Saturday, 2:15 PM
Tourist steps into history at hallowed Boston cemetery
(Video by John Ellement)
Erik Ewers of New Hampshire and Steve Gagnon of Cotuit were among those who peered through the fence today at the Granary Burying Ground.
By Andrew Ryan and John R. Ellement, Globe Staff
The grassy earth held strong for almost 300 years, withstanding the footsteps of the millions of tourists who have traipsed through the ancient Granary Burying Ground and wandered off the footpaths for a closer look at the weathered headstones of historic figures.
It held strong, that is, until the last day of January, when a woman on a self-guided tour of the hallowed cemetery in downtown Boston took a fateful step. The ground gave way, and the woman fell hip-deep into a hidden granite stairwell leading down into an unmarked brick crypt.
The woman, who was not injured, accidentally discovered a long-forgotten entrance to a tomb in the city's most famous graveyard, less than 10 yards from the final resting place of Paul Revere. It served as a stark reminder that in Boston, the nationís revolutionary roots are literally underfoot.
"Somebody put weight in just the right place, like the straw that broke the camel's back," said Kelly Thomas, who leads the city's Historic Burying Grounds Initiative.
The woman's foot did not crash into a coffin or come close to coming in contact with bones in the hole, which opened up to about 3 feet deep and 18 inches across.
She fell into a stairway that leads into the tomb like a basement bulkhead. The 8-feet-by-12-feet brick crypt remains intact and structurally sound, Thomas said. The stairs leading to it had been covered by a slate slab that appears to have broken some time ago, allowing dirt to pile on the upper steps.
The soil slowly weakened, Thomas said, and finally gave way under the woman's weight.
"Things fail. Mountains become dust," Thomas said. "That slate slab deteriorated."
The burying ground has increasingly become a must-see for visitors to Boston because of the number of historic figures - including Declaration of Independence signers Samuel Adams and John Hancock, as well as the five victims of the Boston Massacre - interred there, said Sam Jones of The Freedom Trail Foundation.
"The graveyard is not designed to put up with the abuse it gets from the visitation it receives," said Jones, adding that private donations are needed for cemetery upkeep as the city wrestles with a budget shortfall.
The cemetery is home to an estimated 5,000 sets of remains in a jumble of graves, tombs, and monuments, making it hard to determine who is buried in the underground crypt the woman breached.
Records at the Massachusetts Historical Society indicate that it might be the grave of Jono. Armitage, who appears to have died in 1738. A Jonathan Armitage was elected as a Boston selectman in 1732 and 1733, city records show, and a Captain Jonathan Armitage served on The Committee of Fortification in 1733.
The identity of the tourist who put her foot into history, however, will remain a mystery because the city refused to release her name, citing privacy concerns.
The hole has been temporarily covered with a sheet of plywood and a slab of modern white concrete, and set off by four bright orange traffic cones at each corner. Structural engineers will examine the crypt, and it will probably be resealed with a slab of reinforced concrete and reburied.
There is no timeline for the repairs, and the Tremont Street cemetery remains open, although heavy ice on the walkways kept the gates locked yesterday. That left Erik Ewers disappointed as he stood looking in through the black metal fence.
"You look at these tombstones and each tombstone represents an individual life, existence, a career a family history," said Ewers, a film editor for documentarian Ken Burns who tried to visit the site yesterday. "For me, graveyards are like a thousand untold stories. It spurs your curiosity.''
Craters and other hazards from crumbling tombs are not uncommon in the city's 16 ancient burying grounds, which date to the 1630s and have long been punished by shifting soil, traffic vibrations, and the freezes and thaws of New England weather. The arched ceilings have flattened in several underground crypts in the Central Burying Ground, creating depressions that have been fenced off in the cemetery along Boylston Street in Boston Common.
"I think it's just the natural aging process," Thomas said. "At any cemetery anywhere in the world where they stick stuff in the ground, there is going to be settling."
Most repairs are paid for out of the city's capital improvement budget. Each $37 ticket purchased for the Ghosts & Gravestones Frightseeing Tour also nets the city $3 to $4 for upkeep of the ancient burying grounds.
The techniques used to fix the problems can be as antiquated as the cemeteries. Heavy machinery cannot be lugged onto the fragile earth, so excavating must be done with shovels. That means frozen ground can delay repairs.
Contractors who specialize in historic masonry do their best to shore up the structures from the outside so they do not disturb the graves.
"You end up really caring for the people. It's really strange," Thomas said. "You don't know them, they've been dead for hundreds of years, but still."
David Butler of the Globe staff contributed to this report.