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WTF: Why Is Eldredge Cemetery Next to BTV Airport — and Vice Versa?

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Tombstone at Eldredge Cemetery - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Tombstone at Eldredge Cemetery

There are landing places — and then there are landing places.

The two meet near the intersection of Airport Drive and Airport Road in South Burlington, where Burlington International Airport and its aviation affiliates surround Eldredge Cemetery on three sides.

The cemetery is nestled between Beta Technologies and Heritage Aviation, bordered on two sides by fences with signs that warn: "Federal Law Prohibits Unauthorized Entry." In the still of the graveyard, moss and lichen inch their way over headstones, obscuring the names of the dead. Little beeps and flashing lights from the runway — nearby, but a world away — signal action. From a rise in the burial ground, you can read the logo on a plane as it ascends to the southeast; from the same spot, you'll want to duck and cover your ears at the speed and roar of a fighter jet.

Roughly 220 planes and 1,400 people land at the airport every day. At the cemetery, which operates at a slower place, 573 people have reached their final destination over the course of 225 years. Unidentified soldiers from the War of 1812 and the Civil War are buried here, along with people whose surnames are familiar to locals: Bostwick, Holbrook, Patchen, Van Sicklen. Generations of some families are buried at Eldredge, including 17 members of the Isham family, whose deaths from 1822 to 2014 span nearly two centuries.

Why was a loud, bustling, stress-inducing transit center located next to a few acres of cedar and crab apple trees and scores of old gravestones?

If this were a NIMBY situation, the opposing voice might belong to long-gone Samuel Allen. His burial at Eldredge (sometimes spelled Eldridge) in 1797 was the first, according to findagrave.com. But alas, he and those who surround him — including 13 other Allens — must forever hold their peace.

BTV, the airport's code name, arrived in 1920. It has grown in 100 years from a grass landing strip to a 90-acre complex with two asphalt-and-concrete runways. Last summer, due primarily to a "massive increase" in private plane operation, BTV hit a three-year high of an average 348 landings per day, according to acting director Nic Longo.

Despite their plainly different tone and tenor, an airport and a cemetery are not such strange bedfellows. Each is well suited to flat land and open space. For an airport, a site outside the center of town, where it can grow, is desirable, Longo said. Around the country, other airports have relocated cemeteries to make room for expansion, he said, noting that in Savannah, Ga., a runway was built around a headstone.

"There's no intention of us ever doing that in Burlington," Longo added.

Tombstone at Eldredge Cemetery - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Tombstone at Eldredge Cemetery

Patrick Healy, president of the Vermont Cemetery Association, wrote by email that early cemetery sites, usually family plots on farms, were sometimes chosen for their view. This makes Eldredge a prime spot. Looking east from the graveyard, past trucks and airplanes, Mount Mansfield and Camel's Hump rise in the distance.

"I believe in the past, people would look at the aesthetics of the piece of land first," Healy wrote.

His understanding corresponds with information that Thomas Visser, professor of historic preservation at the University of Vermont, discerned from a quick look at an 1869 map titled "Plan of City of Burlington and Town of South Burlington."

The cemetery, Visser explained, was near a major thoroughfare, Winooski Turnpike, now called Williston Road. In 1869, Eldredge School stood to the south of the cemetery, and a cluster of residences, about a dozen large lots, surrounded it. Visser surmised that this was farmland laid out in the 100-acre parcels common to Burlington's outskirts at the time.

"These historic maps give us an incredible view of a slice of time," Visser said. "It puts that moment of time in context. We can see these relationships: the land form, the uses, the density, the transportation routes."

If the area was farmland, and long-ago graves were dug on family farms, perhaps the Allen family had a farm there. One of the people buried at the graveyard is Mary Eldredge Allen (1779-1822). (If these Allens were related to Ethan Allen, who is buried at Greenmount Cemetery in Burlington, they most likely were cousins, according to Dan O'Neil, director of the Ethan Allen Homestead Museum.)

Like Visser, airport director Longo values historical documents. He has a particular interest in the history of "aeronautical entities and airports" — but also in the "things around them and how we became who we are today."

"No matter what picture, what diagram or what historical photo I look at [of the Burlington airport], the first thing I look for is the cemetery," Longo said. "That way, I have my point of reference."

In March 1865, the City of Burlington transferred the deed of the 2.6-acre cemetery to South Burlington. A month before the transfer, Burlington buried about half a dozen indigent people, their names and histories unknown, in the graveyard, according to South Burlington city records. The burial site is likely an unmarked, open space on the south side of the cemetery, according to a 2019 sonar survey. The area could be where 24 soldiers from the War of 1812 are also buried, according to city clerk and sexton Donna Kinville.

There are about 800 open plots at Eldredge, according to the 2019 survey, Kinville said. Some are close to the airfield, a spot some people covet. These folks are plane watchers and aeronautical fans who want to be buried near the action. Recently, a man purchased the prime plane-viewing plot in the cemetery, in its northeast corner; a big black headstone is already in place.

An Eldredge plot measures 3.5 feet by 10 feet and costs $400 for a South Burlington resident — making it cheaper to stay put for eternity than to fly away for the weekend. 

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