Houston Park, but no documentation details where the graves were plotted, Moore said.
Leave them in place. Unless there is some idea of who the grave may have belonged to, even DNA testing may not yield an identity, said Jeff Durst, with the Texas Historical Commission, the agency that records archeological findings in the state.
When historic human remains are discovered, unless there is a reason to move them, the general practice is to leave them in place. "We do not like to disturb human remains," Durst said. In 1992, Moore instructed crews to place a metal plate over the discovered casket and rebury it.
If there are more coffins buried in the park, Moore hopes they don't find them. "We want to do now and in the future as little to disturb it as possible," he said. "That's the best lesson you can take out of it."