LINCOLN, Maine — Old records, history texts and some forensic deduction helped town officials solve a 168-year-old mystery that was literally unearthed Monday on School Street and slightly delayed a $416,000 construction project.
Subcontractors working for the Lincoln Water District replacing 87-year-old water lines behind Steaks ‘N Stuff discovered the first of three tombstones about six feet below the pavement line at about 11:30 a.m. Monday, said Jeff Day, the district’s assistant superintendent.
“It kind of looked like a little patio stone until we flipped it over,” Day said Tuesday. “We cleaned it all off, and then we noticed the writing that was on it.”
Gravestones, Day said, were the last thing the crew expected to find.
The nearest cemetery is on West Broadway, close to a mile away. One gravestone, inscribed with the name Elizabeth Roberts, indicated that she had died May 3, 1843, at age 3 years 6 months. Another, marked simply Maryann L, indicated that Maryann was the daughter of William T. Roberts and that she had died at 16 years 8 months. The third marker was for Charlotte Roberts, who died at 40 years 5 months in 1846, Day said.
The workers also found several rusted nails and part of a brick wall.
“I was very shocked that this was in the middle of the dig site,” Day said. “What made it more nerve-racking was our finding the other tombstones with it. We thought we were in a small family cemetery or plot. I think back in the old days they could do that. I didn’t know if it was their property or what the story was there.
“Even my boss, Ron Gray, who has been at the district almost 50 years, has never come across anything like this. He was as shocked as we were,” Day added.
Day immediately halted construction and contacted Ron Weatherbee, the town’s parks, recreation and cemeteries director, and Town Clerk Shelly Crosby. They knew they had a delicate and potentially expensive problem, Crosby said.
“You are talking about something that happened maybe 168 years ago,” Crosby said, “so how do we really know what took place?”
“We had to make sure we followed the guidelines of the [state] statutes very closely. We also needed to be sure that we were not disturbing a grave site,” Crosby added.
Crosby called the Maine Attorney General’s Office and was referred to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. An official there told her that construction could resume 25 feet from the area of the tombstones until they could determine whether the stones marked a grave site.
Town Council approval would be needed to continue the water-main replacement work, the official said.
Crosby and Weatherbee contacted Herve Clay, founder of Clay Funeral Home of Lincoln, whose detailed knowledge of town grave sites is well-known. Crosby said she began digging into town records, and their forensic detective work got a nice assist from Lee Rand, owner of Rand Advertising of Lincoln, who also runs a news and town information website at lincolnmaine.us.
They photographed the construction site thoroughly, Day said.
Within a few hours, Crosby and the others surmised that the Roberts family was and had always been buried under a large family monument in the West Broadway cemetery, not on School Street, and that the gravestones, brick wall and nails probably had been given to the family and left on School Street after the monument was built.
Crosby found town records indicating that William T. Roberts, one of the town’s first settlers, was a deacon who owned property on School Street and a blacksmith shop. He had served on a school committee from 1819 to 1829, helped erect the town’s first schoolhouse, and was married twice, having several children with both wives, she said.
Rand verified the family monument’s location at the cemetery and found history texts that helped verify town officials’ suppositions, Crosby said.
“The entire time that all this was happening, Lincoln Water District [workers] were being diligent not to upset any remains that might be there,” Crosby said.
Satisfied that no graves would be disturbed, councilors voted 6-0 during a meeting Monday to allow the waterline replacement to finish as originally planned. Cemetery workers put the gravestones at the large family monument, Weatherbee said, and work resumed at 6 a.m. Tuesday.
The experience was eerie but also satisfying, Crosby said.
“Looking back on it, I was amazed that this was a family involved in the first founding of Lincoln. Now here I am, all these years later. Even though there are 100 or more years between us, we are occupying the same space,” she added. “I felt very honored to be in a situation where we were able to piece together a bit of information.”