PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A project between the University of Maine at Presque Isle and the Fairmount Cemetery Association that is now halfway complete will link generations of the past with the future.
The project is thought to be the first large-scale, comprehensive cemetery mapping with GPS and GIS technology in Maine. The goal is to create a cemetery GIS database for historic, cultural and social research that offers access to anyone on the Internet and that will serve as a model for cataloging historic and cultural landmarks.
Officials from UMPI met with members of the Fairmount Cemetery Association on Friday to wrap up the first year of their grant project, which is funded through the University of Maine System’s Maine Economic Improvement Fund, and begin work on the second year of the initiative.
During the first phase of the project, students collected data at the Fairmount Cemetery, which was established in the 19th century and is one of the oldest and largest graveyards in northern Maine. The data included gravesite lot and plot numbers, names of the interred, birth and death dates, gender, military-civilian service and more from 2,200 lots and more than 10,000 plots. All the lots and plots have been mapped with GPS and GIS technologies, and all the stones have been photographed.
“This has been a very big project that has been beneficial for everyone involved, especially the students,” Chunzeng Wang, UMPI associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, said Friday. “The students are learning hands-on and experiencing the work that goes on when a real project is conducted.”
In addition to Wang, Lynn Eldershaw, assistant professor of sociology; Kim Sebold, associate professor of history; and Michael Sonntag, vice president of academic affairs from UMPI, have taken part in the project. Over the 2008-09 school year, five UMPI undergraduate students from the sciences and humanities departments served as paid research assistants.
Now that most of the fieldwork is done, Wang said that a comprehensive database management system is nearly developed and ready for the data entry. Data entry is the next phase of the project for this school year, according to Wang. Students at UMPI will continue to play a key role in phase two of the project.
Eldershaw said she was excited about the end result of the project.
“Cemeteries are very rich sources of genealogical and historical information,” she said. “The database is going to allow anyone to explore this cemetery and will help with tracing genealogy.”
She noted that when the database is finished, anyone will be able to log on to the Internet and gain access by typing in the name of an individual, clicking on the name and pulling up an image of the stone as well as information about the person buried there.
Ed Hews, president of the Fairmount Cemetery Association, said Friday that everyone involved is helping to “set a precedent on how GIS and GPS technology will work to benefit historians and family members who can do research through their computers.”
He said the scope of the project and the technology being used to complete it are “mind-boggling.”
“We have always wanted to do something like this, and when UMPI approached us we were thrilled,” he said. “We made all of our resources available to them. When we saw students going through the cemetery, identifying the burial sites of the forefathers of Presque Isle and neighboring communities and noting the stones of veterans, we were very impressed.”
Sonntag also has been involved in the project. He cited it as an example of how administrators, students and faculty can work together on a far-reaching project to benefit a large population.
Sonntag said all involved believe the project will influence tourism, as people coming to the area for a visit or for class or family reunions could seek out the cemetery.
“We also think this will serve as a model for another cemetery or perhaps a private business to carry forward,” he said. “Perhaps it is something they will like to model on their own or build on what we have created.”
He also noted that the project is going to preserve history that otherwise might be lost.
“The information on those gravestones is going to fade away over time,” he said Friday. “This project is going to preserve that information forever.”
The project is expected to be completed next July.