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Roadwork Could Unearth Long-Forgotten Bodies at Old Cemetery, Expert Warns

A map from 1968 shows the six-acre cemetery which could be disrupted by the rebuilding of Oak Park Avenue. (Barry Fleig)

DUNNING — City crews preparing to rebuild Oak Park Avenue could unearth thousands of bodies buried in a long-forgotten Dunning cemetery that holds the remains of Chicago's poorest and sickest residents who died between 1890 and 1912, an expert warned Tuesday.

Barry Fleig, the former cemetery chairman of the Chicago Genealogical Society, said he is "100 percent sure" that as many as 10,000 bodies are buried under what is now Oak Park Avenue, which is set to be rebuilt between Irving Park Road and Forest Preserve Drive starting this week.

"These were people — mothers and fathers and babies — not just bones," Fleig said.

Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th) said Chicago Department of Transportation officials, who are overseeing the project, told him the majority of remains that were buried underneath Oak Park Avenue in a 6-acre cemetery have been relocated.

Crews will use ground-penetrating radar before digging, and any remains discovered will be handled with dignity and reburied, Cullerton said.

Heather Cherone discusses what happens if a body is unearthed:

Oak Park Avenue is set to be rebuilt, and will get sidewalks, streetlights, curbs and gutters. (DNAinfo/Heather Cherone)

The number of bodies discovered will depend on how deep crews dig to rebuild the road, which was originally laid out in 1934, Fleig said.

However, Cullerton acknowledged that bodies may be discovered during the work — as they have been in years past during projects on the site.

"You just don't know what you are going to run into out there," Cullerton said.

More than 2,000 babies were buried in this cemetery, Fleig said, citing county records and coroner's reports.

"This is an entire cemetery that has been forgotten about," said Fleig, who is putting together a database of about 38,000 Chicagoans buried in what is now the heart of Dunning, but was once the grounds of a Cook County poorhouse.

In 1990, caskets were discovered in the northeast corner of the cemetery near Irving Park Road and Oak Park Avenue during a project to repair a steam line, Fleig said. That work was abandoned after the discovery, he added.

"The powers that be don't like cemeteries," Fleig said. "They try to forget about them."

Those whose bodies are buried in this part of the cemetery include 8-month-old Stella Tomiska, who died of tuberculosis in January 1912. Her parents, Russian immigrants, most likely could not afford to bury her, Fleig said.

Starting in the 1850s, poor and indigent Chicagoans were buried by the county on 20 acres near Berteau and Naragansett avenues near the county poorhouse. The 6-acre portion of the cemetery opened in 1890 near Irving Park Road and Oak Park Avenue, and about 17,000 people were buried there.

The cemetery stopped accepting most new burials after the State of Illinois bought the 320-acre property in 1912 and built a mental institution.

It wasn't until March 1989 that construction workers building what is now the Dunning Square shopping center found "the top half of a remarkably well-preserved 19th century man, complete with a handlebar mustache and muttonchops," according to the Reader.

That led to the rediscovery of the cemetery — and ultimately the creation of the Read-Dunning Memorial Park to honor those who were buried there.

The memorial park is next to 23 acres of wetlands and woodlands slowly being restored by park advocates to their natural state.

Work is underway on a $70.5 million facility on the west side of Oak Park Avenue near Irving Park Road that will house 200 veterans who suffer from Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

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