SOUTH BEND - As settlement along the St. Joseph River in northern Indiana increased in the first half of the 19th century, fur traders Alexis Coquillard and Lathrop M. Taylor, who would go on to found the city of South Bend, saw fit to donate about 21 acres of land west of downtown for a municipal cemetery.
Today, 182 years later, City Cemetery serves as the final resting place for a number of prominent individuals, including Taylor, who died in 1892, former U.S. Vice President and Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax, and James and Mary McKinley, the paternal grandparents of U.S. President William McKinley.
What's more, the cemetery, which was founded in 1832, three decades before the city itself, is one of the few from its era to never be segregated -- not by race, not by religion, not even by manner of death, such as suicide.
But the burial site, which has been maintained by the city Parks Department since the 1960s, is showing its age. Some of the tombstones have succumbed to the elements or been toppled or broken by vandals. Others have been upset by animals and now lean one way or another, threatening to fall.
The original stone tablet marking Colfax's grave has been worn almost blank by time.
Common Council member Oliver Davis noticed the somewhat poor condition of the cemetery in March, when he and others gathered there to place a wreath at the vice president's grave as part of the inaugural Schuyler Colfax Day celebration in the city, which he helped to organize.
Concerned, Davis introduced a resolution in June recommending the establishment of a five-year action plan to restore and preserve the historic site, which is between LaPorte and West Colfax avenues on the near west side, just outside the West Washington Historic District.
The council passed the resolution 8-0 late last month.
"When you walk through a grave site, it's like the dead bones come alive and they tell you a story," Davis, D-District 6, said during a recent visit to the cemetery. He pointed to the familiar names on many of the headstones: Calvert, Eddy, Muessel.
"We really need to uplift this whole site," he said, "make it part of the history of South Bend."
"The history of South Bend is out there, is buried out there," said Elicia Feasel, assistant director of the Historic Preservation Commission of South Bend and St. Joseph County. "Everyone from Lathrop Taylor to Schuyler Colfax, you've got the Studebakers, the Birdsells, the Powells, all those families that built South Bend are buried out there."
"So it's probably the most important historic site if you're concerned about the heritage of South Bend," Feasel said.
No burials, no revenue
Among other things, the nonbinding resolution proposes that money be set aside to restore the Colfax plot, that the council and mayor work together to develop, fund and maintain adequate parks personnel, and that a variety of stakeholders be invited to contribute to the action plan.
It also proposes that the recommendations made in a 2009 cemetery preservation assessment be reviewed and prioritized according to their feasibility and whether they can be implemented in a timely manner.
That assessment, conducted by the Chicora Foundation on behalf of the Historic Preservation Commission, recommends new maintenance procedures to better protect the grave markers, a comprehensive program to reduce vandalism at the cemetery and changes in the way the cemetery is operated.
"Most fundamentally, it is critical that the cemetery have a solid, permanent funding base," the assessment states. "The requirements of cemetery maintenance do not change based on political vagaries or economic forecasts. In fact, their funding requirements only increase with age."
Currently, the cemetery generates no revenue for the city. The last burial took place years ago, and the Parks Department stopped collecting maintenance fees long before that. A trust fund supporting City and Bowman cemeteries (Bowman, also city-owned, is on Miami Street) contains about $40,000, but the fund is shrinking, not growing. It's lost about $22,000 since 1984.
"We're not currently doing any burials at City Cemetery," Parks Department Executive Director Phil St. Clair said. "We're pretty landlocked for the most part. And of course burials generate revenue, and when you cease doing burials, you cease generating revenue."
Some have suggested expanding the cemetery to create space for new plots, but doing so would require some of the surrounding homes to be removed. And it would only add to the cost to maintain the site.