Bocce atop bones: The 'hidden' cemetery buried beneath a Minneapolis park

Kenny Iverson plays bocce ball at Beltrami Park

Kenny Iverson plays bocce ball at Beltrami Park Star Tribune

You may know Minneapolis’ Beltrami Park for its bocce ball courts, its bright-red choo-choo train playset, its summer-wonderful wading pools.

But in 1857, the park was going by another name: Maple Hill Cemetery.

Maple Hill was the final resting place of some of Minneapolis’ early settlers. There lay the bones of Civil War veterans, community leaders, and mothers who died in childbirth, side-by-side. At its peak, about 5,000 souls were interred there.

But by the late 1800s, the cemetery fell into neglect, and the city condemned it. In 1884, just over 1,300 bodies and 82 monuments were spirited away for reburial in the nearby Hillside and Lakewood Cemeteries, as a gesture of respect for the dead.

But the other 3,700 corpses... they’re thought to have remained.

Things only got worse for Maple Hill. The condemned cemetery sank into worse and more grotesque disrepair. By 1908, when the Minneapolis Park Board finally took over its care and keeping, neighborhood residents were complaining about the “exposed caskets.” The Park Board originally planned to spiff up the space and make it a respectable burial site again, but it was too late. Maple Hill was too far gone to salvage.

Residents and the city carried on a bitter debate about how to handle Maple Hill. Meanwhile, the dead languished.

But one morning in 1916, the neighbors woke to find that the whole place had been cleared. The caskets and remaining tombstones were gone, as though by magic.

It wasn’t magic. They later found the missing monuments dumped in a nearby ditch, much to the outrage of city officials and a fair few residents. By 1916, the great Maple Hill debate had gone nowhere, and two men had been arrested (but not convicted) for trashing the place. It’s still not certain whether they were the culprits.

Finally, by late summer of that year, the city decided to start from scratch. Most of the remaining grave markers were removed, and Maple Hill Cemetery was rededicated as Beltrami Park. The place was cleaned up, leveled out, festooned with rinks and fields. A few of its old gravestones were left as an homage to its roots, and they’re still there today.

But few people realize as they’re playing bocce ball and enjoying their picnic lunches that a few short feet beneath them lay thousands of the park’s original denizens, in repose. They were there when Beltrami Park began, and they will be there when it’s gone.

Cities change, but death is forever.

More from the first-ever City Pages DEATH ISSUE...