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Mapmaker helped unlock mystery of cemetery

The directions to the cemetery were cryptic:

"East along Woods Road 3/10 mile, then walk northwest through woods for approximately 100 yards, (through brush and weeds, no road) cemetery lies ahead and obscured by undergrowth."

These words, which came without a map, accompanied a 1941 federal survey of veterans cemeteries, and pointed to a location somewhere in Hudson, off State Road 52 and Canton Avenue.

Trouble is, Woods Road doesn't exist on county maps any more. So where was the unmarked cemetery?

In mid November, the mystery nearly derailed the school district's property negotiations.

District officials were four days from signing a contract to buy an $8-million, 37-acre property in the area for a much-needed high school, when local historian and cemetery expert Jeff Cannon alerted them to the possible cemetery.

If it's true, assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said, the deal was off.

"It would have been difficult to make the recommendation to the School Board," he said.

Yet few alternative sites were available. The possibility of bodies underfoot aside, the proposed site seemed perfect, and the district desperately needs high schools.

Enter county mapmaker E. Dumas, a trail of ancient Mosquito Control Board aerial photographs, and some 21st century detective work.

The search

Dumas was recruited in May to make maps for Pasco.

He does them all, from hurricane evacuation maps to those for the county's road-building budget.

As e-mails flew back and forth, drawing in people like cemetery buff and Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson, Dumas received a note asking if he had any information.

He did not, but the subject intrigued Dumas enough for him to make two calls - one to Cannon, and another to the University of Florida, which has a lesser-known function as the state's official map library.

"I met with him and spent a whole day with him," Cannon said. "I had copies of the survey and some aerials. As we were talking, he got the aerials from Gainesville."

They began piecing together clues to the elusive Woods Road.

Ancient plats, from 1914 and 1926, offered no help. Neither did a 1944 U.S. Geological Survey map.

But there were four grainy, decades-old aerial photographs, dated 1941, 1952, 1957 and 1998, taken by the Mosquito Control Board in its attempts to tackle Pasco's bug problem.

Only one of them, from 1957, showed a barely visible ribbon extending northeast from unnamed roads that looked like SR 52 and Little Road.

But it was enough.

"We used the aerial to get GPS coordinates, followed the directions from the survey, and it was obvious that this particular road was Woods Road," Dumas said.

Turns out the cemetery is just outside the proposed school site. There is still some debate whether it is in the back yard of the Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bayonet Point - a possibility which has already created a headache for the Rev. Kent Fuqua and his church's expansion plans - or a little farther south.

Dumas and Cannon think it could contain between 50 and 600 bodies.

School moves forward

With some relief, the district has since signed the contract to buy its 37 acres.

"They're still going to conduct ground-penetrating radar studies on the property," Cannon said. "But I would say the cemetery is probably not on the 37 acres."

Although the school won't disturb the dead, it is causing plenty of concern among the living.

As with most high school proposals, this one is facing protests from neighbors unhappy about the prospect of noise, traffic and potentially unruly students. Gadd still wants to give the community time to work out its issues with an incoming high school.

But at least one major problem was resolved, thanks to the district's novel experiment using Dumas' services.

"It was stressful because we were hoping there wasn't a cemetery," Gadd said "But the actual process was kind of fun."

Along the way, Gadd learned how to spot clues of an unmarked cemetery: Look for non-native plant species, the legacy of people leaving flowers at graves. Look for different variations in earth tones, which hint where dirt has been turned. Look for seashells, which locals used to mark grave sites.

And one last thing Gadd took away from the experience:

"I told my wife, when I die, I'm not going to be buried," he quipped. "I'm going to be cremated."

Chuin-Wei Yap covers growth and development. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.

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