Using ground-penetrating radar, the 'Bone Finder' charts 'lost' graves on October Mountain


Photo Gallery | Mapping the West Branch Cemetery on October Mountain

WASHINGTON — The faded headstones bear the family names of early town settlers: Barnum, Chapel, French and Pease.

In the heart of October Mountain State Forest lies the West Branch Road Cemetery, originally called Chapel Cemetery, a 19th-century burial ground.

Over the years, most of the headstones have vanished, leaving graves of those buried there unmarked. And there is no known map listing the original location of the graves.

Enter the Bone Finder, aka Robert Perry.

Without disturbing the ground, Perry mapped out the graveyard recently using ground-penetrating radar and other technology, determining that 48 graves lie within the most visible part of the cemetery.

"Outside that scan area and within the tree line, another seven burials showed up on radar," said Perry, the owner of Topographix in Hudson, N.H. "There is evidence of possible burials within the wooded area given the presence of a headstone just a few feet into the woods on the southeast corner of the burial site. I believe the name on the headstone was Isaac."

That total, 55, is one more than the most recent list of 54 names based on a compilation of several previous lists dating back to 1918.

More than a dozen Berkshire residents were on hand last week as Perry, assisted by his son Jesse, meticulously surveyed the cemetery and deployed their three-wheeled radar machine and a robotic GPS mapping system. Leo Mahoney of Mallard Video in Lenox recorded the day's work as part of a short documentary he says should be completed in a few months.

Perry, a technical illustrator before he began his cemetery mapping career 16 years ago, claims to have uncovered 30,000 unmarked graves throughout the country.

"Knowing exactly where people are buried is the only equalizing place for humans — and its sacred," said Perry, who also uses his radar unit to find buried utilities and pipelines.

Jan Chague of the Lenox Historical Commission and Lenox Historical Society was thrilled to see high-tech preservation in action.

"I think it's important to keeping the past well documented as so much is lost over the years," she said.

The West Branch Road Cemetery dates back to 1811, according to information culled together by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission in 1982. The commission reported 40 documented burials with 33 headstones still upright or vandalized.

Today, about a third of the stone markers remain.

Department of Conservation and Recreation archeologist Ellen Berkland says the stones were likely taken over the years, reused for the same or other purposes. Berkland said in the past, it wouldn't be unusual to recycle headstones of abandoned graves. The name of a newly deceased person would be etched into the stone's smooth backside and usually placed on a grave at another cemetery.

Tombstones stolen from other neglected or forgotten cemeteries can turn up just about anywhere, she said.

"We find them as stepping stones and even found one used as a baking stone in a Boston bakery," she said.

Berkland noted removing or digging up anything from DCR-managed property is punishable by a fine and possibly jail time.

The West Branch Road Cemetery became state property when the commonwealth bought the 11,000-acre Whitney estate in 1915 to form what is now the largest DCR park in Massachusetts at nearly 16,000 acres.

DCR staffers at October Mountain maintain the burial site by mowing the grass, but it's the hikers and concerned citizens who make sure the cemetery doesn't further deteriorate.

Jim Schaefer, of Lee, regularly hikes October Mountain, occasionally checking on the cemetery.

"I notice a lot more stones gone, or knocked down over the years," he said. "I remember some [repaired] with metal brackets to keep them up."

Arthur Stringer, of Lee, has been exploring October Mountain for 45 years, mapping out cellar holes of long-ago homes, locations of former saw mills and trails.

Recently, Stringer and Tom Barenski teamed up to create the revised list of 54 names.

By cross-referencing lists compiled between 1918 to 2004, containing anywhere from 22 and 47 names, the two men came up with 54 men, women and children buried in the cemetery.

"There were a helluva lot of kids who died," he said. "One couple lost two children within the month of February [in 1843]."

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.


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