A recent underground survey of the Hailey Cemetery indicates that it may be a lot more crowded than previously thought.
The graves' locations and occupants are of increasing concern for cemetery directors who wish to avoid digging in occupied ground.
A ground-penetrating radar survey of the cemetery, conducted last summer, turned up hundreds of unmarked graves, particularly in a one-acre area at the south end referred to on plat maps as the "Chinese Cemetery."
Wood-and-paper markers that once marked Chinese graves in the cemetery were destroyed in a brush fire in the 1930s. Another fire that later swept portions of the town destroyed burial records associated with the site.
The survey results, presented Wednesday at the cemetery office, also showed apparent burials under asphalt roadways and in an old canal that once ran diagonally across the cemetery but was filled in long ago.
Boise State University geophysicist Brad Ford conducted the survey, measuring soil disturbances at various depths across the 13-acre grounds. He also measured the amplitude of resistance from objects within the ground in an attempt to establish their material make-up.
Ford said the high amplitude responses probably indicate metal coffins and concrete vaults, while lower amplitudes could indicate wood coffins. He presented a map with clusters and rows of markings that indicate probable graves. He is in the process of overlaying an official map of cemetery plots against the survey data, a process that he said could take a week or more.
But already there are some surprising findings.
"As you can see, we found things everywhere," Ford said at the presentation.
Several unmarked graves showed up in the "Masons Cemetery" at the southeast corner. One high-amplitude reading came from the northeast corner, an area thought to be empty of graves.
Ford estimates that his survey methods are 80 percent accurate, based on the assumption that all of the marked graves in the cemetery do in fact contain burials, an assumption that may never be proven.
Cemetery Board Chairman Ray Grosvenor said there would be legal hurdles to corroborate survey findings with established burial records.
"It would take court orders to do any exploratory digging," he said.
Six years ago, cemetery grave-diggers unearthed bones in a spot thought to be vacant, raising serious concern about what actually lies under the ground in a cemetery with an uncertain history. The survey last summer has cost $12,000 so far.
"The oldest gravestone is from 1879," said cemetery clerk Steve Tomkins. "But I am sure there are some older burials than that."
Tomkins said that two years ago, the remains of two children were disinterred on the East Coast and reburied at the Hailey Cemetery so they could be closer to their family, which had relocated to the Wood River Valley.
The remains of many early Chinese residents in Hailey may likewise have been relocated back to China.
There are no marked graves of Chinese from the mining era anywhere else in the cemetery. Yet Ford found hundreds of "anomalies" in this area while conducting the underground survey, many of which he thinks mark burials.
"Because of the characteristics and depths of them, and the regular spacing, they are definitely burials," he said.
Teddie Daley, director of the Blaine County Historical Museum, said about 300 Chinese people lived in Hailey during the 1880s, working in mines, keeping shops and growing crops at the mouth of Croy Canyon, in what is now the China Gardens subdivision.
"The custom back then for those Chinese who could afford it was to eventually dig up someone's remains and send them back to China for reburial," Daley said.
How many of the unmarked graves in the Hailey Cemetery contain human remains may never be established. But Grosvenor said the Hailey Cemetery board has plans to erect a "Memorial to the Unknown" in the "Chinese Cemetery."
Until then, he is making plans to accommodate more of the dearly departed, regardless of the amount of land he has left.
"We have plans to build a columbarium for keeping ashes. It uses much less space," he said.
Tony Evans: email@example.com