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Human Remains Discovered on Northwest Side, Road Project Put on Hold

By Heather Cherone | August 26, 2015 2:55pm | Updated on August 26, 2015 3:03pm
 A map from 1968 shows the six-acre cemetery which could be disrupted by the rebuilding of Oak Park Avenue.
A map from 1968 shows the six-acre cemetery which could be disrupted by the rebuilding of Oak Park Avenue.
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Northwest Chicago Historical Society/Matt Schademann)(left); DNAinfo/Heather Cherone

DUNNING — City crews have discovered bodies buried in a long-forgotten Dunning cemetery underneath Oak Park Avenue, putting an indefinite hold on plans to rebuild the roadway, officials said Wednesday.

An exploratory dig carried out by a team of archeologists in July "confirmed a section of Oak Park Avenue built in the 1930s crossed a portion of the unmarked" cemetery, according to a statement from the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Oak Park Avenue between Irving Park Road and Forest Preserve Drive will remain open to traffic while city officials craft a plan to handle the remains and submit it to Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in compliance with the Illinois Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act.

Whether the road is reconfigured or the bodies exhumed, all remains will be handled "with the utmost care and respect for the deceased," according to the statement.

Heather Cherone details who is buried in the forgotten cemetery:

City officials ordered the exploratory dig after DNAinfo Chicago first reported in April that as many as 10,000 bodies could be buried under what is now Oak Park Avenue in a six-acre cemetery on the grounds, based on the work of Barry Fleig, the former cemetery chairman of the Chicago Genealogical Society.

"Those buried there deserves as much respect as we as a society can offer," Fleig said.

Fleig said the city's decision to halt the project vindicates his decades-long effort to research and document the nearly 38,000 Chicagoans buried in what is now the heart of Dunning, but was once the grounds of a Cook County poorhouse.

"The city should give up the site," Fleig said Wednesday, adding that he was thrilled that construction is on hold. "It is a cemetery. They should fence it off and plant grass."

Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) said he was frustrated that the discovery meant that an existing road — built after the cemetery had closed and been all-but forgotten, according to city officials — could not be improved.

"I don't want to be insensitive, but it is a bummer for the community," Sposato said.

Sposato said he was not sure the road, which was being expanded to accommodate traffic traveling to and from an under-construction $70.5 million facility to house veterans, many with dementia, could be rerouted.

"I'm frustrated," Sposato said. "The road is already there."

Because the state legislature has yet to adopt a spending plan, work on the veterans' facility has stopped, Sposato said.

The city's acknowledgement that any construction in the area would disturb human remains could threaten plans to build a $3 million artificial turf sports field just east of Oak Park Avenue.

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. That work was abandoned after the discovery, Fleig said.

Those buried underneath Oak Park Avenue could 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 six-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.

City officials last month extended the life of the Dunning Tax Increment Financing District for another 12 years to raise $60 million that could be used to fund a proposed high school on the vacant land as well as other projects.

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