Utility work exposes graves

Betty Maxwell carefully maneuvers through the thick brush covering a cemetery across the street from her home on Secessionville Road. Part of the cemetery was exposed to passers-by when utility workers with South Carolina Electric and Gas cleared some of

Betty Maxwell carefully picked her way past tangled vines woven around a dense thicket of hardwood trees blocking the afternoon sun from shining on faded graves at a James Island cemetery that appeared lost to time and decay.

A large, rotting oak had fallen onto a headstone, obscuring the first name of the deceased. An obelisk meant to mark another final resting place was tipped over. A rusted beer can sat near a plain, silver-colored marker stamped with the name of a man who died in 1955. Discarded buckets, whiskey bottles, shoes and other trash littered the area.

"I just wish it was cleared out and could be something pretty and scenic," Maxwell said. "If I had some help we could clean it up."

Recently, about a half-dozen headstones have become visible in a 100-yard long, 20-foot-wide swath cleared by Sout Carolina Electric and Gas parallel to Secessionville Road between Camp and Fort Johnson roads. Before the utility cut back the woods, the cemetery was hidden to passers-by, but it was known to neighbors. Now, with the graves visible from the road, the abandoned burial plot has become something of a local curiosity.

Two or three cars stop daily so drivers and their passengers can check out the graves visible from the road, said Steve James, 27, an engineer at the Francis Marion Hotel who lives across from the cemetery. James said that a co-worker brought his parents who were visiting from Georgia to see the cemetery Friday.

"Downtown, you see how much they preserve history, and then you see this," James said, referring to the condition of the cemetery.

James wondered if the power line right-of-way work that cleared the forest near the road, exposing some of the grave sites, will affect the value of his home. "Right now we're not looking to sell but if we were it might be a problem," he said.

Graves exposed in the cleared power line right-of-way include that of Harriett Blake, who lived from 1871 to 1910, and that of Gelzer Burden, who was born in 1895 and died in 1916. Back in the woods, Josiah Brown's headstone states he lived from 1881 to 1944, and his son Willis Brown was born in 1928 and died in 1937. Henry Chisolm's grave has a simple metal marker that states he died in 1948.

Melissa Johnson, 27, who lives next to the cemetery, said she has known about it since she was 5 but that many people aren't aware of it. "It's kind of nice. I'll never have neighbors on that side other than the unliving," she said.

Maxwell said she has talked over the years with the city about cleaning it up. For a while, it became a teenager hang-out, but police put an end to that. She thinks the cemetery has fallen in such disrepair because family members who would have tended the graves have passed away.

At age 82, she works as a pharmacy technician in North Charleston. "I'll do everything I can to make this place cleaned up and pretty," she said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at pfindlay@postandcourier.com.