More than 4,000 people buried under Birmingham Zoo and Botanical Gardens

CBS 42 Investigates

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – During the late 1800’s, at least 4,700 people were buried in Red Mountain Cemetery. Today the area is home to the Birmingham Zoo and the Botanical Gardens.

This story is not new to Birmingham natives who are savvy when it comes to Alabama history. Yet for many, even those who have lived in Birmingham for years, this story is shocking.

Between 1888 and 1909 the cemetery was used for people who were poor and indigent. Many of the graves were unmarked. After a century, a few large rocks remain marking a few of the thousands who were buried. The majority of the bodies’ locations are unknown.

“There is no map of the area, so there is no way to know where the rows or the lots where,” said Gary Gerlach, a Birmingham Library archivist and former garden director for the Botanical Gardens.

Only one marked grave exists with the name “Annie” crudely chiseled into a stone

“Whoever marked that grave marked it on the front and the back. Apparently they wanted to make sure that she was remembered and her name is listed,” said Birmingham Zoo representative, Katrina Cade.

The Birmingham Library archives are home to a 127-year-old health department burial book. It lists each person buried in the Red Mountain Cemetery, their name, how old they were, and how they died.

“That’s the only record we have of it,” said Gerlach.

The site shows that Annie died in 1890 of septicemia. She was 58-years-old. Many of the other people listed were stillborn, or died from diseases not seen today. History and cemetery experts believe no one was around to speak for the buried people when the Zoo and Gardens were built around 50 years ago.

      “I find it ironic that we have over 4,000 poor people buried in one of the most affluent areas of Birmingham now.” – Katie Gardiner, Birmingham


“It wasn’t unusual for [pauper cemeteries] to be covered over. Progress seems to hold the upper hand when it comes to cemeteries,” said Kermit Dooley, a representative for the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Alliance.

“I find it ironic that we have over 4,000 poor people buried in one of the most affluent areas of Birmingham now,” said Birmingham resident, Katie Gardiner.

Dooley says back when the Zoo and Gardens were built, there were no laws to prevent graves from being built over. In fact, there are 400 graveyards in Jefferson County alone. Only 20 of those are listed in the phone book. That means graves are all over the places people walk, drive and build on.

“There are some communities around here that are built on cemeteries. And it’s peculiar that some people’s tomato plants do better than others,” Gerlach laughed.

This story has sparked the interest of urban explorers for years. Some skeptics will ride the train at the Zoo to see if they can catch a glimpse of the hidden gravestones in the woods.

For others, this story is an upsetting part of Birmingham’s history. You can find people who are concerned about the forgotten graves in Facebook groups and in comment sections from articles online.

Dooley says he has taken phone calls in the past from concerned community members when the Zoo and Gardens have worked on construction projects. He recalls visiting a recent construction site, “I went over there personally. And I surveyed the land. I saw no indication of any burials there. I also contacted Montgomery in regard to it. The Zoo had all the proper permits.”

Zoo and Garden’s representatives say that they are fully aware of their history and take the graves into special consideration when doing any construction. They say they always work with licensed contractors who follow protocol. If something were found, the state health department would be contacted and legal measures, like removal and relocation of the remains, would be put into place.

“They have to follow all policies and procedures in the unlikelihood something like that would be discovered,” said Andrew Krebbs, the media representative for the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

“We want to be respectful of anything that could possibly be found. If [something were found] then we would want to make sure that we follow those guidelines to make sure that we do the right thing,” Cade said.

Some people we spoke with in the community think these forgotten people should be commemorated in some way.

“I think there should be some type of signage or something that says these people existed,” said Julian Bell.

“There should be a memorial. There is nothing there to remember those people by,” said Gardiner.

WIAT asked Zoo representatives if they would ever consider making the graves part of an historical exhibit. Cade says at this time, an exhibit like that is not in the plan. “We would like to be respectful of the people that are here are not necessarily use it as an exhibit,” said Cade.

In 2003, the Zoo built a fence around the graves near Annie as a way to show respect to the few people whose graves are marked on the property.

Throughout Zoo construction projects over the years, no human remains have ever been found. In the early 1960’s, there were mysterious bones found buried in the rose garden at the botanical gardens.

“They never were able to determine if it was a person, or a dog, or something that was just dumped there,’ said Gerlach.

Andy Foshee works for Ground Penetrating Radar Systems Inc. He is able to scan the ground using sonar to see what is buried below the surface.  If there is something like a casket in the ground, the GPR machine can detect it. Foshee usually works for construction companies when he uses this machine. Occasionally, private individuals will hire the service to check for graves, or find lost graves on their property.

“It just depends on how much is there to give you that clear reaction. It depends on what they’re buried in,” said Foshee.

Foshee says wooden caskets from the late 1800’s would simply be a layer of dirt today. This is likely why nothing has been found during zoo construction. You would have to have a trained eye to spot the soil discoloration.

A wooden casket from the late 1800’s would show up on Ground Penetrating Radar as a thin black curve in the soil. A metal or stone casket would show up as a brighter, stronger curved reaction line.

Experts say it is very likely that most remains buried under the Zoo and Gardens are not physically there anymore. They will only continue to exist in history as long as their story is shared.

Copyright 2015 WIAT 42 News

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