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CEMETERY SLEUTH
NORTH TONAWANDA'S CITY HISTORIAN IS UNEARTHING THE SECRETS OF SWEENEY CEMETERY

Who is buried in Sweeney Cemetery?

This is the question that haunts local historian Daniel Bille, and the reason the retired electronics teacher became a sort of cemetery sleuth.

"I've walked through the cemetery for 35 years wondering who's buried there," Bille said.

It has been that long since vandals stole or destroyed headstones in this city's oldest graveyard, making it extremely difficult to figure out who was buried where.

Until now. Until Bille got his hands on the burial book dating back to 1920. So far, the cemetery shamus has been able to discover where 1,240 bodies are buried.

After it was established in 1868, the cemetery was owned by a private corporation - Col. John Sweeney Rural Cemetery Inc. - which couldn't afford to repair the damage, Bille said. When the City of North Tonawanda took over the ownership of the cemetery a couple of years ago, Bille - then the city's deputy historian - decided something had to be done.

The cemetery on Payne Avenue, opposite City Hall, is surrounded on three sides by working-class homes. On a recent winter's day lashed with freezing rain, Bille (pronounced Billie) slogged through ankle-deep snow carrying the a 3-inch-thick black burial book dating back to 1920.

"There's quite a bit of detective work involved," Bille said. "Many of the plots have no headstones. Much of the cemetery is like one big grassy field."

With all the original cemetery records missing, Bille obtained from interim Niagara County historian H. William Feder the burial book and a memorial study done by former county historian Dorothy Rolling, based on information on the original headstones before they were damaged or lost.

"Then it became a matter of sitting down with all the available data and going through it," Bille said.

But there are many more than 1,240 buried there.

"This is a densely-populated graveyard," said Bille. "I'm sure there are bodies buried on top of one another."

Finding where the bodies are has become Bille's chief case since recently being named city historian.

A 4-foot-long 1894 map on the wall of his office behind his house on Christiana Street, about a block from the cemetery, shows each cemetery plot with the names of the original owners, which may or may not be the same as the bodies buried there.

"As I go through the list, I find people buried in the plots with different names," said Bille. "There are bodies in there that we don't know about."

The ongoing investigation will take some digging - not literally, for there is no intention of exhuming any bodies, Bille said.

"Discarded or buried headstones, lost documentation and some dubious plot location practices means the project willcontinue to be a work in progress for some time," Bille said.

Col. John Sweeney Cemetery contains the bodies of soldiers who fought in seven wars, including at least one from the Revolutionary War -- Robert Simson, a drummer boy -- and five from the War of 1812. There are at least 44 bodies from the Civil War.

"One family lost three boys in one month in the Civil War," Bille said. "Now the whole family is buried there."

Some of the earliest bodies were originally buried in Tonawanda Creek Cemetery but were exhumed and reburied in Sweeney Cemetery after the Tonawanda Creek graveyard eroded and bodies began washing away into the river.

But after a rash of vandalism in Sweeney Cemetery in the 1950s, descendents of the dead were no longer able to tell which plots contained their ancestors.

"People from California to New Jersey were calling or writing asking about their ancestors," Bille said.

Many of the earliest residents of the Village of Tonawanda are buried in the cemetery, including its namesake John Sweeney; pioneer lumberman H.P. Smith; Dr. Jesse F. Locke, the village's first physician; John Simson, who built the first sawmill at the Tonawanda Creek dam; and Asa Ransom (1801-1891), the first white child born in Erie County, according to historical records.

Asa Ransom lies with many members of his family near the entrance to the cemetery, their small, in-ground headstones having survived the acts of vandalism that ravaged many other marker stones.

And only a bulldozer could have destroyed the cemetery's most commanding tombstone -- a 15-foot-high monument to early pioneer James Carney: "Born on the west bank of the Niagara River March 23, 1800, died Aug. 6, 1881."

There is only one black person buried in the cemetery, a woman affectionally known as Black Hannah. Hannah Johnson, born into slavery, lived on a farm owned by John Chadwick for 50 years, became known as a great fortune teller, and died at age 80, Bille recounted.

"At the Sweeney Cemetery, a large gathering assembled to take a last look at the aged soothsayer," says the obituary in an 1883 edition of the Tonawanda Herald.

Come spring, when the snow is gone, Bille and City Engineer Dale Marshall will visit the cemetery and do a "walking census."

"The cemetery is laid out on a grid and has lanes like small roads," said Marshall, whose office is across the street. "The lanes mark the boundaries of the plots, and that zeroes us right in to where the graves are."

Bille then will use the burial book to compare his records with that on the surviving headstones. For the graves without headstones, City Clerk Michael D. Cox will make a computerized list of all known people buried in the cemetery.

"This is all a jigsaw puzzle that Dan Bille is putting together," said Cox. "Once we have the data, we will prepare a report for the public's use, or for any area historical society that might want to research ancestry relating to this area."

Bille will use Cox's list to determine which plots have stones and which don't. New headstones will be placed on the graves that have none. All this could take another year, Bille said.

The original 1894 map of the plots that Bille has been using as a blueprint will be redrawn by the city's civil engineer, David Maziarz, brother of State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda.

To get the job fully done, the city will need several thousand dollars in government grants, Bille said.

City Judge Richard C. Kloch Sr. is currently handling the paperwork to have the cemetery designated a historic preservation site, making it eligible for government funding.

Copies of all the records and data Bille has unearthed have been presented to the North Tonawanda Public Library's local history section and to the Historical Society of the Tonawandas as permanent archives.

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