Graveyards in the Calumet area returned to life by volunteer caretakers
Those who lie here…
Last weekend, the Keweenaw Green Burial Alliance hosted a tour of graveyards in the Calumet area, including the Schoolcraft Cemetery, the Hecla Cemetery, and the Congregational Peniel Jewish Cemetery.
None of the three have been active for the last century, and many of the gravestones have tilted, fallen, or been knocked down. Some are beginning to be difficult to read after a century of weathering. Many are overgrown with myrtle and other brush and remain hidden from easy sight.
The beautiful, almost haunting, October aesthetic is undeniable. And while it’s easy for many of us to drive by these stones and remark on the beauty without a second thought, there are those in the community who have worked hard to preserve the memory of those interred beneath.
The stones represent an industrial, frontier history, with the ages of the deceased often well below today’s life expectancy, and violent causes of death sometimes recorded on the headstones themselves.
Forgotten graveyards recovered
This cemetery, also known as the Centennial Cemetery, was founded in 1865 on about 5.3 acres by the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. More than 400 gravesites are recorded there on FindAGrave.com, and more than half of them have been photographed and researched by Lynette Webber, a 2021 graduate of Michigan Tech and a member of the Gamma Theta Upsilon geographical honor society. She and fellow GTU member Brooke Batterson, a master’s degree student in the industrial heritage and archaeology program at MTU, work to recover, record, and maintain the graveyard with other volunteers as one of their GTU chapter projects.
Batterson said that there are 440 - 500 burial spaces, but there could be more than 700 individuals interred there because of different things like women sometimes being buried with an infant. The team, which includes graduate student James Juip, Assistant Professor Mark Rhodes, and Social Sciences Instructor Kathryn Hannum— all from MTU—has been working to map the gravesites with GPS technology and has completed about 234 of them. They’ve also been helping clear brush and walking trails with support from Calumet Township.
In the 1890s, the cemetery was considered full and burials were discouraged there in favor of Lake View Cemetery, which opened in 1894. However, occasional burials did continue to happen.
“It’s hard to know before 1897 who was buried there,” Weber said, “because it wasn’t included on death records—the cemetery or where they were left to rest.”
Some of the burials there were also disinterred, either to be reburied with family elsewhere or to be moved to the veteran’s section in Lake View Cemetery when it opened.
Calumet Township now owns the Schoolcraft Cemetery property, but for many years, Weber said the cemetery remained in the hands of the mining company.
“And they weren’t really in the cemetery business,” she said.
The mining company wasn’t interested in spending time or money in the graveyard. They also weren’t interested in keeping thorough, accurate records about the site.
“Even while Calumet and Hecla was still active, they weren’t doing a whole lot,” Weber said.
But Weber said that’s part of what makes the project exciting for GTU, the potential for rediscovery.
Also known as the Laurium or Sacred Heart Cemetery, this burial site was founded circa 1860 by the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, and contains nearly 300 graves, according to research by Jeremiah Mason, Keweenaw National Historical Park Archivist. It was a Catholic cemetery, but no sexton’s records have been found for it. Most Catholic burials were placed in Lake View Cemetery starting around 1905.
Between 1905 and 1958, local citizens repeatedly organized cleanups to try and keep the cemetery maintained. Ruth Gleckler, one of the current volunteer custodians, has found articles about cleanups and repair by the Catholic Societies, a Father Humbert, and Sacred Heart Church itself.
Despite community efforts, it eventually fell fully into disrepair and suffered repeated vandalism and even illegal dumping. Headstones continue to be used as party locations by teens even after modern cleanup work, with ashes from a recent fire and other refuse still found in front of them.
In 2007, the land was purchased by the Houghton-Keweenaw County Genealogical Society and donated to Calumet Township. Several groups of volunteers have been working to restore it since then with contributions from the National Park Service, Knights of Columbus, and many volunteers. The HKCGS has photos of many of the gravestones on their website, with chalk rubbings to make them more readable.
Also known as the Jewish Lake View Cemetery, or simply the Calumet Jewish Cemetery.
According to Gleckler, there is an article from the Copper Country Evening News dated Sept. 14, 1900, that says a man named Max Gittler bought 3 acres next to the town of Lake View to establish a Jewish burial ground. According to the article, the closest Jewish burial ground was otherwise in Marinette. Since Jewish tradition requires burial as soon as possible—within 24 hours of death traditionally—a closer cemetery was needed for the Jewish families in the area. However, the rocky ground made burials difficult, and the cemetery was only used for about ten years.
FindAGrave.com shows only nine burials in the cemetery, but Gleckler said there are likely more.
Memories of the interred
Weber, who led the tour through the Schoolcraft cemetery, is uploading much of the volunteer’s efforts onto FindaGrave.com, which makes a useful public repository for knowledge and photographs, although she said the crowd-sourced information isn’t always trustworthy. It serves as a useful tool for sharing their discoveries.
“I have actually gotten a few different responses from descendants who were very excited,” Weber said. “Some of them were able to go to the cemetery after we uncovered the grave marker for their family member and tidy it up a lot more.”
She said some markers they revealed had been searched for by family for as many as 50 years. There are many others that are still missing.
When they uncover a new marker, they can look the name up in birth, marriage, death, and census records. They can also check newspaper archives if they suspect the person died in an accident or crime that would have been covered.
Caroline Shwykert 1868-1875
Weber found Caroline Shwykert’s story to be among the most tragic they uncovered. After going out to retrieve the family cow, 7-year-old Caroline never returned. Her body was later found in Slaughterhouse Creek.
This article picks up the story from there.
Caroline’s father, Louis Schweigert, was a German immigrant who served in the Civil War. He was killed by gas in the mine and initially buried next to Caroline, but was later moved to Lake View Cemetery for the newly-opened veteran’s section.
Caroline remains buried in the Schoolcraft Cemetery, next to a footstone labeled “L.S.” marking a now-empty grave.
“I think that’s a very compelling story in a lot of different ways,” Weber said. “There’s a lot of ‘what-ifs’ in a cemetery.”
Joseph Pope 1869-1893
Joseph Pope was one of ten men who died in a horrific mineshaft accident. When coming up a near-vertical shaft for their lunch, the hoist cage was pulled against the roof of the shaft house, crushing some of the occupants. The coupling pin then broke and the cage fell more than 3,000 feet to the bottom of the shaft.
The Calumet and Hecla Mining Company accepted no liability for what they called a mechanical failure but did pay out $1,000 to each of the victims’ families.
“It’s surreal to me because we’re around the same age,” Batterson said.
Green burial alternatives
The tour on Oct. 16 was organized and hosted by the Keweenaw Green Burial Alliance, proponents of a “dust to dust” approach to burial in which the body is laid to rest in a way that encourages natural decomposition.
In a green or natural burial, the body is buried in a more wild setting, like an unmowed meadow or woodland, without using toxic embalming fluids, cement vaults, or plastic grave liners. The body is buried in a biodegradable container and may or may not have any kind of marker, depending on the rules of the cemetery. Locations of burials are carefully recorded and provided to families on request.
Green burials are favored among those concerned about the environmental impacts of conventional burial or cremation, and those who want their body’s nutrients to return to nature.