Archaeological dig takes place at former site of historic cemetery off Newport Ave in East Providence

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EAST PROVIDENCE — Curiosity seekers along with average, everyday motorists and residents alike have been wondering of late what exactly is taking place at a long vacant parcel of land on Newport Avenue in the Rumford section of the city.

Rumors of new businesses or homes being built began to swirl, but turns out it’s actually a much more interesting and intriguing project taking place on the land between the Uncle Tony’s and Burger King restaurants.

A dig is being conducted by the Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project on behalf of the land owners, who are believed to be the heirs of the renowned Butler Family. Craig Chartier is the project’s director and principal archaeologist on the excavation, which is utilizing state-of-the-art, ground penetrating radar technology to search the area.

A look at the area on Newport Avenue where archaeologists are performing a dig at what was once a historic cemetery.

A look at the area on Newport Avenue where archaeologists are performing a dig at what was once a historic cemetery.

The dig, according to City Planning Director Jeanne Boyle, is being done to finally make sure the remains of persons once buried in what was a historic cemetery that predated the Civil War have been completely removed.

“It is being done privately. The property owners want to make sure all of the bodies were disinterred when the cemetery was originally closed,” said Ms. Boyle, who added Ned Connors, of the East Providence Historic District Commission, has visited the dig on a couple of occasions for the city.

Mr. Chartier chuckled at the thought of some of the notions being spread about his activity, which he said ranged from the discovery on an ancient Indian burial ground to laying the foundation for the construction of a Walmart store that would displace nearby residents.

Mr. Chartier could neither confirm nor deny the discovery of human bones at the site. He said he and his associates have found “bits and pieces” of what could be bone fragments, but that he’s “not really sure yet.”

The possibility exists human remains could still be on the site because of the way in which some were buried in the past. Burials often took place using a “stack” method, according to Ms. Boyle, a tradition used during the 18th and 19th centuries where spouses or family members were buried one on top of the other rather than side by side.

Mr. Chartier refrained from speaking on the specifics of his work per a confidentiality agreement he entered with the property owners and their legal representative Robert Wieck, of the Providence law firm Wieck DeLuca & Gemma.

Mr. Chartier said he’s been on site for about two weeks and hopes to conclude his efforts shortly.

“I’m hoping to get it done as soon as possible, especially for the sake of Uncle Tony’s,” Mr. Chartier added. “We’re taking up a good part of their parking. But they’ve been really understanding and very nice. They’ve given us free lunches whenever we want.”

The cemetery existed until 1961, according to Ms. Boyle. Since that time, the land has laid dormant. It has been offered for sale often in the ensuing 50-plus years without any takers.

An area where archaeologists did some excavation.

An area where archaeologists did some excavation.

Nearly 200 years ago, the Butler Family made much of its fortune as the country began to industrialize. Ironically, the cemetery, it seems, went by the wayside as the northern part of the city became more and more commercialized in the mid 20th century. Newfangled shopping plazas were built as well as additional housing tracts. Less than two decades after the cemetery was moved, the famed Narragansett Racetrack also disappeared, like the burial ground deemed a relic of a bygone era.

In its final years, the cemetery became a “make-out” spot for teenagers with cars, who would cruise the burgeoning Newport Avenue area looking for a place to park, according to City Zoning Board Chairman Gene Saveory.

Mr. Saveory remembers there being a drive-in restaurant adjacent to the cemetery, similar to “Arnold’s” of the famed the 1970s sit-com “Happy Days,” which was set in 1950s Milwaukee, Wisc.

“My father used to take us to the drive-in and I remember seeing the guys and girls drive into the cemetery,” Mr. Saveory recollected. “But by the time I was able to drive it was gone.”

The Butler Family’s roots in Rhode Island are deep. Samuel and Cyrus Butler were industrialists, whose wealth was accrued in part through commerce on land the family owned on the Seekonk River in the 1800s, especially. Cyrus Butler, in whose name it was built, was a huge benefactor in the creation of Butler Hospital, the state’s first such facility to treat mental health issues.

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