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Westland — A group of volunteers attempting to uncover and identify the graves of as many as 7,000 forgotten people has run into resistance from Wayne County officials.

Citing several concerns, including damage to county property and liability, the county has told members of the Eloise Cemetery Research Project to cease their work at the site near the former Eloise Hospital. Work can resume once they obtain insurance and present a formal project plan in conjunction with the Friends of Eloise, a nonprofit dedicated to researching and preserving the hospital’s history.

County officials issued the order during a meeting Friday with representatives of both groups, said Tiffany C. Jackson, a spokeswoman for the Wayne County Department of Public Services.

“We are not against the Eloise Cemetery Research Project. We want to make sure no one gets hurt,” Jackson said Tuesday. “We would like for their volunteers to coordinate with the Friends of Eloise because we already have an established relationship with them.”

Fred Kuplicki, a local historian and genealogist who is advising the research project, hopes efforts to restore the cemetery are not halted for long.

“I’m very disappointed that we have to stop our work,” Kuplicki said. “I just hope we can all work together to reach some type of agreement.”

John Byrnes organized the research project in hopes of having the Eloise Cemetery recognized by Wayne County.

“We are not asking for money. This is something that we have put an effort into ourselves,” Byrnes said. “We just want a fence put up around the area, some of the trees to be torn down and for people to know there is a cemetery here.”

Growing up in western Wayne County, Byrnes heard stories about a graveyard where poor, unclaimed patients from the former hospital were buried and then forgotten.

His curiosity — and a GPS unit — finally led him last spring to a field of unkempt grass, surrounded by a grove of pine trees, south of Michigan Avenue off Henry Ruff Road. It didn’t look like a cemetery, but Byrnes pulled out a shovel and went to work.

“I took a chance and started digging,” he said. “The first grave marker I found had the number 18 scrawled on a small square of cement.”

Byrnes and a group of volunteers have been trying to uncover graves, identify at least some of the people buried in them and, when possible, connect them with descendants.

“I cried when I uncovered my first grave marker. I was so overwhelmed with sadness,” said volunteer Felicia Sills of Wayne. “This was someone’s friend or family member that may have been forgotten. There is a lot of history in this field.”

Few graves identified

So far, the group has only identified a small number of those buried in the Eloise Cemetery. Kuplicki has compiled a list of 46 names, with burial dates ranging from 1880 to 1949.

Kuplicki said the birth records found for those people reflect the pattern of immigration from Europe to Metro Detroit in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Many of the earliest burials were from Ireland, followed by people from Germany, Poland, Belgium, Greece, Syria followed decades later by Southern whites and Afro-Americans from the South,” he said.

The hospital complex, which included a psychiatric facility and a general hospital, closed in the 1980s.

The volunteers don’t have much to go on when it comes to figuring out who’s buried in all of the graves. They haven’t found any burial records, for instance, and conditions at the graveyard present researchers with another obstacle.

“The process is severely hampered by the appearance and condition, lack of maintenance of the cemetery with the numbered lot markers buried under the surface, most are 2 inches to 3 inches, others are as much as 6 inches to 8 inches below the surface,” Kuplicki said.

Even worse is the extreme south of the site, where about 2,500 graves are obstructed by fallen trees, poison ivy and weeds as tall as a foot-and-a-half “covering over the ground making any detection nearly impossible,” he said.

But as word spreads about the cemetery and the suspended effort to clean it up, Byrnes and others are getting inquiries from people who think they may have a relative buried there.

One of the few graves with a readable name on the stone identifies the person as Ed Thomas. The volunteers cleared the area around the gravestone and erected a wooden cross with Thomas’ name emblazoned across it in golden block letters.

Byrnes’ discovery has some families wondering if they have an ancestor buried at Eloise.

Dan Szwaluk of Gibraltar and his wife, Sharon Szwaluk, were researching her family history and discovered her great-great grandfather was a patient at Eloise Hospital and may have been buried in the cemetery in 1927.

“Her great-great grandfather, Andrew Sulich, died of complications due to diabetes, but because of family conflict, no one claimed his body,” Szwaluk said. “For years, we went to Wayne County trying to find hospital records but were told they were destroyed.”

Dan Szwaluk said in 1998, they obtained Sulich’s death certificate in Lansing, but there is still no record of where he is buried.

“We checked the surrounding cemeteries and he is not listed, so we are pretty sure he is in the potter’s field,” Szwaluk said. “We are not going to quit looking. Eventually, something has to turn up.”

Others have noticed the efforts of the Eloise Research Project as well. Jeff Kujat of River Rouge helps to maintain a nearby burial ground, the Butler/William Ganong Cemetery, and hopes to partner with the Eloise volunteers to get security for both.

Over the years, the Ganong cemetery, which dates to the 1830s, has attracted those looking for evidence of ghosts or other paranormal activity. In some cases, people have sneaked in at night to perform rituals.

According to a Detroit News article from 2000, volunteers cleaning up the site several years earlier found a black kettle containing feathers, bones and other charms.

“I was just intrigued with all of the history that is in this one area,” said Kujat, who also runs the Butler/William Ganong Facebook page. “There are war veterans buried here and I think people should show more respect.”

‘Preserve history’

When Dan Szwaluk visited Eloise Cemetery, a few years ago, he noticed grave marker 666 was missing.

“We speculate it was stolen for some kind of ritual,” Szwaluk said. “At the time, Ed Thomas’ tomb was cracked open and the head was missing. It was very bizarre.”

Byrnes frequently visits the Eloise cemetery.“It’s very peaceful out here and I feel a sense of solitude,” he said. “We may never find out who the people are that are buried out here, but many of them helped contribute to the advancement of medicine.”

“Our main goal is to help preserve history,” he added. “No matter what color creed or race, everyone buried here should have some type of dignity and honor in their final resting place.”

ksmith3@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-1855

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