Sixty-one years ago to the day contractors dug up a human skeleton in a utility easement just west of the Great Bend City Cemetery, a construction crew working in the same vicinity uncovered about a dozen coffins with skeletal remains. This revelation came as the investigation into Wednesday’s discovery continues.
According to the front-page Great Bend Tribune article dated Wednesday, July 26, 1962, a Western Light and Telephone crew was digging a water trench just west of the cemetery where they unearthed the redwood coffins. They were buried in one long row.
The workers working with Nex-Tech’s fiber optic installation this week found just the single set of remains.
Back in 1962, the findings sparked the theory the bones were those of the victims from the city’s 1882 smallpox epidemic. But, it is unlikely the individual found this week was a smallpox victim, said Justin Engleman, Barton County Historical Society Board member and genealogist. Those folks were buried further south, closer to Broadway.
“They found the old potters’ field,” Engleman said. He has been in contact with the Great Bend Police Department officers about the discovery.
In fact, the entire grassy strip along the western edge of the cemetery was at one time designated as the burial site for the indigent. And, there have been reports of residents claiming their family members are buried along there, he said.
But, “we have no idea how many people are buried there. They’re known but to God,” Engleman said. The city’s cemetery sexton’s office burned in the 1920s, along with all the records.
Moving forward, “I’m of the mind that a fence needs put up and a monument erected,” he said. There are gas, electric, water and fiber optic lines running through the site so “how many more times are they going to distrub these poor folks.”
As for the GBPD’s efforts, Police Chief Steve Haulmark said they have been in contact with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation who put them in touch with an anthropologist affiliated with Washburn University in Topeka. And their probe into the matter is ongoing.
About the smallpox
Over two months starting in December 1882, the outbreak claimed 15 lives in the city of 1,600 inhabitants, the Tribune reported in 1962.
The victims were buried in a potters’ field just beyond the cemetery boundary out of fear for contamination, the Tribune reported. The cemetery was established in 1878.
According to newspaper records dating back to the time of the epidemic, the incident prompted a call from city officials for vaccinations and lead to the formation of the Great Bend Board of health. It also brought a mayoral proclamation closing school, calling for a cessation of all public meetings and a plea for residents to stay in their homes.
In an attempt to calm fears, the newspaper advised its readers: “Readers, don’t be afraid. This paper will communicate the smallpox. It has been entirely disinfected and has not been within 60 rods (about 900 feet) of a house where the smallpox is.”
By January, the disease had left Great Bend, but there were deaths reported in Barton and Pawnee counties. Great Bend’s quarantine was lifted on Jan. 25.