A complex issue revealed at Southampton’s Pioneer Cemetery

         Southampton Cemetery entrance

Many may be familiar with the Southampton Cemetery but few know that it extends well beyond today’s boundaries, and is known as Pioneer Cemetery established in 1860 overlooking the Saugeen River.

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On Friday, September 29th, members of the Municipal Heritage Committee and Town Staff were led on a tour of the ‘old’ cemetery by the Town’s Colin Saunders, Manager Capital Projects and Steve MacLean, Cemetery Manager.

The tour led along the bank of the Saugeen River where erosion has, and is, playing havoc with burial sites.  In 2014-15, approximately 300 feet of river bank was lost to erosion.

In addition, nature has returned the cemetery to a forest and most tombstones or markers are either now buried, toppled or covered in moss and vegetation.  Most, if not all, are also unreadable.

According to a report submitted by Saunders to the Heritage Committee in September of this year, the original plots were typically 96 square feet and held four (4) burials. Some plots were 480 square feet holding eight (8) burials. There were 16 internments at this time and there continued to be internments in the old cemetery up to the 1920s, in all likelihood by families that had already purchased plots.

Prior to 2005, approximately 20 markers were moved to the Cemetery Mausoleum,  as the were in danger of going over the bank.  The Bereavement Association of Ontario (BAO) has very strict regulations when it comes to moving internment sites.

Saunders, in his initial report, pointed out that Genivar out of Owen Sound was hired to investigate the erosion and provide recommendations. The following three recommendations were received:

1. Do nothing.
2. Construct an engineered slope to stop erosion.
3. Relocate the burial sites. It was recommended sites be relocated based on need.

Also, in 2014, Fischer Archeological was retained to conduct an archeological background study of the old Pioneer Cemetery. The report had recommendations based on the relocation of the burial sites in danger of erosion. The recommendations from this study were sent to the Ministry of Culture for approval. The Ministry did not however, approve the report based on one (1) of the recommendations, which was to leave the sites that are too close to the bank for safety reasons. Staff at the time along with the Bereavement Association of Ontario (BAO) and Fischer Archeological agreed the bank was not stable enough to have staff and equipment operate safely.

Saunders, who joined the Town in 2019, was tasked with the project to determine what could be done moving forward. He set up site meetings with the BAO, Fischer Archeological, Saugeen Valley Conservation Authority (SVCA), the Ministry, and the Cemetery Manager.  After the representative from the Ministry saw first-hand the complexity of the situation, the Ministry approved moving forward.

Saunders pointed out that “… the recommendation is to have an engineering firm determine the rate of slope erosion. GM BluePlan was retained as the engineer and GEI consultants as the Geotechnical firm. Test holes were drilled on September 25, 2023, and, along with the historical reports, GEI will be able to determine the projected rate of erosion and a report from them is expected this month (October).

                               Colin Saunders (R) explains to the tour what is needed

The next step will be to take a report to Council with recommendations on how far from the bank the burial sites will need to be relocated. According to Saunders, the relocation of sites can be completed over several years, starting with the sites most at risk and moving inward, depending on the rate of erosion as determined by the engineers. Staff anticipates the site work and pre-relocation work can start in 2024, with the physical work beginning in 2025.