New bid for old cemetery
Bruce Nelson never meant to get into the cemetery business.
Newport's public works director expects to oversee the summertime mowing of Pioneer Park's grass, the wintertime plowing of Hastings Avenue -- but the upkeep of a more than 160-year-old cemetery?
For the past three years the city of Newport has been responsible for maintaining historic Red Rock Cemetery, following the dissolution of a cemetery association that had overseen the final resting place of some of the city's founders and a push for better oversight of the graveyard from the city's heritage preservation commission.
Cities typically don't like to take on the maintenance responsibilities of caring for a cemetery like Red Rock, said city administrator Brian Anderson. Now, someone has offered to take the little burial ground off the city's hands -- and officials aren't quite sure what to make of the offer.
"Someone came forward seeking us, seeking the cemetery," Anderson said, explaining the city has not sought someone to take over the job of mowing, weeding and cleaning the hilly cemetery from Newport Public Works.
Red Rock Cemetery sits tucked away in northeastern Newport's hilly bluff lands, an often forgotten piece of the small city's rich history and one of the lone remaining pieces of the old Red Rock settlement.
Interest in the burial ground has waxed and waned over the years, said Robert Vogel, a consultant with the Newport Heritage Preservation Commission. The cemetery has, at times, fallen into disrepair and overgrowth, he said, then cleaned and maintained by different groups for differing periods of time.
Newport Public Works currently oversees the maintenance of Red Rock, Nelson said, aided by sentence-to-serve workers.
"One of the major impetuses behind getting it into city ownership was then there was at least an annual maintenance, a check-up," Vogel said.
A page from Newport's history
No burials have taken place in the cemetery since 1982, said Vogel, and some of the oldest headstones on the site predate Minnesota's incorporation as a territory of the United States in 1849.
The names of those buried there read like the pages of a history book: John Holton, a Pennsylvania-born farmer who was south Washington County's first settler, lies below a sandstone obelisk; John and Mary Ford, another pair of early settlers who helped establish a trading post at Red Rock in the early 1840s, are buried there; and two Civil War soldiers are also buried at the tiny cemetery.
Vogel said the cemetery's early history "is a little foggy. Although, it does have all of the original settlers who came to Red Rock there in the 1840s."
Most likely, he said, it was formed as the Holton family graveyard.
City officials say the cemetery contains 640 burial plots; only one-sixth are used. That has left Anderson and others at Newport City Hall speculating the interested party is considering making the historic cemetery active again.
Anderson said he doesn't yet know the identity or background of the person who expressed interest in the site; contact was made through the party's attorney, he said.
Heritage preservation officials wouldn't necessarily oppose the operation of Red Rock Cemetery as a functioning cemetery, Vogel said, adding he would want to segregate the cemetery's historic portion from the rest of the site.
But new burials at the site could be difficult, Vogel said. It is, he said, "a certainty" that more burials occurred than there are headstones at Newport's oldest cemetery.
"There's a lot of headstones that have been moved around ... That's been going on for 150 years," he said.
Officials will consider the offer, and look further into who's making it, Anderson said. "As long as it falls into good hands, that's the city's main concern," he said.