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Culver's Being Built On Smallpox Cemetery Used In Civil War, Historians Say

By Sam Cholke | May 11, 2017 5:51am | Updated on May 12, 2017 11:40am
 Thousands of Confederate prisoners of war died at Camp Douglas in Chicago.
Thousands of Confederate prisoners of war died at Camp Douglas in Chicago.
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THE GAP — The city’s first Culver’s in Bronzeville is being built on the remnants of a Civil War-era smallpox cemetery, historians said Wednesday.

Chicagoans will be able to buy butter burgers and deep-fried cheese curds this summer when Culver’s opens in the Lake Meadows Shopping Center at 35th Street and Martin Luther King Drive, but few customers will likely know the full history of the site.

The shopping center sits on what was once the Camp Douglas prisoner of war camp during the Civil War. David Keller, managing director of the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation, believes the Culver’s site is where victims of smallpox were buried in a separate cemetery.

“Culver’s look like it will be built on top of it or adjacent to it,” Keller said.

Keller’s group recently completed a project mapping the former camp’s barracks, hospitals and the cemetery where 655 Confederate soldiers who died of smallpox were buried.

The Lake Meadows project crew said in a statement they haven't found any remains at the site — and don't expect to, since the site has been excavated several times and all of the bodies were supposed to have been moved 150 years ago.

The 650 soldiers were moved by the military in 1867 to Oak Woods Cemetery, the same time the military moved City Cemetery on the Near North Side to make way for Lincoln Park. But the shoddy work the military did moving City Cemetery, leaving human bones to be found when Lincoln Park Zoo was built, has led Keller to keep a watchful eye for artifacts and even human remains as Culver’s is built.

Archeologist Michael Gregory, a researcher formerly with DePaul University who has worked on numerous digs at the Camp Douglas site, said he has yet to see a cemetery move where some bones weren't left behind.

“It’s really simple to have a burial and look down and see the backbone,” Gregory said. “But people will leave behind the small hand bones, ribs and things like that.”

But he said even if some remains were left behind, research has shown there are no health risks of contracting the smallpox virus, which killed one-third of those who contracted it and spread quickly through the population.

A 2014 study in “Emerging Infectious Diseases” looked at numerous instances where the bodies of smallpox victims were found, even in a well-preserved state. Even under those ideal conditions for the disease, scientists could not detect the live virus at all, he said. But more research is being done as other victims are found.

If human bones are found, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency would conduct an archaeological survey, but that wouldn’t prevent Culver’s from being finished.

Chris Wills, a spokesman for the agency, said construction crews would have to stop working and contact the agency and the local coroner’s office.

“Also, it’s worth noting that we know very little about the cemetery, such as an exact location, whether it was a cemetery or simply a pit, or whether it might have been removed during the past 150 years of construction,” Wills said.

While Keller said he is confident the cemetery was close to the Culver’s location, anything left behind would be deep underground.

“That’s the only burial where they bury people six feet deep because of the fear of smallpox,” Keller said.

He said the outbreak did cause fear in Chicago as the disease spread among the 12,000 prisoners in the camp, which was increasingly crowded as the North and South stopped prisoner exchanges.

“The prisoner population in 1863 started to increase because no one was leaving unless they died,” Keller said.

Keller and researchers from DePaul University who have dug nearby at Pershing Magnet School have found bones, buttons and pipes from the edges of Camp Douglas, but have never explored much of the camp proper, which was on land now owned by developer Draper and Kramer.

A representative from the developer was not immediately available to comment on Wednesday.

Camp Douglas stretched over an area that now includes the Gap, the Calumet-Giles Historic District and Lake Meadows Shopping Center. [Library of Congress]

The Bronzeville Culver's is the first to get permits and will likely be the first location in the city in the Lake Meadows Shopping Center. [Courtesy of Draper and Kramer]