Editorial: Moving to protect Puritan graveyard

A view of the Dorchester North Burial Ground in Uphams Corner last week shows that only a large stump remains from a century-old Norway Maple that was removed under the direction of a city of Boston restoration project.
Photo courtesy Christopher Poteet

A city of Boston effort to restore and preserve a historic cemetery in Uphams Corner is now under way. The work inside the Dorchester North Burial Ground on Columbia Road includes the removal of many mature trees that officials say are dead or dying.

Kelly Thomas, the director of city’s Historic Burial Ground Initiatives, said in a statement that the tree removal is “only the first stage of the project. We are replanting 28 new trees and 136 flowering shrubs, and our goal is to maintain many healthy trees in this site. We are also replicating the old and broken Victorian pathway signs.”

Laid out in 1634, four years after the first Puritan settlers landed near what is now Savin Hill on the waters of Dorchester Bay, the burial ground is one of the oldest in the region. The 3.27-acre lot was framed by large trees, many over 40 feet tall.

One of the trees felled this season was a large Norway Maple that was over 100 years old, according to Thomas. “It has been cabled twice in an attempt to save it, but each time the cables broke,” he said. “There were some large dead limbs and some hollow spots. The tree was inspected by two different arborists and was deemed to be dangerous. If there are dead limbs and hollow spots, the tree is in the process of dying.”

Many of the trees that have been removed— including the Norway Maple— are considered “invasive species” and are now illegal to plant in the state. The city is following a master plan developed over the last several years aimed at maintaining the historic cemetery while also preventing structural damage to the many colonial era headstones and ornamental walkways.

“Since public safety is our number priority, we had to remove the Norway Maple,” explained Thomas. “The problem with dead limbs and hollows spots is that this means the tree is weak and the limbs can fall off. If they hit someone, it can kill them. This site is visited by many genealogists and history buffs.”

Added Thomas: “Although one cannot see it from the street, there are many underground tombs (masonry crypts) near the walls. These trees undermine the stability of the walls and the underground tombs because their roots grow into them and crack and break structures.”

There are 16 historic burial sites under the control of the city of Boston through the Parks and Recreation Department. Two are in Dorchester, including the South Burial Ground on Dorchester Avenue in Lower Mills.

– Bill Forry