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Spring 2004
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Building a Unique, Informative Web Site in Boulder, Colorado

Archaeology, Genealogy, and GIS Meet at Columbia Cemetery

By Mary Reilly-McNellan and Kip White, City of Boulder, Colorado

 
It was a dark and stormy night. Hemlock Holmes, ace Cemetery Sleuth, sat in his cobwebbed study in the attic, clicking his mouse button dejectedly. He sighed deeply, his bushy brows knitted in a perplexed frown. His research was leading him nowhere. As the wind howled and lightning crackled, Holmes lamented, "If only I could see what was written on the tombstone, I'd know once and for all if he was indeed my great-great uncle!" His faithful companion replied, "Why not visit the poor chap's grave, Holmes?" "Because, my dear Whatsup, he's buried in Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado. That's a long way from our Backstop Street and Scotland Yard."

Suddenly a URL flashed eerily on the screen of his favorite search engine, and a Web site began to load. "Hello! What's this?" Holmes cried excitedly. "Great graveyards, I've struck gold! I can access interactive maps of Columbia Cemetery, a digital photograph of the grave marker, a map of the lot, and biographical information about the deceased! There's even a virtual cemetery tour!"

He poured himself a brandy as he perused the plethora of information, a satisfied smile on his face. "Just as I hoped. He is my great-great uncle!" He winked at his companion, saying, "Elementary, my dear Whatsup, you know that I always get my man!"

Cemeteries are a wonderful source of information for anyone interested in digging up information about their past. Genealogists, especially, are known for their tenacity, and generally leave no stone unturned when it comes to researching their roots. But sometimes time and distance preclude travel that is often necessary to discover the clues that may lie buried in preserved cemeteries. Now, thanks to a new Web site developed for historic Columbia Cemetery at Ninth and Pleasant Streets in Boulder, Colorado, the dead can speak any time, anywhere over the Internet (www3.ci.boulder.co.us/ parks-recreation/COLUMBIA/ Columbia_main.htm).

Boulder, like many municipalities, offers GIS-enabled Web sites using ArcIMS to provide its citizens with the latest information on flood control, zoning, and historic preservation. In 2001, the Columbia Cemetery Preservation project manager approached the GIS team to ask if a Web site dedicated to preserving the history of the cemetery could be created. A great deal of information about the historic cemetery had been compiled, but it was located in many different places.

A marvelous opportunity existed, it seemed, to wed history and technology, but the solution had to be able to make maps, display photos, query databases, and allow for customization, all in a Web environment. Since Boulder has been a longtime user of ArcGIS Desktop (ArcView, ArcEditor, ArcInfo) and ArcSDE and knows the power of GIS to integrate information, ArcIMS seemed to be the logical choice to bring this disparate data into a unique and informative Web site.

  click to enlarge
The interactive map of Columbia Cemetery is an HTML viewer page created by ArcIMS. The user can zoom in and out of the map and get information about who is buried in a particular cemetery lot.

Columbia Cemetery is a virtual "Who's Who" of early Boulder—a historic, cultural, and artistic resource containing the remains of many of the city's founders and pioneers. Initially established in 1870 on 10 acres of cattle-grazed pastureland, the cemetery today has 6,500 burials and 3,000 headstones. Like many other Victorian era cemeteries, Columbia contains grave markers of various types: monuments, crosses, obelisks, and tablets made of marble, granite, sandstone, limestone, and wood. The tombstones not only mark the graves of early pioneers who have helped make Boulder what it is today, but they are also narratives describing Colorado's social and economic structure, its religious tenets, and ethnic composition. The epitaphs, engravings, and decorations provide insight into earlier customs, religious beliefs, folklore, art, and medicine. Homemade Depression-era "folk markers" are juxtaposed with ornate and towering granite monuments belonging to bank presidents. Marble lambs and doves mark the graves of children felled by scarlet fever, diphtheria, and tuberculosis, and graves adorned with flowers, stuffed animals, and coins poignantly indicate recent visits to century-old burials.

click to enlarge
Columbia Cemetery Web site.
 

Columbia Cemetery is owned by the city of Boulder and managed by the Parks and Recreation Department. It is a city landmark and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Over the past decade, the Parks and Recreation Department and Historic Boulder, Inc., have been implementing a Columbia Cemetery Preservation Master Plan—thanks in large part to funding from the Colorado Historical Society's State Historical Fund. Each grave marker was digitally photographed, and more than 100 have received professional restoration work. Several hundred others have received help from a group of volunteers that comprises the Columbia Cemetery Conservation Corps.

Members of the Boulder Genealogical Society, in particular Mary McRoberts, have scoured historic burial ledgers, mortuary documents, obituaries, and court records to compile information about persons interred in Columbia Cemetery. McRoberts' information helped to make history come alive for volunteers as she shared the life story of each person whose stone underwent conservation work. The Boulder Genealogical Society published an eight-volume set entitled, Columbia Cemetery, Boulder, Colorado, 1870 to the Present. In addition, McRoberts prepared maps of each of the burial lots in Columbia Cemetery, indicating who had purchased the lots as well as precisely who is buried within the lot and where. An index of Columbia Cemetery burials is listed on the Boulder Genealogical Society's Web site (www.rootsweb.com/~bgs).

The Web site project actually began in 2002 when the Boulder Genealogical Society kindly gave the city permission for use of its Index of Burials and biographical information contained in the eight volumes. Oracle-based ArcSDE was used to store a cemetery map that was digitized and registered to the city's aerial photography basemap. Tables were created to hold each name, biographical sketch, cemetery lot, and grave marker photograph. By linking the biographical information table to a grave lot feature, Web site visitors are able to query and display biographical information with ArcIMS software's query server. Custom JavaScript was used to send XML requests to ArcIMS software's query server and then parse the responses to generate attractive Web pages presenting maps, scanned records, photographs of grave markers, lists of all people buried in a particular cemetery lot, and biographical information.

  photo of Columbia Cemetery
A view of Columbia Cemetery with the Boulder Flatirons Mountains in the background.

What does the future hold for Columbia Cemetery? Hopefully, grant monies will continue to provide funding for ongoing preservation of the burial ground, and grave markers will be carefully repaired or restored one by one. The Columbia Cemetery Conservation Corps has been working in the graveyard on Saturdays for five summers and shows no sign of stopping. New ordinances are in place to help protect the graveyard, and the community enjoys strolling the grounds, picnicking, and studying the fascinating old markers. Tours organized each year by the Parks and Recreation Department and Historic Boulder, Inc., are hugely successful. Educating the public about Columbia and old cemeteries in general is considered to be the best tool for fostering the appreciation and respect that will ultimately encourage people to help protect these cultural treasures. And with Columbia Cemetery information now available to Web users across the globe, perhaps additional information will come to light as the site is visited by persons who have knowledge of Columbia Cemetery "residents."

For more information, contact Kip White, GIS database administrator, city of Boulder, Colorado (e-mail: whitek@ci.boulder.co.us), or Mary Reilly-McNellan, preservation project manager, Columbia Cemetery, City of Boulder Parks and Recreation Department (e-mail: mcnellanm@ci.boulder.co.us).

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