A federal agency has decided it will repair a Harlan County cemetery where collapsing ground threatens the grave of a Revolutionary War soldier who helped settle the county.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had said earlier that it did not have the authority to fix sinking ground at the historic Wix Howard Cemetery at Loyall.
However, the agency concluded after additional review that significant settling near some graves can be linked to an adjacent flood-control project the Corps of Engineers built in the 1990s, said Mike Wilson, deputy project manager for the corps office covering Harlan County.
The Corps of Engineers could not do core drilling at the cemetery as part of that project, so there was a rock feature underground that was not identified before construction, Wilson said.
Heavy rain this year caused movement in that rock, which triggered the slope failure at the cemetery, Wilson said.
The Corps of Engineers will classify the situation as a design deficiency, giving the agency the authority to fix the problem.
The first step will be to move the remains of Samuel Howard; his wife, Cloey; and their infant son.
The Corps of Engineers hopes to accomplish that by the end of the year, Wilson said. The remains will be returned to the cemetery after repairs, he said.
The cemetery is on top of a hill at the edge of a 100-foot-deep channel the Corps of Engineers cut through a ridge to divert the Cumberland River and reduce the threat of flooding in Loyall.
Some spots at the cemetery have sunk several feet since February. The cave-in has cracked the asphalt road and created a 5-foot shear within 18 inches of Howard’s grave.
Howard served in the Revolutionary War, witnessing the British surrender at Yorktown that effectively ended the fighting, before helping settle Harlan County, according to James Greene III, a retired educator and local historian.
People met at Howard’s house to organize the county after the legislature created it in 1819, Greene said.
Howard died in 1840 and is buried next to his wife. The footstone for the grave of their infant son has already disappeared into the growing gap near their graves.
“We recognize the historical and emotional importance of this site to the community and families affected,” the Corps of Engineers said in a statement. “We continue to work with local, state, and federal government stakeholders to protect the threatened remains and stabilize the sliding slope, recognizing that the risk of continued ground movement makes these efforts all the more urgent.”
The Corps of Engineers has estimated that repairs at the cemetery will cost $3 million to $5 million.
Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, whose district includes the county, had urged the corps to find a solution to the sinking ground.
The agency had turned the flood project over to the county after completion, making the county responsible for routine maintenance such as clearing vegetation.
However, the decision that the subsidence eating into the cemetery resulted from a design problem means the Corps of Engineers can reopen the project and make repairs at federal expense, said Judge-Executive Dan Mosley.
The fiscal court on Tuesday agreed to accept a deed to the cemetery, one step needed to clear the way for repair work.
Mosley said having the Corps of Engineers fix the cemetery is the best solution. The county doesn’t have the money, he said.
“I am extremely pleased,” Mosley said. “I feel like that a burden had been lifted off the taxpayers of Harlan County.”