May 28, 2023

Forgotten Bangor cemetery focus of researchers

BANGOR – In an earlier time, the small group of people bundled against Saturday’s frigid morning air might have been taking part in a solemn religious procession, or an agrarian rite to show gratitude for a bountiful harvest. But neither was the case.

The focus of the modest gathering and its methodical, trudging procession across the park-like area at the corner of Buck Street and West Broadway was, instead, civic.

Bangor High School geography teacher Margaret Shaw Chernosky and two of her students had met with instructors from the University of Maine and a local historian to map the site of the city’s historic – and largely forgotten – Irish cemetery.

Using a technology known as “ground-penetrating radar,” the chilly investigators hoped to determine what lay beneath the surface – signs of disturbance in the soil layers, the presence of buried stone markers, and other evidence of the cemetery’s historic use.

In the spirit of scientific inquiry, Alice Kelley, an instructor in the department of earth sciences at the University of Maine, harnessed herself to an awkward and surprisingly low-tech contraption that sent magnetic waves into the frozen earth and measured them as they bounced back. The information was transmitted to a laptop computer lashed to Kelley’s harness, and was stored for later analysis.

“This takes the historic part and ties it to the geospatial part,” explained Chernosky, all energy and intensity in a bulky blue parka. “Also, there’s a mystery: Is it still a cemetery? Are they still here?”

The questions are like catnip to Chernosky, who teaches a course called “GIS [Geographic Information Systems] in Geography” at Bangor High School. GIS technology can analyze and integrate a range of information specific to a particular location and display that information in a graphic format such as a map or a chart.

In this case, Chernosky and her students hoped to identify places in the old cemetery that show signs of soil disturbance. Since there is no evidence that nonburial excavations have taken place in the city-owned cemetery – no water lines or other infrastructure – it’s safe to assume that those “disturbances” are grave sites or signs of related activity, she said.

Later this year, students will use GIS software in their classroom to map the burial ground, including its historic boundaries, its superficial landmarks such as trees and benches, and some of its shadowy subterranean inhabitants.

“It’s human nature to want to know what happened before,” Chernosky said. “This is a local problem, and it’s a small problem, very doable.”

According to John Frawley, retired city engineer and amateur historian, the simple park that spans the block between Buck Street and Lincoln Street at West Broadway was once the final resting place for a surprising number of Bangor’s Irish residents. From 1836 until 1855, when the larger Mount Pleasant Cemetery was established on Ohio Street, hundreds of people were buried here, Frawley said.

Many of them were desperately poor, first-generation immigrants who had settled first in eastern Canada. In 1832, when cholera broke out in the Saint John, New Brunswick, area, thousands of them fled, traveling on foot to Bangor along what’s now Route 9. As many as 800 arrived in the Queen City over the course of two weeks, Frawley said.

Bangor officials at first tried to turn them away, partly in fear that the Irish carried cholera with them, and partly because the newcomers were perceived as generally undesirable.

“They were like paupers,” Frawley said. “They had nothing. Many of them didn’t speak English; they still spoke Irish. And they were Catholic.” At the time, he added, the closest Catholic church was on Indian Island, but within a few years the Boston diocese had founded Saint Michael’s Church on Court Street in Bangor.

Eventually, that first wave of Irish immigrants settled in Bangor in an area near the river known as “Devil’s Half-Acre,” in the vicinity of the Bangor waterfront park.

Frawley’s own ancestors didn’t arrive in Bangor until 1860. For many years, his grandfather ran a pharmacy on Main Street. Frawley himself grew up in the neighborhood now called Fairmount, near the old Irish cemetery. Now 73, Frawley remembers clearly when the city extended West Broadway across Hammond Street to Buck Street, cutting through the northwestern end of the cemetery. Even then, few people knew it had been a cemetery; it was just an unkempt vacant lot.

“I saw the workers digging up bits of bone and wood,” he said Saturday. “They’re the ones who told me it had been a cemetery.”

Wooden markers were cheaper and therefore more common, but more than 100 headstones were relocated to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, along with any identifiable human remains. But, Frawley noted, there’s every reason to think that many of the graves were undisturbed and that the Buck Street cemetery is still the final resting place of many of Bangor’s earliest Irish residents.

Stacy Doore is a master’s degree student in the University of Maine’s Spatial Information Science and Engineering program, with a fellowship from the National Science Foundation to work with teachers and students in local schools. This is her second year working with Chernosky’s GIS students to develop real-life solutions to local problems.

“A few other high schools in the country use GIS as a part of their courses in math and science,” she said Saturday. “[Bangor High] is one of the few schools that offers a class just on GIS.” The technology has important uses in engineering, archaeology, urban planning, crime analysis, epidemiology and other fields, she said, and it’s important to let students get their hands on it early. Once high school students understand its many professional applications, Doore said, they may be more motivated to aim for high-tech careers.

Alexis Nieuwenhuys was one of just two students on hand Saturday for the ground-penetrating radar project. The GIS class is “a lot of fun,” the high school senior said, adding that he hopes to enroll in the University of Maine’s program in geographic information engineering.

Mapping the Buck Street cemetery is one of many projects Chernosky’s students will undertake during the year. Others include creating walking maps of Bangor’s old ethnic neighborhoods, proposing a hypothetical route for a road that would connect Stillwater Avenue near the Bangor Mall to outer Essex Street, and working on a water-quality mapping project with staff from the Mitchell Center at the University of Maine.

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