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Historic Burlington cemetery needs expensive repairs

Periodic discussions with the City of Burlington have yet to clarify the future of the historic Union Burial Ground in Aldershot.

The cemetery, which was founded by the families of United Empire Loyalists around the middle of the 19th century, has suffered from crumbling walls for several years. The damage is visible from Plains Road.

Planting trees too close to the pioneer-era walls is believed to have contributed to the collapse of sections of the wall.

“We understand the historical significance of the cemetery and the importance to the community, that is why we are currently working with the Cemetery Trustees to come up with a suitable plan for all parties“, according to a statement issued by the City.

The historic brick walls collapsed in several places primarily because trees were planted too close. Over time their roots weakened the field stone foundations.

The Cemetery Board repaired some of the walls in the past but the problems continue.

“There’s three breaks in the wall right now, two on the front wall facing Plains Road and one on the west wall. All three have been caused by tree roots. And if we’re not careful, close to the gate – there’s a large crack in the wall there” said Stephen Davis, President of the Board of Trustees.

Brickwork more than 170 years old is crumbling

Negotiations continue with the City, on and off, but are moving slowly.

James Fisher, Secretary-Treasurer of the Board provided some background on the talks. “I on behalf of the cemetery Board am still working with the City on the agreement for the City to assume management of the Cemetery (and fix the wall). The first version drafted by the City was unacceptable to the Board (2017 or 18). Since then there have been several meetings going over the same stuff with different City staff. There has been agreement on what the legal document should contain, but a new draft has never been prepared.”

The cemetery is important to Burlington, not only because of its connection with the United Empire Loyalists, but because some of its founding families played major roles in the history of the City. These included the Davis, Peart, Fisher, Kent, Ghent and Kerns families.

“We bought the land off Joseph Brant and I still have the deed, signed by Joseph Brant……   I have the original bill for the graveyard wall”, said Mr. Davis.

If ownership of the cemetery was eventually transferred to the City, there would be some cash to go with it. “We have a perpetuity fund and we were willing to give that up as well” said Mr. Davis. The cost of repairs however could be huge.

The City is insisting that the walls be repaired using all the original historic materials and that all heritage regulations be followed. “Everything including the foundation must be original material and construction methods………  Ball park numbers for the entire project would not be less than $1,000,000. All this led us to the conclusion that only the City would have the resources to fix the wall.” said Fisher.

The reality is that, if and when the Trustees give up responsibility, the City may be required to take it on. “If a pioneer graveyard is abandoned, there’s a Provincial statute that says the municipality must take it over and do maintenance on it”, according to Davis.

There may be another issue as well. Years ago the City built a retaining wall adjacent to the cemetery in order to accommodate changes to Plains Road, but according to Davis:

“We had some type of agreement on the wall the city put up when it lowered Plains Road. We always felt that it wasn’t sufficient enough. The ground was moved and caused us a little bit of trouble. And even that retaining wall is not very sturdy. A couple of pieces have fallen off it too”.

In her book on the history of Burlington Memories of Pioneer Days author Dorothy Turcotte reported that the original wall was built in 1848 by mason Jabez Bent to the following specifications.

“Stone wall to be laid 18 in. below the surface of the Earth…then on the said stone wall a brick wall to be erected 8 in. thick & 3ft. 9 in. high…an opening to be left in centre of front on the wall 8 ft. wide and two strong piers on each side of said opening 16 in. square….”

According to Mr. Davis some veterans of the war of 1812 are also buried in the cemetery.

The cemetery is still in use, mainly for cremations, and there remain some empty grave sites for descendants of the original families.

By Rick Craven

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