WHEELING - An eerie discovery came just in time for Halloween for workers at the future site of the East Wheeling J.B. Chambers Recreation Park.
While excavating the eastern end of the former Elks Playground in late October, workers unearthed an unidentified partial human skeleton and a 6-foot grave marker belonging to a War of 1812 veteran. The bones and grave marker - most likely unrelated - apparently were overlooked during another construction project more than a century ago, according to City Manager Robert Herron.
The portion of the work site near 16th and McColloch streets where the playground stood until last year was a cemetery before the playground opened in 1910. Herron said the discoveries would not delay work on the $3.3 million project. Plans for the new park will include an artificial turf field and new playground equipment.
This grave marker bearing the names of a War of 1812 veteran and his family members was discovered during excavation at the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park site in East Wheeling.
Most of the dead interred at the old cemetery were moved to the Peninsula and Greenwood cemeteries before the playground was built, according to Jeanne Finstein, president of the Friends of Wheeling historic preservation group. The workers of a century ago weren't as thorough as they could have been.
"It was certainly not uncommon to fail to remove remains and markers during excavation," said Linda Cunningham Fluharty, a Wheeling native whose extensive genealogy research has included the city's many old cemeteries. "I think a notice of impending excavation was published in the newspaper and if no family responded, in some cases, it was too bad."
The marker - a 6-foot, 1,000-pound obelisk in remarkably good shape - bears the name of Fielder Berry, his wife Elizabeth and one of his sons, George.
The marker and the bones weren't buried in the same area, Herron said. Finstein believes it's unlikely the bones belong to any of the Berrys, whose remains she said likely would have disintegrated after being in the ground for 150-180 years, considering the burial practices of the time.
Herron said the city will exhume the bones and have them reinterred at Pensinsula Cemetery, located off Rock Point Road. He said there's no way to definitively identify the remains, as only the skeleton's lower extremities were found.
The grave marker, meanwhile, will be installed at Mount Wood Cemetery as a monument to Fielder Berry and his family.
Fielder Berry was born in 1786 in Charles County, Md., and served as a private in his state's militia during the War of 1812. He moved to Wheeling between 1820-27, Finstein said, worked as a brickmaker and owned several lots along Main Street in Center Wheeling. He died in 1859.
Berry had nine children with his wife, Elizabeth Moore Berry, who died in 1833 at the age of 43. At least one of those children, George Henry Berry, was buried with his parents at the East Wheeling cemetery.
Finstein said it's strange - yet not altogether surprising - that such a large marker would have been overlooked during construction of the Elks Playground. Newspaper articles dating back to at least 1889 note that the East Wheeling cemetery had fallen victim to vandalism and neglect - damaged by fire, portions of its fence torn down, gravestones toppled and cows and pigs seen roaming the grounds.
"My guess would be that sometime over the years his marker was just knocked down and got covered with brush and dirt," Finstein said. "There's no way it could have been missed if it was still standing."
City Council dealt with the question of what to do about the cemetery, which residents complained had become a disgrace to the city, through much of the 1890s. Newspaper notices indicate officials issued multiple requests for families to come forward and claim their relatives' remains, and an article published in 1892 reported city workers found the body of a man who'd been buried about 25 years earlier during a street relocation project and removed it to a different cemetery.