Long-lost graves found at Water Street Tampa were no surprise

The massive Water Street Tampa development is being built in one of the oldest parts of downtown Tampa, so the discovery of what appear to be old graves on the site comes as no surprise.
Published November 30
Updated November 30

TAMPA — The massive Water Street Tampa project is located in and named for one of the oldest parts of the city, so it came as no surprise when work at one of the construction sites recently turned up what appear to be grave shafts that date to the 1830s.

Developers have spent months working with historians, archaeologists and other experts to be ready for just such a find.

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The planning has been painstaking, according to a 71-page archeological and historical assessment work plan prepared by Cardno, a global consulting firm with an office in Riverview. The firm has been working for Strategic Property Partners, the Water Street Tampa development company formed by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment.

BACKGROUND: Water Street Tampa uncovers graves from 1800s and more of city’s past

As a result, Strategic says, finding these suspected graves is not expected to have a significant impact on Strategic’s announced construction schedules.

Because of downtown Tampa's history — the original Fort Brooke dates to 1824 — local development rules require proposed developments in the central business district be reviewed to determine whether they are archaeologically or historically significant.

Such research is necessary because the Native Americans who lived along Tampa Bay, troops at Fort Brooke and early pioneers all left traces of their lives over downtown. The evidence ranges from discarded oyster shells and chipped flecks of rock to trash pits, old post holes, buttons, building foundations, soil stains left by structures or coffins and two old cemeteries. Maybe the best-known find occurred in 1980 when workers removed a concrete slab while getting ready to build the Fort Brooke Parking Garage. Before the job was done, the remains of 84 soldiers and 42 Seminoles were exhumed.

For Water Street Tampa, Cardno reviewed old surveys, maps, research papers and other records related to four areas north of Channelside Drive that are slated for near-term development in the process of creating the work plan.

Because Water Street includes land that is believed to contain remains from Fort Brooke, developers and their archaeologists made an archaeological assessment of each area, with recommendations for excavations, including doing some work with an archaeologist present or, in certain circumstances, doing excavations by shovel instead of with heavy machinery.

At Water Street, archaeological testing has been underway for several months and has continued as construction moves north of Channelside Drive. Project sites already under construction were explored starting this year. There, researchers found what developers have described as minor artifacts that were documented and preserved. But they found nothing of archaeological significance, so construction was given the green light to proceed.

Among other things, Strategic's team thought it might find a nearly forgotten graveyard, known as the Estuary Cemetery, north of Channelside Drive, so they took "additional steps to ensure that any potential findings would be handled with the proper respect, deserving of the settlers of Fort Brooke," Strategic said in a statement on its team's work. In 1914, the Tampa Daily Times quoted longtime Tampa resident Jeannette Haskins saying that the military abandoned the cemetery, then settlement moved in, and "the burying ground, where hundreds of soldiers and civilians lay, in time became obliterated and passed out of all remembrance.”

Now an undisclosed number of grave shafts believed to date back to the 1830s have been discovered. Strategic has not said where they were found or when they were discovered. The company has said its team is working to ensure that whatever has been found is treated with respect and dignity. For now, the contents of the grave shafts are believed to have deteriorated because of age, environmental factors and previous development during the 1960s and '70s. In the past, the areas in question have included shotgun houses, train tracks and industry, including the Eli Witt cigar factory warehouse and a citrus business called Bruce's Juices.

In the meantime, Strategic said its construction projects north of Channelside have had time built into their development schedules to allow for archaeological research and any work to mitigate the impact of development on findings of historical import. Cardno, for example, recommended the removal of any brick roads or concrete slabs at least six months ahead of the start of development.

If what's been found turns out to contain human remains, graves, funeral objects or items of "cultural patrimony," then Cardno has outlined a step-by-step response plan, starting with a stop of all work and the establishment of a 25-foot radius around the find, plus:

• Securing the area with a screened and locked fence, and covering the remains with a tarp to protect them and shield them from being photographed. (For this reason, Strategic asks that the public stay away from its construction zones.)

• Analyzing remains as they are uncovered to document the locations of identifiable bones, as well as to try to determine age, gender, type of burial, signs of injury or illness and heritage.

• If Native American remains are identified, photographs would be made only to comply with state law concerning dead bodies and graves and would be used only to fulfill requirements of that law. Excavated remains that are or could be Native American would be stored in linen, unbleached paper or other natural fibers, placed in secure bins and stored off site. Native American tribes would be consulted on the disposition of any such remains. If the remains are soldiers, reburials would be coordinated with the U.S. military.

If necessary, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says, the city has space at Oaklawn or other cemeteries where some reburials could take place.

"We will help facilitate that they find a final resting place," he said, "and that it's done respectfully."

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