Crews digging near an intersection in Duluth in preparation for future road construction came across 55 coffins — all believed to be empty — as well as some bones that appeared to be human.
St. Louis County Public Works employees were looking for any evidence of human remains as part of a planned archaeological exploratory dig last week in advance of a scheduled project to widen Arlington Avenue south of Arrowhead Road in 2020.
The coffins had no lids, said Steve Krasaway, resident engineer with the county. The bodies they once held were likely removed during a 1960s grave relocation project, he said, though the coffins were left in the ground and are now filled with dirt. Workers initially discovered a lone bone outside the coffins, but it became apparent later that more bones might be in the excavated soil.
The spot is located in a road right of way near a wooded area that once served as Greenwood Cemetery, where about 5,000 people who died at the former St. Louis County Poor Farm were buried from 1891 to about 1947. The cemetery was declared inactive in 2012.
Officials estimate that 100 to 125 bodies were moved from the cemetery in the 1960s, Krasaway said, but the cemetery's boundaries are still unclear.
It is not known to be an American Indian burial site, Krasaway said, but there may be some Indian remains included in those buried there.
"There's still 4,900 bodies within this general area," he said. "We want to make sure we treat all of these remains with care and respect."
Crews stopped digging last Monday and later, county officials met with leaders from the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and the state archaeologist, Krasaway said.
An osteologist was brought in to study the bones and look for further remains.
For now, Krasaway said, crews are holding off on any more digging and talking to interested parties about options for the road project. "We think there's a high likelihood if we continue as planned there will be more human remains found," he said.
Existing communications utility lines, which were directionally drilled into the ground, may be near graves, he said. Officials are discussing whether it would be better to leave the remains or move them to a more respectful place, he said.