A bit of history lies buried in Benjamin Rush State Park

There is a graveyard in Benjamin Rush State Park.

It’s located somewhere in the eastern corner of the site, said local historian Jack McCarthy. The burial ground dates back more than 200 years, but exactly where it is isn’t easy to determine, he said in a November phone interview.

It’s a little Northeast history mystery.

Very little. The plot is about a quarter-acre, said Helen File, treasurer of the Byberry Meeting (Friends) and president of its board of trustees. The Friends had looked after the tiny graveyard set up for freed slaves from 1780 until it was sold to the city in 1980, she said.

“It’s very small,” she said in an interview. “We’re only aware of one burial.”

There might be more, but there are no records of any kind, she said.

“People could be buried there and nobody would know,” she added.

There are no markers that would help pinpoint exactly where the plot is, she said.

Friends didn’t believe in tombstones, she said. Besides, she added, gravestones really weren’t in vogue until about the middle of the 19th century.

Even when the state completes a long-awaited development of the park’s 275 acres this year, there won’t be any markers, she said.

The plot likely will be mentioned on any information about the property the state posts in the park, she said, but that won’t be near the graveyard, which, as small as it is, might not be completely in the park. Some of it might be on adjacent city property.

The historic burial ground is shown in the extreme right on a map the state released when funds for park improvements were announced in 2010. The plot is in an area that will not be touched by construction that began in late December. It’s thought to be somewhere beyond the end of Burling Avenue, the neglected city street that runs from Roosevelt Boulevard through the park. Burling Avenue will be covered over when construction is complete in 2013.

The park’s acres on the east side of the Boulevard were used as farms, File said. It’s virgin ground, she said. It’s never been dug up for a building foundation and nothing ever has been built on it. Vegetables for Holmesburg Prison were grown on the land, she said. Prisoners were brought there every day to work the land.

Some state and city employees, File and representatives of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network were going to hunt for the graveyard on Nov. 27, but wet weather scratched that search, McCarthy said.

According to materials from the Meeting’s Byberry Library that McCarthy supplied to the Northeast Times, the burial plot for freed slaves was purchased from Thomas Townsend in 1780, and it’s known that a man named Jem was buried there.

Eventually, the parcel was transferred to a trustee of the monthly meeting in 1872. Churches couldn’t own property at that time, but church trustees could, File said.

The property was transferred to Edward Comly in 1906. The Friends looked after the tiny graveyard until it was sold to the city in April 1980, File said.

Sometime during its 200-plus years, there was a fence around the plot. Nineteenth century Meeting records show a report that the fence needed to be repaired, she said.

“For the last one-hundred years, there’s been no fence there,” she said.

In November, File said she once had tried to find the burial ground’s exact location. That was a while ago.

“I have not been back in that area in forty-five years,” File said. ••

Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215–354–3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com