The grave of a Mormon pioneer woman who died of cholera on the Mormon Trail got a new home Tuesday, relocated by a railroad company concerned about the safety of hundreds who visit the site each year.
Fifty of Rebecca Winters' descendants gathered amid grassy prairie lands and sugar-beet fields near Scottsbluff, Neb., to watch their foremother moved from the spot in which she was buried 143 years ago."We just had a family meeting and sang a few bars of `Come, Come, Ye Saints,' " Que Winters, the pioneer woman's great-grandson, said from the prairie spot Tuesday. "It's wonderful that we could be together today."
Winters was traveling with a handcart pilgrimage and making her way to Utah along the Mormon Trail when she contracted cholera and died in 1852 as the group passed through Nebraska's western Panhandle region. She was buried near what is now the intersection of U.S. 26 and S. Beltline East, a site undisturbed and unnoticed until 1899, when Burlington Northern Railroad surveyors found the grave in its planned path.
The railroad adjusted its track around the grave, but officials decided recently the 6 feet between the iron wagon wheel rim that marks the site and the track where 30 trains pass each day wasn't enough space for visitors to the grave.
"People wander close to the track, some even use it as a walkway," said Boyd Andrew, a railroad division superintendent.
A historical figure in the Nebraska Panhandle and considered a symbol of the pioneer mother, Winters' grave is visited regularly by tourists interested in her life and death. Over the years, scholars also have visited the grave.
Concerned train crews reported that tourists were wandering near the tracks where trains scream by at an average 50 miles per hour.
"There's a real risk of injury or worse," Andrew said.
As the disinterment progressed under 90-degree temperatures Tuesday, workers unearthed a full skeleton buried about 8 feet beneath the surface. "We really weren't sure what we'd find," said Susan Greene, a Burlington Northern spokeswoman, adding there are few details on how Winters was burried.
They also found a belt buckle of the time. "There's no doubt (the skeleton) was Rebecca Winters,' " Greene said.
The remains will be in the care of a local funeral home until a nearby, but safer, gravesite is identified, Greene said.
Many of Winters' successors, who came from Nebraska, Iowa and Utah to attend the relocation, shared stories about visits to the site as youngsters. Others never had seen the grave, which is adorned with the wagon wheel rim placed by companions when she died, a family monument placed there in 1902 and another donated by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Winters' father, Gideon Burdick, once was a drummer boy in George Washington's army.
"The oldest of us is Blaine Winter - he's 92 years old - and a great-grandson," said Peri Ben-nion, a descendant who helped railroad officials track down members of the family.
"We are really grateful to the Burlington Northern Railroad. They've been really sensitive about this."