A 6.5-acre plot of land nestled between multi-family buildings easily could be mistaken for a park if it weren’t for the scattered historic Victorian-style headstones and plaques. Many of them mark the final resting spots of Fort Worth’s founders. Pioneers Rest Cemetery, generally thought to be Fort Worth’s oldest public cemetery, paints a picture of the settlers who helped establish the city throughout its early years.
Members of the Pioneers Rest Cemetery Association, which maintains the cemetery, believe many of the graves extend beyond the current perimeter. The possible burial places are of the people who worked to build this area, according to the association.
Now, the association worries a new five-story, 172-unit apartment building planned along the southern border of the cemetery could disturb the city’s storied past.
“One of the things we can’t do is stop progress. But we can at least be respectful of our history,” John Roberts, chairman of the public affairs committee for Historic Fort Worth Inc., said.
Houston-based developer Urban-Genesis is building the complex at 1101 Gounah St. Sameer Walvekar, developer at Urban-Genesis in charge of the apartment project, declined to comment during a phone call with the Fort Worth Report.
The Fort Worth Downtown Design and Review Board approved the project on Dec. 2, 2021, and construction on the site has started.
Nationally recognized historic cemetery
Pioneers Rest Cemetery was founded in 1850 and is one of Fort Worth’s oldest community cemeteries. Although burials at this site are no longer frequent, it remains the resting place for many early Fort Worth residents and their descendants. The cemetery currently has a Texas Historical Commission designation.
“There are many sites across the state where pioneers, people traveling, farm families may have had a small cemetery or done human burials, perhaps by necessity as they journeyed,” Texas Historical Commission Communications Director Chris Lawrence said.
Famous memorials at the site include Maj. Ripley Arnold, who founded the city of Fort Worth and two of his children, Willis and Sophia. Gen. Edward Tarrant, a veteran who fought in the Texas War of Independence, the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, is also buried here.
Several members of the Daggett family, who were among the early settlers of Fort Worth, were laid to rest in the cemetery. Eleven of the original fort soldiers also are buried at the cemetery.
Susan Allen Kline, a 25-year resident of Fort Worth, wrote the application that helped the cemetery enter the National Register of Historic Places on Jan. 27, 2021.
“Just looking at the list of people who are there or walking through the cemetery, you get an idea of the type of people that helped establish Fort Worth,” Kline said.
Many like Kline point to newspaper articles from the late 1800s as evidence of possible unmarked graves in the perimeter outside the cemetery.
“People were just kind of getting buried everywhere, in the roads and all that kind of stuff. It’s very likely that there could be some on the perimeter of the cemetery, particularly that to the south and southeast,” Kline said.
There are no legal federal or state requirements for any private landowner or developer to conduct any archeological or cemetery investigations on private property outside of a designated cemetery, according to the Texas Historical Commission.
One of the triggers for grave excavation is if a project includes federal involvement. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act would allow the Texas Historical Commission to require a survey of the land next to a cemetery if any federal approvals, permits or funds were involved.
At this time, there is no federal involvement in this project, limiting the commission’s jurisdiction in this case.
“We do not have any enforcement power throughout the agency,” Lawrence said. “(The cemetery preservation program) is a technical assistance program and we work with folks across the state, with the local or regional organizations and we assist them with their cemetery preservation efforts.”
However, if unknown or abandoned cemeteries are discovered on public or private land once work has started, those remains need to be left undisturbed or relocated, according to state law. Texas law prohibits the accidental or intentional removal of human remains, which is punishable as a criminal and civil offense.
Melanie Smith, a cemetery association member and a descendant of the Daggett family, said the association is disappointed they were not included in discussions of the project’s potential impact on the property.
“What I’ve noticed around Fort Worth a lot is that developers do reach out to the stakeholders, and bring them to the table. And I would certainly expect that in the case of a five-story apartment building going up adjacent to this historic cemetery,” she said.
In an April 29 email from the Texas Historical Commission to the Pioneers Rest Cemetery Association shared with the Report, members were told that Urban-Genesis had “done what they need to in order to keep a close eye for unmarked graves on the property, and they had a plan in place to halt work and notify authorities in the event that anything was discovered.”
The general consensus among the historical community is that the developing company did not do a good enough job in investigating unmarked graves using “best practices.”
“Out of goodwill, ethical responsibility and out of respect for this cemetery that began in 1849 with haphazard burials just in the general vicinity, I would think that (the developers) would have respect for that. That they would use an archeological method to look for graves,” Smith said.
There are also concerns that the potential elevation of the new building would cause drainage issues within the cemetery. The addition of apartments near the cemetery has also led to an increase in people using the property as a dog park.
“As a courtesy, it seems that there’s every reason for this apartment owner to want to get along with those who have a vested piece of the neighborhood,” said Historic Fort Worth Inc. Executive Director Jerre Tracy.
The city of Fort Worth has little to no requirements or oversight for developers who decide to build near historical sites.
The Downtown Design and Review Board is not required to notify adjacent property owners of proposed developments, said Sevanne Steiner, planning manager in development services for the city of Fort Worth. However, the board does send courtesy notices to neighborhood organizations and alliances registered with the city.
Steiner said the cemetery association was not notified of the proposed development because they are not registered with the city.
Cemetery caretakers hope it’s not too late for the developer to use proper and appropriate excavation tactics to determine if there are indeed unmarked graves on the construction site.
“If they were a little bit more mindful of the cemetery and designed their building in a little bit more respectful way, it probably would turn out to be a little bit of a better project,” Roberts said.
Editor’s note: this story was updated on May 7, 2022 to clarify Susan Allen Kline’s name.
Fort Worth Report fellow Sandra Sadek may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.