Remains came from an old cemetery
THOROLD — Human remains unearthed over the weekend in Thorold were found on the site of the city’s first municipal cemetery.
Long before it was flooded to serve as a reservoir for the Welland Canal, the property near Lakeview Cemetery was a burial ground for some of Thorold’s earliest settlers.
The land where skeletal remains were recovered Sunday — east of the canal near Lock 7 — was once home to two churches, dating back more than two centuries.
“As far as I know, that would be the first tangible proof people were still buried there when the cemetery was flooded,” said Randy Barnes, president of the Thorold and Beaverdams Historical Society
Niagara Regional Police said an “amateur historian” was searching the area for metal artifacts Sunday when he turned up human bones and a casket handle instead.
The area is usually submerged beneath the canal holding pond, but was accessible because the water level is low.
Police said foul play is not suspected, but the remains were sent to Hamilton General Hospital to be examined by a forensic pathologist.
Results aren’t expected for at least a couple more days, Det. Tim Sviergula said Monday afternoon.
It’s possible the remains date back more than 200 years. A Lutheran and Presbyterian church — sometimes referred to as The Old German Church — once stood on the property where the bones were found.
It’s not known exactly when the church opened its doors, but it welcomed its first minister in 1801.
Barnes said prominent Thorold settler Jacob Ball donated land to be used as a cemetery beside the church in 1802.
The log church ceased functioning and was replaced by St. Peter’s Anglican Church in 1838, which continued to use the adjoining burial ground.
Because of its small size and out-of-the-way location, St. Peter’s was replaced by St. John’s Anglican Church downtown in 1856, Barnes said.
St. Peter’s was used only occasionally afterward for funerals and special events.
But in 1886, the cemetery was closed to new burials when nearby Lakeview Cemetery opened.
Barnes said remains in the old church cemetery were move to Lakeview in 1923 when the land changed hands and was to be made into a reservoir for the fourth Welland Canal.
“It’s sort of been the food for local legend that not all of the bodies ended up getting moved,” he said.
Staff with the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. have searched the area where the bones surfaced and have found no more remains, company spokesman Jean AubryMorin said.
“We’re not in a position to confirm there are no other remains on the site, but we haven’t found any,” he said Monday afternoon.
Local historian and Brock University geography professor Alun Hughes said one published report pegged the number of graves in the old cemetery “in the 900s.”
“It’s not surprising that they found remains there.... Not all of them were relocated,” he said.
Aubry-Morin said the investigation into the bones isn’t expected to require any delays to the shipping season.
The official start to the navigation season on the canal is set for March 31 at 11:30 a.m.
The water level of the canal is scheduled to be returned to normal operating levels by the end of the week, which would cover the area of the old cemetery.
“We believe the matter will be settled by then,” AubryMorin said.
Barnes said he’s hopeful a forensic examination of the remains may help identify the deceased.
However, he acknowledged making a positive ID would be very difficult.“I don’t know if there’s any actual existing records of who was buried in the cemetery because it was so old,” he said.