BELLE FOURCHE — There’s a good reason the city of Belle Fourche has invested over $22,000 in a ground penetrating radar unit.
During the past couple of years while preparing to dig new gravesites, cemetery workers have discovered several unmarked graves. In 2012 city crews found 10 graves while digging new plots.
Thus began the research on unknown and unmarked burial sites by Kristi Weed, the city of Belle Fourche engineering administrative assistant. After checking records in Butte County and matching them with known sites, Weed has developed a unique database.
Dirk Hoffman, the city’s public works director said many of the graves were possibly from the 1920s and 1930s, or even earlier. During the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919, authorities were overwhelmed with caring for the effects on the city. Lives were lost on a daily basis. Records show that in South Dakota approximately 28 percent of the deaths during this timeframe were caused by the flu. The same is true of the Belle Fourche area additional flu outbreaks in the 1930s and 1950s.
Parks and Cemetery Supervisor Brian Raber said there is a good chance that someone will be found in an unmarked grave.
“Really, it’s a 75 percent chance in the old part of the cemetery,” he added.
The city purchased the radar in January and began using it within the last several weeks. Recently three were found in three days.
Weed is attempting to get the database organized along with mapping of the areas.
Presently, most of the previously unknown remains that have been found are now marked she said.
If an unmarked or unknown gravesite is found, the site is usually covered and not disturbed. Weed said that the city is striving to accommodate the wishes of family members.
The city is considering opening a new section in the Riverside Cemetery that includes a part of an old homestead. The radar will be vital in mapping that area said Weed.
The unit purchased by the city, a SIR System-3000, is useful for locating water and sewer lines or anything under ground. According to Raber, the unit penetrates 15 feet through the mostly shale soil of the Belle Fourche area. It is mounted on a carriage that looks similar to a jogging baby stroller equipped with large wheels that help negotiate uneven ground.
Information is gathered in the unit as it scans the terrain beneath it. Computer software processes the data into features that suit the needs of the user. Eventually, the data will be used to map not only the cemeteries, but also any underground lines.
The purchase of the unit makes economic sense inserted Weed. She added that the city of Spearfish has spent more than $10,000 to have another company come and use ground penetrating radar over an area.
The unit cost Belle Fourche a little more than $22,000, Weed said, and there are cities that already want to lease it from Belle Fourche.