North Market Redevelopment Forces Columbus to Confront the Saga of the North Graveyard

Archaeologists have discovered more than 40 sets of human remains in the early stages of the $300 million Merchant Building project, which is under construction on the former parking lot.

Dave Ghose
Columbus Monthly
Excavation for the North Market expansion is underway in the former parking lot, seen here Feb. 20, 2023.

For the past eight months, Justin Zink has been digging up a buried history. Since work began last summer on the much-anticipated redevelopment of North Market on Spruce Street, the archaeologist with the Columbus engineering firm Lawhon & Associates has been in the trenches, overseeing excavations near the 147-year-old landmark. And what he’s found has been significant: more than 40 sets of human remains, including eight nearly full skeletons.

It’s also just the start. The digs on Spruce, Vine, Park and Wall streets aren’t finished yet, and crews began excavating North Market’s adjacent 1.4-acre parking lot in February. Zink declines to estimate how many sets of remains his team might find in the lot, but Ohio History Connection archaeologist Krista Horrocks, who’s consulting on the project, suggests the numbers could be considerable. “We have always known that the parking lot is the area of most concern,” says Horrocks, project reviews manager with OHC’s State Historic Preservation Office.

Zink’s work highlights an underappreciated aspect of the $300 million North Market redevelopment, rebranded as the Merchant Building in 2022. Not only do its co-developers, Rockbridge and the Edwards Cos., plan to build a boutique hotel, an 18,000-square-foot market expansion and a 31-story tower, the tallest skyscraper in Columbus in more than three decades—they also face a massive challenge below the surface: the complicated legacy of the abandoned North Graveyard.

The North Market in Downtown Columbus is undergoing a massive expansion known as the Merchant Building. The project, which is being constructed on the former parking lot, is projected to open in 2025.

North Market and its surrounding neighborhood were built on top of the 19th century burial ground, and it’s become clear in recent decades that an undetermined number of graves were never removed from the site. How many? No one knows for sure, but a May 2022 Lawhon & Associates work plan for the North Market project estimates that there could be between 142 and 523 graves with left-behind human remains in the proposed work area, as well as 40 to 150 nearly full skeletons.

The developers and the city of Columbus, which owns the 123-year-old North Market building and the adjacent parking lot, hired Lawhon to lead this aspect of the project. The initial phase has focused on utilities, with Zink and his team working alongside crews as they dig trenches for fiber optics, electrical wires and storm sewers. After removing the pavement and 2 feet of rock and soil, Zink and the other Lawhon employees look for “grave stains”—rectangular, dark markings in the dirt that indicate filled-in burial shafts. Once those are identified, the employees dig deeper into the shafts in search of bones and burial materials, such as clothing and coffin wood and nails. They document their work and findings in maps and photographs before carefully removing their discoveries for safekeeping. It’s meticulous, laborious work that can take three to nine hours to complete for each burial shaft, according to the Lawhon work plan.

Zink and his collaborators created that plan to help them complete the job “in the most respectful manner without impacting the remains in a detrimental way,” he says. The plan spells out a vast set of customized guidelines, covering everything from project methodology to ethical issues and public communications to excavation and reinternment of the remains. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. “This is a unique situation,” Zink says.

In 1813, a year after Columbus’ founding, town leaders set aside 1.5 acres just north of the city limits for a public burial ground. Over the next few decades, according to local histories and newspaper reports, the North Graveyard grew to about 11 acres, adding a fence to keep out animals and a watchman in 1839 to prevent graverobbing. The cemetery’s borders roughly extended to what is now Spruce Street to the north, High Street to the east, the railroad tracks to the south and Front Street to the west. Today, in addition to North Market, part of the Hilton Columbus Downtown, the Battleship Building, the Vine Street parking garage and several High Street businesses are on the former burial ground.

It took less than four decades for the graveyard to become obsolete. By the end of the 1840s, it was reaching capacity, and town leaders had begun to eye the property for future development. In 1849, Green Lawn Cemetery was laid out southwest of the city, offering a more natural, serene and spacious setting on 84 acres. Several prominent families—including descendants of Franklinton founder Lucas Sullivant—began to relocate their ancestors from the North Graveyard and Franklinton Cemetery to the new burial ground. “Green Lawn exists because the North Graveyard and the old Franklinton Cemetery no longer met the city’s needs,” says Randy Rogers, executive director of the Green Lawn Cemetery Association. “The cemeteries were in the flood plains. They were close to our water sources. They were landlocked.”

North Graveyard burial removals were relatively rare in the initial years following Green Lawn’s opening, but they picked up in the 1860s, when the new cemetery began to offer to exhume and reinter burials on its grounds. Then, in 1872, the Union Depot Co., the builder of the city’s first train station just east of the North Graveyard, won a lawsuit that allowed it to acquire 1.5 acres at the southern end of the cemetery. As part of that decision—which created room for an expanded rail corridor—the company agreed to reinter burials at Green Lawn. In spring 1872, workers removed 329 graves, according to a history in the Lawhon report.

More exhumations continued through the 1880s, following various lawsuits and court hearings. In 1881, the Kerr tract—the graveyard’s original 1.5-acre section, given to the city by John Kerr, Columbus’ second mayor—was one of the last sections to undergo reinterment. Workers exhumed 867 burials in this area, the location of the North Market building today. In total, 2,000 to 3,000 graves were exhumed and reburied from the 1850s to the 1880s, the Lawhon report estimates.

Columbus residents have long suspected that some bodies weren’t removed from the graveyard. Starting in 1885, there were occasional reports of workers encountering human remains while digging foundations for new buildings. But it wasn’t until much later, 2001, that the city began to fully recognize the problem. As part of a sewer project, crews discovered seven nearly complete skeletons while digging up Wall and Spruce streets near North Market, in addition to separate bones and mortuary artifacts. City officials expected they might find something, but not this much. “This is obviously going to be a bigger problem than anybody thought,” a city spokesperson said at the time.

So what happened? Why were some remains missed or ignored altogether? Some experts point to the circumstances of the time. When the city transitioned from the North Graveyard to Green Lawn, many graves were exhumed in a hurry—867 over a single month in 1881, for instance, according to the 1985 book “The Columbus City Graveyards,” by Donald M. Schlegel. And these weren’t detailed-oriented archaeologists doing the work; they were hired men off the street, rushing to finish a job. “Back then, these hired helpers were, to be blunt, digging holes, picking up what they could see—which was the skull, the long bones, maybe some ribs—throwing it in a bag and moving on,” says Horrocks of the Ohio History Connection.

What’s more, cultural factors may have contributed to the breakdown. Perhaps a family missed the Green Lawn reinternment offer, announced in local newspapers, because they had left Columbus. “There was so much movement going on back then,” Horrocks says. “There were lots of people who were just coming through Columbus. Maybe they had a child die while they’re here. They buried him, and they moved on. So they never would have known that their child’s grave was supposed to be moved.”

Ultimately, however, it may be impossible to get definitive answers. “It’s kind of the anomalous question of history—why?” Zink says. “And we don’t necessarily have a good explanation for it, to be honest.”

When the North Market expansion project was announced in 2016, OHC’s State Historic Preservation Office made sure to remind Columbus officials about the potential presence of human remains. Preservationists say Ohio laws and regulations offer few protections for abandoned cemeteries. “They’re essentially controlled by the people who own the property,” says Rogers of Green Lawn Cemetery. “And a lot of it is up to the social consciousness of those people.” Columbus historian Doreen Uhas Sauer jokes that the best way to prevent the plowing under of abandoned burial grounds is a viewing of the movie “Poltergeist,” the 1982 film about a haunted house built on a former cemetery. “Because there is nothing else that stops people from doing that,” Uhas Sauer says. “It’s not illegal in any way.”

With the Merchant Building project, preservationists say those involved are acting responsibly. They’ve listened to concerns and worked closely with their archaeological contractor, Lawhon & Associates, to put together a thoughtful plan to remove the remains in an ethical manner. “Everything that I’ve seen and heard is that it’s a good partnership,” Rogers says. (The developers, Rockbridge and the Edwards Cos., declined to comment for this story.)

After exhuming the remains from the North Market site, Zink and his team are taking them to Lawhon’s offices on King Avenue. Later in 2023, the bones are expected to go through an osteological analysis, which will help determine age, gender, ancestry and other characteristics. Zink will compile the information into a final report, but he thinks the project’s data is ripe for further scientific study. “I could easily see master’s theses or scholarly articles coming out of this, because it is a window into the history of the city that you don’t get every day,” he says.

Finally, the bones will be reburied in unmarked graves in a section at Green Lawn dedicated to North Graveyard. This section is marked by a 32,000-pound granite boulder with a bronze wolf on top of it. Green Lawn officials put some thought into the statue. After first settling on the west side of the Scioto River in Franklinton, the pioneers of Columbus crossed over to what was then known as Wolf’s Ridge on the opposite bank, chasing away the eponymous predators.

But when some of these pioneers died and were buried in North Graveyard, they, too, were lost to history, just like the animals they had eradicated. “There was an interesting parallel story between the wolves of Wolf’s Ridge and the pioneers of Wolf’s Ridge,” Rogers says. 

This story is from the March 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly. It has been updated to include information about the start of the North Market parking lot excavation.