As part of the development for the new Merchant Building, archeologists have begun excavating what could be hundreds of graves beneath the North Market parking lot—formerly the site of the North Graveyard. This series, Come Get Your Dead, will explore the long, weird afterlife of the North Graveyard—once the final resting place for some of Columbus’ earliest citizens—and follow the team of scientists currently attempting to exhume and rebury those who were left behind.
Graveyard Shift at the Apron Gala
Every spring for more than 20 years North Market has hosted the Apron Gala. With tickets ranging from $125 to $150 each, all proceeds go to the North Market Development Authority. But unlike a more traditional fundraising gala, there are no assigned seats, no multi-course dinners, no special videos projected onto giant ballroom screens. Instead, guests at the Apron Gala get the chance to walk through North Market, sampling food and drinks from almost every vendor—and traditionally, each guest wears their favorite apron.
On May 19, North Market hosted the 2023 Apron Gala, and Rick Harrison Wolfe was busy. As North Market’s Executive Director and CEO, he made an effort to greet, shake hands and gossip with as many of the gala’s 500 guests as possible. Many of them were eager to talk about one subject in particular.
“The graveyard and the remediation thing was probably the number one thing at Gala,” said Wolfe months later. “I don’t think I’ve ever talked about it as much in one night as I did that night.”
Late into the evening, as the gala started to wind down, Wolfe took to the patio stage and thanked everyone who came and everyone who continued to support North Market—especially with such big changes on the horizon. Wolfe knew he would need all the support he could get as the market began its long-anticipated expansion in tandem with the construction of a 31-story tower where the parking lot used to be.
The project would secure North Market’s future—and, Wolfe told the gala crowd, it would finally “right the wrongs of 150 years.”
Everyone knew what that meant, even if they didn’t know that a few hours earlier, the archeologist Justin Zink of Lawhon & Associates confirmed that his team had completed the excavation of hundreds of graves, just on the other side of the Market from where Wolfe was addressing the apron-clad crowd.
A Considerable Quantity
Even before North Market existed, it was already spiritually linked with the North Graveyard.
By the time of the Civil War, the North Graveyard—bounded by Spruce Street to the North, Park Street to the West, High Street to the East and what is now Convention Center Drive to the South—was terribly overcrowded, and the city decreed that burials there had to cease. By the early 1870s, hundreds of bodies had already been exhumed and moved to Green Lawn Cemetery to make room for new railroads.
It’s important to remember that what we think of today as Downtown Columbus was, at that time, the north end of the city—and the North End was up-and-coming. To North Enders, the old, overgrown and overcrowded North Graveyard represented several acres of prime real estate owned by a city in terrible debt. If Columbus was already clearing out part of the graveyard for the railroads, the people of the North End could think of even more useful ways to use some of that land—for example, a public market.
So throughout the Spring and Summer of 1873, the city exhumed more and more graves, clearing more and more valuable property for resale. The Columbus Evening Dispatch eagerly reported all the macabre and somber details—the young lady’s corpse preserved for 20 years in her iron coffin, the respected South Carolina judge whose elaborate tombstone was purchased by the Columbus Bar Association, the exhumations from “Cholera Row” where many victims of the 1849 pandemic appeared to have been buried in communal graves without caskets.
There were darkly humorous episodes—after a mixup of corpses, a white man discovered he’d accidentally exhumed and reinterred the body of a Black man at Green Lawn, thinking it was his grandfather. Some North Enders had to be admonished for letting their cattle graze in the graveyard, breaking down tombstones.
A small note of protest sounded at that summer’s Old Folks’ Festival at the Fairgrounds, where one of the speakers “assailed the act of removing dead from the North Graveyard.” But otherwise, there was little complaint—at least, none that was reported by the Columbus Evening Dispatch. Indeed, by the end of summer, the Dispatch mused that since the North Graveyard was finally being cleared, the property could now be sold off to replenish the city’s coffers, and the rest might be used for a “market house or other public purposes.”
“The city is in debt and has need of money,” wrote the Dispatch. “The great north end is growing and wants a market house.”
Provisions had been made for the graveyard’s more illustrious residents. The Ohio House of Representatives passed a resolution ensuring that a long-dead House member would be properly removed and not forgotten. And, of course, those who still had obvious tombstones over their resting places were easily located, exhumed and moved to Green Lawn.
But as we now know, many were buried without tombstones, or their tombstones had deteriorated over time—destroyed, perhaps, by wandering cattle. Others did not have surviving family or friends in the area who could direct the authorities to their graves. These unfortunate deceased were left behind as Columbus moved on and the people of the North End got their wish.
On October 16, 1876, the Dispatch reported that, “workmen engaged in grading about the North End Market House, which has been built in the old graveyard, exhumed a considerable quantity of human bones.”
“We’ve Done The Right Thing”
Wolfe is an executive with the laid-back cadence and bearing of a California surf shop owner. His office on North Market’s second floor is maximalist in its organized clutter of books, artifacts and artwork—including one large depiction of the old Quonset hut that housed the market from 1948 to 1995. Wolfe and his family lived in Columbus when North Market was still in that prefabricated, steel hut with no foundation, no basement and no air conditioning.
“I remember that as a kid, and it was something,” said Wolfe. “It was quite a treat to come down here in those days.”
Sitting behind his desk, wearing sandals, ball cap, and glasses clinging to the end of his nose, Wolfe gestures through the walls to the various locations around the building where archeologists have excavated human remains.
“The main thing is, quite honestly, to right the wrongs of 150 years,” said Wolfe, repeating his comments at the Apron Gala in May.
“A lot of stuff has been disrupted around here and hopefully every time something was found it was done properly. But I don’t know, I wasn’t here,” said Wolfe. “But here we are today and we’ve finally done that. We’ve done the right thing in the right way, which hadn’t been done over the history of this thing…I’ve never avoided the conversation. I mean, when people are screaming and yelling in my face that I’m…‘desecrating members of my family,’ I say, that I am not. Quite the opposite…But I get the emotion with it and so forth and those things did happen from time to time…which is fine, if someone needs a sounding board for that sort of thing.”
It’s true North Market has always been associated with the North Graveyard, but not always fairly. Wolfe was irked, with good reason, that many people assume the cemetery was located only within the bounds of the former North Market parking lot.
“Everybody always seemed to think the parking lot was the graveyard and there was nothing else,” said Wolfe. “And that’s not the case, but okay. It was part of it, that’s for darn sure. But it wasn’t just that thing and then we made it into a parking lot.”
In reality the North Graveyard was vast, with as many as 8,000 people buried on land that is now occupied by the Hilton hotel, the Vine Street parking garage, Novak’s Tavern & Patio, Char Bar, Martini Modern Italian, Mikey’s Late Night Slice, Agave & Rye, Barley’s Brewing Company, Kooma Sushi, Granero Lounge, Denmark, Secret Cellar, and an escape room, among other things.
In fact, the majority of what was once the North Graveyard is now private property—and has been since the city sold off cemetery plots after the removals of the 1870s and 1880s—while North Market is city property. This is an important distinction, because it means that any development on land owned by North Market—and thus the city of Columbus—must conform to the National Historic Preservation Act. It is for that reason that archeological firms like Weller & Associates in 2001 and Lawhon & Associates in 2023 are called upon to respectfully and scientifically exhume human remains from North Market and its environs.
It is also for that reason that we know a great deal more about the human remains buried under North Market than we do about those still buried under the privately-owned sections of the old North Graveyard—thus creating the impression that the cemetery was the parking lot and the parking lot was the cemetery.
When he first started as North Market’s executive director more than a decade ago, Wolfe used archival material and old Dispatch articles to educate himself on the history of the market and the land it sits on—the original market house from 1876 that burned down in 1948, the Quonset hut purchased by intrepid merchants who pooled their money together, and the 19th century storage facility owned by Nationwide which in 1995 finally became the North Market Columbus knows and loves today.
And of course, from all of that research, Wolfe knew about the plot of land’s original purpose.
It’s never been a secret that there was once a large graveyard in Downtown Columbus. Nor has it really ever been a secret that not all of the bones buried in that graveyard were properly removed. What’s interesting is how often this thing that’s not a secret seems to take Columbus by surprise.
In 1914, for example, renovations were completed on the old North Market building and the Dispatch took the opportunity to remind Columbus residents that there had once been a cemetery there.
“Finally, however, the so-called friends of progress prevailed and the process of removing the bodies began,” wrote the Dispatch. “It required several months of time and meantime the plans for the market were materializing.”
Two years later, the Columbus Citizen issued another reminder.
“Did you know that at one time the principal burying ground in Columbus was within seven blocks of Broad and High Streets?” wrote the Citizen in 1916. “The old ‘North Graveyard’ was situated between Front and High Streets and ran north of the railroad tracks entering the Union station to Spruce street. North Market house now stands in the center of the north end of the old cemetery.”
There was, however, a newsworthy reason for the Citizen to once again write about the old cemetery. In yet another iteration of a now-familiar story, workers who were tearing down old buildings at the site had stumbled upon a series of tombstones.
Fast forward to 1991 and the Franklin County Coroner’s Office received a call from North Market, where some excavators discovered a few dozen human bones on Spruce Street—“a ghoulish reminder of the former use for land near the North Market,” reports the Dispatch.
Then, a decade later, sewer work on the streets surrounding North Market uncovers almost 40 graves with human remains, necessitating the first comprehensive archeological study of the site by Ryan Weller and his team. Once again, the North Graveyard had issued one of its ghoulish reminders, even as it routinely disappears from the city’s cultural memory. Even at North Market, the cemetery was never a common topic of conversation.
“Once in a while it would pop up,” said Wolfe. “Around Halloween, the haunted tours and things would always come here…but other than that, I mean day-to-day, before we started this project, not so much.”
Wolfe proposed the idea of expanding North Market—along with the project that would eventually become the Merchant Building—in 2016. What to do about the bones under the parking lot—if any were still there—was among the first priorities.
“It was certainly more in the limelight when we did the and announced what we were going to do,” said Wolfe. “The city was clearly always aware of what was going on and I was aware of what was there and from the very beginning we did exactly what we said we were going to do.”
This time, the city knew what it was dealing with. This time everyone involved would have the research and data collected by Don Schlegel and Ryan Weller to reference. This time everyone would go into the project with open eyes. North Graveyard would not surprise Columbus, not this time.
“I never sat here and said there’s nothing out there…I know there’s a lot of shafts, I mean hopefully those folks have been relocated,” said Wolfe. “But we found out.”
Life After Spruce Street
It was October, 2021 when Dr. Kevin Nolan of the Applied Anthropological Laboratories at Ball State Universityconducted ground penetrating radar surveys of the North Market parking lot—the first major step in Lawhon & Associates’ exploration of the former North Graveyard.
“I remember it was during the pandemic, so it was easy to do, there wasn’t a lot going on out there,” said Wolfe of the GPR survey. “All they really identified was shafts…and I think there was a lot of old research that they found of the plots and they laid the picture on the old thing. So at that point in time, yes we knew there was a lot of shafts out there.”
At the time, however, Wolfe still hoped that the remaining grave shafts under North Market had already been excavated in the late 1800s and the remains inside taken to Green Lawn. But the early excavations on the streets surrounding the market in 2022 suggested a lot more might be found.
“I would go down there a lot, it was sort of just them and us, there wasn’t any other construction going on,” said Wolfe. “It was fascinating, and it really…it did open my eyes to probably what was to come when we started moving south.”
Wolfe recalled meeting the younger archeologists at the dig site for whom this was the first real opportunity to participate in an excavation. They were happy to explain their methods and progress to him as he stood over the trench, looking down at some of Columbus’ earliest residents just a few feet below.
“It was fascinating…I mean one site in particular that had, there was someone face-up and there was someone wedged sideways,” recalled Wolfe. “I mean, they were there. I saw that. And I said, what in the world?”
Wolfe came to believe that much of the density in the graves discovered by the archeologists could be explained by the fact that people in the early 1800s often interred their dead wherever they could in cemeteries like North Graveyard—sometimes illegally to avoid burial fees.
“I think everybody used every nook and cranny that they could find in here,” said Wolfe. “Didn’t have good security here back in the day, obviously.”
By the time Lawhon & Associates finished their excavations in 2022—recovering the remains of about 40 individuals from the streets surrounding North Market—it seemed more likely that the parking lot would yield a considerable quantity of human bones.
“After Spruce Street it said to me, ‘Oh gosh what could there be?’” said Wolfe. “But at the same time after the it was like, yeah there’s a lot of shafts, but we expected that. And then clearly more was found than was anticipated.”
Wolfe was much less involved in the excavations of the parking lot in the Spring of 2023. This was partially because while the street excavations of 2022 were a city project, the parking lot excavations of 2023 were contracted by Rockbridge—the development company constructing the Merchant Building.
The other reason is the archeologists were quite busy, working 10-hour days at $16 an hour and exerting an extraordinary amount of effort to excavate all human remains from the development area as fast as possible. At a July City Council hearing, Lawhon & Associates osteologist Tara Rose Cassano described how the archeologists eventually had to expand their team of field technicians to 32 in order to complete the work.
“We expected to encounter roughly 200 mostly-empty graves,” said Cassano. “Well, that quickly changed as we found many multiples more, with a higher percentage of intact burials than anticipated.”
That July hearing was the first time Wolfe met Cassano, and in general there was far less communication from the archeologists with regard to the parking lot dig site, as opposed to the 2022 excavation. He could roughly track the progress of the excavation by watching the white tents move across the lot, but as for how many graves were actually discovered, “Quite honestly no one’s even thrown a number out to me.”
“There was a lot of one bone, two bones, this or that, but not 800 or 1,000 complete remains,” said Wolfe. “And I think that’s also important for people to understand.”
North Market has changed shapes and structures, it’s been built up and burned down, but it has always sat atop the graves of Columbus’ earliest citizens. Spiritually, the market and the graveyard have always shared land and history, and Wolfe is generally comfortable with that association.
“It’s very much part of our history, in a somewhat not-on-purpose way,” said Wolfe. “But it is certainly part of our history…and I think, talking to City Council and the city, we will pay respect and have some sort of identification of what was once here.”
The ultimate form of that identification—whether a memorial or a historical marker or something else—has not been determined, but Wolfe is adamant that it will be put in place.
“There will be some sort of historical reference marker, referencing the North Graveyard. One hundred percent,” said Wolfe. “Quite honestly I wish there had been already. It wasn’t a dirty secret that we all just said, don’t talk about it. Never, ever did I approach it like that. Again, it’s part of our history.”