Old potter's field may be far bigger, extend under Turnpike embankment

Saturday, July 12, 2003

By Jeff Theodore
Journal staff writer

SECAUCUS - The New Jersey Turnpike Authority may have to abandon its search for graves in one section of a burial ground near New County Road because the remains may be underneath the embankment of the Turnpike, officials said.

Since February, more than 60 archaeologists have been digging up thousands of graves at the site, seeking to bury them somewhere else in Hudson County in order to make way for a new $250 million interchange on the Turnpike.

As the disinterment process - believed one of the largest ever conducted in the United States - has proceeded at the potter's field site, graves are being found closer and closer to the road, Turnpike spokesman Joe Orlando said.

"We don't think we can go cutting into the embankment of the Turnpike to find out whether there are more graves," Orlando said. "Based on the information that we have, we never expected to find graves there.

"We haven't cut a single corner on this project. It's just upsetting because we would like to close this chapter in Hudson County history, but it seems the legacy of the potter's field will live on."

The Turnpike Authority will head to state Superior Court Wednesday to make its case that searching for remains underneath the embankment wouldn't be prudent.

"It doesn't mean that we're scaling back," said Rod Brown, a principal archaeologist for the Louis Berger Group, the agency that has been digging up the graves. "There's no way to get under the Turnpike without tearing it up. How practical is that?"

John Keller, an assistant supervising engineer for the Turnpike Authority, said he isn't sure how many bodies could be under the embankment.

"There could be none or a few dozen," he said. "But I don't think we're talking hundreds."

Keller said he anticipates the court will be sympathetic to their plight.

"Everybody is being extremely reverent about this," he said. "We could have just let things slide, but we've put in the time and the effort."

So far, the remains of about 2,700 people have been excavated. In the end, Keller said, he expects they will number about 3,500.

Patrick Andriani, a former Hudson County man who once struggled with the Turnpike Authority for the right to reclaim his grandfather's remains at the Secaucus burial grounds, said he's concerned the county could miss an opportunity to recover remains that may have historical importance.

"I would hope the Turnpike has done due diligence," Andriani said. "Before the county got involved, there may have been Dutch and British settlers there. That's my only concern. It seems like it will be a tough decision for the judge to make."

Andriani is now working with the county instead of the Turnpike Authority because his grandfather's remains may have been among those that were illegally disinterred years ago and moved to plots behind Meadowview Hospital.

Leonardo Andriani came alone to America in the 1920s and lived in Hoboken, where he worked as a laborer, sending money back to his family in Italy.

He took ill on a Hoboken street in December 1948 and was taken to the county hospital complex in Secaucus, where he died on Christmas Eve. He was laid to rest in the burial ground on New Year's Eve.

"My search continues, but the county has promised to do whatever it takes to help," Andriani said.

At the potter's field, Hudson County records suggest that the remains are from the 1920s to the early 1960s.

Brown, the archaeologist, said the graves have been much deeper than they expected, more than 8 to 10 feet deep. And they've discovered older plots that they had no idea existed, beneath the plots they're familiar with.

"There are about 600 plots that we had no idea were here at all," Brown said.

Archaeologists are using ground penetration radar devices to uncover remains. The Turnpike Authority has spent about $5.5 million for the work, which includes legal fees, perpetual care and monuments for the remains.

Keller said bids for work on the interchange may be taken next Thursday. He said he hopes the work of the archeologists will be completed before the interchange work begins, possibly in a few months.

Orlando said the possibility that remains are underneath the Turnpike's embankment isn't unusual for the archeologists.

"Sometimes, X doesn't mark the spot," he said.

Jeff Theodore can be reached at

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