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Graves reminders of pioneers

Remains of 32 settlers rest at This Is the Place

On a grassy slope at the base of Emigration Canyon is a cemetery, placed in the shadow of rolling hills and guarded by an iron fence.

To the east are mountains; the west, a view of the Salt Lake Valley. A light breeze cools the air, but the midmorning sun offers a hint of the soon-to-come, dry summer heat.

This is the home of 32 pioneer dead, reburied in 1987 at This Is the Place Heritage Park. Some are known, but most remain nameless. Nine were adults; the others were children or infants.

These are the early settlers of the Salt Lake Valley. Many traveled by foot and covered wagon to create a home in the West. The babies died soon after birth, the adults and children just after arrival in the valley.

Few know their story, say cemetery caretakers.

"I think most people have the impression that it's a make-believe cemetery," said Ron Andersen, a guide at This Is the Place and a member of the Mormon Trails Association.

"To be honest, it's not a heavily visited spot."

Andersen has tried, however, to provide information about the 32 pioneer dead. He authored portions of a Web site, complete with pictures and stories that can be used as a tool for teachers of Utah history.

When Andersen leads tours at the park, he will offer anecdotes about known pioneers in the cemetery.

Sometimes, he will tell this story:

In 1986, construction crews began digging the foundation for a new apartment complex on 200 West between 300 South and 400 South in Salt Lake City. A week earlier, the site — also known as block 49 — had been searched unsuccessfully for what was thought to be the first pioneer cemetery in Utah.

On July 6, 1986, an antiques collector went into the construction site to look for old bottles. He instead found a coffin, a discovery that led to two weeks of excavation and the recovery of 32 pioneer bodies.

After forensic tests in a Wyoming lab, the remains were reburied on Memorial Day 1987 at This Is the Place Heritage Park, known then as Pioneer Trails State Park.

Today marks the 18th anniversary of the pioneer reburial.

Russ Wood, vice president over advancement at This Is the Place, said there is a unique feeling inside the pioneer cemetery. It's peaceful but also tells the story of struggles that "didn't end" when pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley, he said.

"You start imagining what happened to have them in these nondescript graves," he said, describing the original burial site where no headstones or identification marked the graves. "That's kind of the heart-wrenching part of it."

Debi Brady, a program coordinator and character guide at This Is the Place, said there was "a lot of suffering and sickness" for Utah's original settlers. Reports of forensics done on the pioneer bodies show malnutrition, interrupted development of children, tooth decay and starchy diets.

Heritage Park historian Paul Smith said in a statement: "It was not uncommon in the 1800s to lose up to one-third of your children to what would be considered benign causes today."

The cemetery is at the northeast edge of This Is the Place, overlooking a village with re-created or original buildings from 1847 to 1897. Down a hill, directly south, visiting children can run with handcarts and attempt to relive the treks of Utah pioneers.

Today, flowers will be placed at the 32 headstones in the pioneer cemetery. The cemetery can be visited from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from now until Labor Day. For more information, visit: www.thisistheplace.org


E-MAIL: nwarburton@desnews.com