The massive $3.5 billion Schuylkill Yards development that begins at 30th Street Station and extends west along Market Street and JFK Boulevard to 31st Street is taking shape in part on land that was once occupied — and may still be — by two of the city’s oldest and largest abandoned historic cemeteries.
Both burial grounds — known as the Upper Burial Ground and the Lower Burial Ground — were started by the Quakers in the 17th century, and were in use from the 1680s until the middle of the 19th century.
Here lay the Quaker dead — and a huge proportion of the non-Quaker poor, African Americans, laboring classes, immigrants, transients, and others relegated to what became burial fields for the indigent.
No records of wholesale removals or reinterments of skeletal remains from either cemetery have been found in public records. And skulls and bones have been repeatedly unearthed during construction in the neighborhood over the last century or so, according to newspaper accounts.
In one instance, as 30th Street Station was being built in 1929, a worker using a pick under a bridge at 30th and Race Street pulled up a human skull. “Several others were turned up in the next few minutes, as well as several other human bones," according to an account in The Inquirer.
In another, in 1967, the operator of a front-end loader in the rail yard uncovered and smashed a coffin-like box, exposing two skulls and a number of bones. According to the Daily News, police said that “other bones have been found there from time to time.”
How many skeletons might remain buried? Possibly thousands, according to archaeologists, but no one knows. Historical maps are unclear on the cemeteries’ boundaries, but numerous histories portray the grounds as used first by Quakers and then by the poor, whose numbers increased along with the size of the city.
Douglas Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, said that the burial grounds served as “unregulated potter’s fields” for many decades and that “people were buried out there willy-nilly.”
The Archaeological Forum has included rough maps of the cemeteries on its website of the city’s abandoned graveyards, but their presence has remained under the radar.
“Oh, my God! Wow, wow, wow!” said David Brownlee, professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania, when informed of the existence of the graveyards and their possible persistence to the present day. “Now, the interesting and important thing is to begin a discussion about how to treat this kind of thing, because it occurs all over the place.”
Drexel University, which owns most of the land for the Schuylkill Yards project — a mix of labs, offices, shops, and housing — declined to comment and referred all questions to its partner, Brandywine Realty Trust, the Radnor-based developer.
Brandywine officials said they were aware that the land was once occupied by the two cemeteries. But they said that extensive studies and historical research by George Thomas, a well-known architectural historian, indicate that it is unlikely that any human remains are still there.
In a statement, the company said: “Brandywine was notified by Philadelphia City Planning Commission that the premises proposed for development may have formerly been a Friends burial ground. We immediately sought advice from subject-matter experts and directed resources to complete a Phase I study [of the historical and documentary record] … The study initially concluded that there are no funereal objects or other evidence of a cemetery at the site."
Brandywine said it had also conducted "invasive geotechnical studies” on its own before hearing from the Planning Commission. The company is continuing to investigate and hopes to confirm its initial conclusion “in the very near future,” its statement said.
Thomas cast doubt on the existence of the Lower Burial Ground and noted that the Upper Burial Ground would have been outside of the Schuylkill Yards development area. Moreover, there was such extensive ground disruption by railroad-related construction in the 19th and 20th century, he said, it is “incredibly unlikely that anything survived" of the cemeteries.
The Archaeological Forum originally notified the Planning Commission of the presence of the cemeteries, in March, and Mooney said there is no way to determine the presence or absence of human remains without physical field tests — digging into the ground and looking. “There is so much that is not known about these burial grounds [that] we’re saying proceed with caution.”
Brandywine acknowledged that it has not performed such archaeological testing or employed a professional archaeologist to conduct analysis, although the company has not ruled that out. “If the evidence we receive warrants a Phase II archaeological study, we will perform one,” the company said in an email. A Phase II study would involve archaeological testing on the ground.
As of this week, Brandywine had not contacted any Quaker group. Such “legacy” organizations are commonly drawn into discussions by developers or public officials when pertinent historical resources are uncovered. Federal law requires such engagement if federal funds or partnerships are involved in a project. That is not the case with Schuylkill Yards, Brandywine officials said.
Reached a few days ago, Christie Duncan-Tessmer, general secretary of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, said that no one at the meeting was aware of the burial grounds and their possible disruption by development. “It is of interest to us now, and we’re looking into it,” she said in an email.
The Archaeological Forum’s online map of historic Philadelphia graveyards was posted for public reference two years ago after an abandoned burial ground on the 200 block of Arch Street was uprooted. In that case, PMC Property Group, beginning construction on an apartment complex, encountered a field of coffins from the old First Baptist Church Burial Ground, which once occupied the block.
The skeletal remains had supposedly been removed in the 19th century. But PMC discovered that was not the case and eventually allowed volunteer archaeologists onto the site to remove hundreds of ancient coffins.
Public officials from the state Historical and Museum Commission, the Department of Licenses and Inspections, and the Philadelphia Historical Commission all said at the time there was nothing they could do about the digging and the bones because they lacked jurisdiction to intervene.
The case of the Upper and Lower Burial Grounds presents a similar, although potentially much larger, difficulty. The size of the two cemeteries (collectively three or four acres and possibly much more or much less), their lengthy period of usage, the lack of regulation of interments there, and the absence of documentation and accurate mapping of the boundaries present major problems.
Echoing their position in the case of the Arch Street burial ground, city officials maintain that they have no jurisdiction over human remains uncovered in private development projects, such as Schuylkill Yards.
“The Orphans’ Court may have jurisdiction to approve removal of such remains if the developer seeks its approval,” said a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Planning and Development in an email. “We will raise the issue with the developer and encourage them to file a petition in Orphans’ Court if it appears or is likely that remains are being or will be disturbed during construction.”
“What’s the public interest in digging and commemorating a potter’s field?” said Aaron Wunsch, associate professor in landscape architecture and historic preservation at Penn. “I’d say it’s considerable. Here you will find Philadelphia — the poor, workers, African Americans. … This is the real face of the city.”
The Lower Burial Ground was begun about 1684 by Quaker settlers at or next to the farm of Thomas Duckett on the west bank of the Schuylkill, according to the 1862 book History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania by George Smith. Over the next half-century, however, the Quakers abandoned the burial ground and it became widely used as a potter’s field.
The Upper Burial Ground has a murkier history and had already been abandoned at the time of the city’s founding in 1682, according to a report in the Friends Intelligencer in the 1880s. It too quickly became a resting place for the indigent dead.
By 1813, the Upper Burial Ground was turned over to the Guardians of the Poor for use as a cemetery. The Lower Burial Ground was acquired about the same time by the city Board of Health after a legal fight with the Society of Friends, according to History of Philadelphia 1609-1884, written in 1884.
Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said he would like to see the Historical Commission join discussions about the cemeteries and the Schuylkill Yards development. Schuylkill Yards needs a professional archaeologist, he said. “Since we are well ahead of any [construction] activity, there is time to proceed in an appropriate fashion," Steinke said.
“Why not find ways to avoid another Arch Street situation? Why not make an effort to get it right this time?”