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Sunday
Oct282018

A Haunting on Maple Hill

Article by Michael Rainville, Jr.

This is a spooky time of year. People are making last-minute changes to their Halloween costumes, jack-o-lanterns are popping up on doorsteps, and leaves have gave way, so the moonlight can reach the damp ground. There’s a lot of fanfare during this holiday season, and it’s easy to glance over the mysteries that seem to reappear ever year in this city like a midnight fog. Don’t let festive lawn displays and all the candy you can eat distract you from Minneapolis’ eerie past. Turn off the lights, snuggle up in your flannel blanket, light a candle, and feast your eyes on one of Minneapolis’ most ghostly destinations.

Photo of the abandoned cemetery taken in 1900, facing the southwest corner of the park with the intersection of Polk and Summer streets in the background.

Photo taken October 28, 2018 with a similar vantage point. Photo credit Michael Rainville, Jr.

The year is 1857. Minneapolis had a population of roughly 3,400 and its rival across the falls, Old St. Anthony, had about 5,000 residents. As the first generation of settlers began to age, the need for a cemetery became quite apparent. Thus, in 1857, the city’s first cemetery was established in a part of town, near the outskirts, that was known as Maple Hill. This cemetery narrowly beat out Layman’s Cemetery, which officially was recognized as a cemetery one year later in 1858. From its opening to its closing in 1890, Maple Hill Cemetery saw roughly 5,000 burials, some of which were Civil War veterans. Maple Hill was a popular place to lay loved ones to rest on the east side of the river because of its easy access, beautiful and peaceful scenery, and cheap costs. However, cheap costs also meant cheap labor. Not all the departed were buried six feet under. In fact, many were resting merely two feet under the surface. This would lead to problems that some might say are still lingering atop that hill to this day.

Minneapolis grew at an astronomical rate, absorbing Old St. Anthony on the way, and the Maple Hill Cemetery eventually became too full and unkempt. From 1890 to 1916, the cemetery was left for Mother Nature to reclaim. During the first few years of its closure, 1,300 caskets were moved by families of the dead to either Hillside Cemetery or Lakewood Cemetery. That still leaves 3,700 unclaimed bodies. At first, it was still a nice and calm cemetery, but as rain began to erode parts of the hill, those two-foot graves began to peek out of the ground. Grave robbers would frequent the old cemetery, and do you know what resting souls hate more than hooligans from Nordeast who are stealing their belongings? Absolutely nothing. The neighbors had their complaints heard about this dilapidated cemetery that would attract an unsavory crowd, and in 1908, the Minneapolis Park Board bought the land and turned it into Maple Hill Park. Unfortunately, the park board did not pump a lot of money into the park, and for the first few years, the only thing that changed was its name. This angered the neighborhood even more, and soon a few of the residents would take matters into their own hands.

In 1916, a group of men moved many of the remaining tombstones and visible caskets, and threw them into a ditch nearby. The city acted quickly yet only found two of the culprits, and the park board began to take the “park” more seriously. Soon after, the park board removed the rest of the tombstones except for a couple grave markers and a monument for the 46 Civil War veterans who were laid to rest there. As the park board began to install many nice features in the park, it became a very popular destination in Northeast Minneapolis. In 1948, the now largely Italian neighborhood petitioned to change the park’s name, and soon after, the park was renamed Beltrami Park after Giacomo Costantino Beltrami, who is credited with being the first European to discover the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

Photo taken October 28, 2018 of Louis LeDuc's tombstone. Photo credit Michael Rainville, Jr.

The surface may be almost free of signs that it once was a cemetery, but thousands of burials have still not been touched. Those souls still roam the park, some of them looking for their tombstone. One of those spirits goes by the name of Louis LeDuc. How do I know this? His tombstone is in my family’s possession. My great grandfather received it many decades ago from his neighbor who was redoing his front steps, and the first step was poor old Louie’s tombstone. Was Louie a victim of the irritated neighbors who threw tombstones into a ditch, or did the park board carefully remove his? We will never know, and it seems that only he knows that answer. If you hear a faint whisper in your ear when you enjoy the bocce ball courts or feel a tap on your shoulder during your next picnic, tell Louie LeDuc that his friend Michael Rainville Jr. is keeping his tombstone nice and safe. Well…let’s at least hope that whisper or tap is Louie and not one of the angrier residents of Maple Hill.

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About Michael Rainville, Jr.

A 6th generation Minneapolitan, Michael Rainville Jr. received his B.A. in History from the University of St. Thomas, and is currently enrolled in their M.A. in Art History and Certificate in Museum Studies programs.

Michael is also a lead guide at Mobile Entertainment LLC, giving Segway tours of the Minneapolis riverfront for 5+ years.

He can be reached at mrainvillejr@comcast.net.

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