Pima County expects to find the remains of as many as 1,800 people during an excavation to build a courthouse downtown.
A contractor on Nov. 6 will start the archaeological project, which could take a year, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said Monday.
The county wants to find all the remains from what was called “National Cemetery” or “Government Cemetery,” a burial site from about 1860 to 1875. Most of the interred were Hispanic, although soldiers stationed at Camp Lowell were also buried there, said Linda Mayro, the county’s cultural resources manager.
The area is bounded by North Toole Avenue, East Alameda Street and North Stone Avenue. The property, owned by the county and Chicanos Por La Causa, will become the site of a building shared by Pima County Justice Court and Tucson City Court.
The site was once Tucson’s lone cemetery. In 1877, Mayor John B. “Pie” Allen called for new cemetery areas, describing National as a “dreary, bleak, desolate place,” according to Citizen archives.
The decision to unearth the grave sites, after years of construction over them, represents a “sign of the times and increased sensitivity,” Huckelberry said.
The county used burial records from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson and other sources to estimate the number of remains, but it’s not known exactly how many are there, Mayro said.
The county likely won’t be able to identify the interred unless names are on the coffins, said Roger Anyon, manager of the cultural resources and historic preservation office. Funeral objects and burial methods will help identify the ethnic or racial background of the interred.
The county will create a Web site to explain the project, but will limit access to the site out of respect for the dead and their descendents.
The remains will be given to a specific descendent group or reinterred at All Faiths Cemetery in Tucson.
To do the excavation and reinterment properly, Huckelberry said, the county and the Arizona State Museum have worked with the diocese, descendant groups such as Los Descendientes del Presidio de Tucson and American Indian tribes, including the Tohono O’odham.
In 1942, two years after the Tucson Citizen and Arizona Daily Star located on North Stone Avenue, more than 60 burials were found when a basement was enlarged for new presses, according to Citizen archives. Intact coffins were reburied.
The county has budgeted $9 million for the archeological work. The excavation and increased costs of building materials have raised the cost estimate for the court building to $110 million from $76 million, Huckelberry said. Voters approved the project in 2004.
After the archeological work, construction will take two years and will feature a plaza, retail space and a six-floor courts building.
When the building is finished, the county Board of Supervisors and administration will move from a county building on West Congress Street and into the distinctive pink Justice Court building on North Church Avenue.