Buried history: Cemetery remains beneath Beltrami Park property

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The scary story goes that once a year on Halloween, graveyards come alive with ghosts, zombies and other walking undead. If you believe the tale – or you’re just the type of trick-or-treater to spook easily – you may want to avoid Beltrami Park on Wednesday.

It’s a bit of buried Northeast history: Genealogists suspect the remains of a 19th Century cemetery might still lie beneath the park’s playground and ballfields.

The property, south of Broadway Street between Polk and Fillmore streets, was known as Maple Hill Cemetery starting in 1857.

An estimated 5,000 graves were buried there over the next few decades, until 1889 when the state health department shut it down.

The cemetery was vandalized and not property maintained, according to the state, and families were notified to move their graves to other locations.

Dale Carlson, the superintendent at Hillside Cemetery, guesses that hundreds of graves wound up being relocated to Hillside.

“I don’t have any direct knowledge other than the records I’ve inherited through the years here,” Carlson said. “In our log books it just says transferred from Maple Hill Cemetery.”

Carlson said he still gets occasional phone calls from people researching family trees and wondering the whereabouts of Maple Hill Cemetery or its occupants.

A pair of genealogy researchers, Barbara Sexton and Lauraine Kerchner, looked into the cemetery for a 1978 Minnesota Genealogist article. They found evidence that 1,321 bodies and 82 monuments were moved from Maple Hill Cemetery.

“As absolutely no records had been kept, it is hard to guess what might have been the fate of the remainder of the 5,000 graves,” they wrote.

The land sat vacant and overgrown for several years before it was deeded in 1908 to the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board.

As Beltrami Park was built at the site in the 1940s, workers came across dozens of grave markers, the inscriptions of which were recorded and saved.

A few decades later, in 1973, the stone of Janet Sleigh was uncovered in a set bushes on the edge of the park. It was thought that rain exposed the marker by washing away dirt.

Carlson, of Hillside Cemetery, said graves in the 1800s would have been dug about five feet deep, about the same as today. The health department would have sought out relatives when it closed the cemetery.

“And the ones they couldn’t find relatives for,” Carlson said. “I would have to think that they maybe were left behind there.”