Collapsing ground at a cemetery in Harlan County is threatening the grave of a Revolutionary War soldier who helped settle the county.
Some spots at the Wix Howard Cemetery at Loyall have sunk several feet since February. The subsidence has cracked the asphalt road and created a 5-foot shear within 18 inches of the grave of settler Samuel Howard, who died in 1840 and is buried next to his wife, Cloey.
The footstone for the grave of Howard’s infant son has already disappeared into the gap.
The late U.S. District Judge G. Wix Unthank, a descendant of Howard, is buried just up the hill. His widow, Marilyn, who is 88, said she is concerned she will have to have her husband’s grave moved.
“I’m just devastated over it,” she said. “It’s just getting worse all the time.”
The cemetery is on top of a hill at the edge of a deep channel the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cut through the ridge in the 1990s as part of a flood-control project that diverted the Cumberland River to reduce the threat of flooding in Loyall.
Residents think the ground is collapsing because of instability related to creating the new river channel. Rock has fallen out of the wall below the cemetery and into the river.
The Corps of Engineers has estimated that repairs at the cemetery would cost $3 million to $5 million, spokesman Lee Roberts said.
It’s not clear how the collapse will be remedied.
The Corps understands the historical significance of the cemetery, but there is no existing authorization or money from Congress that would allow the agency to do repairs, Roberts said.
The Corps turned the project over to Harlan County when it was finished under an agreement for the county to do maintenance including removing vegetation, Roberts said.
Situations such as the slope failure at the cemetery are not defined in the agreement, Roberts said.
Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley said the county’s responsibility for maintenance doesn’t include the structural integrity of the flood project.
Mosley said that in addition to concerns about the graves at the historic cemetery, he worries about the potential for more rock to fall from the wall of the diversion channel and block the river, causing flooding upstream.
“It’s going to cause some type of serious disruption, I’m afraid,” Mosley said.
Roberts said that some material from the surface of the rock wall has fallen into the river, but that hasn’t affected flood protection that the project was designed to provide because “there is more than enough channel capacity.”
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, has been working with the Corps to try to deal with the subsidence at the cemetery.
Rogers “is hopeful that the Corps will engineer a solution to both protect the cemetery and prevent additional damage,” his office said in a statement.
Rogers also has contacted other agencies, including non-profit groups, for help in preserving the remains of Howard and others at the cemetery.
Mosley said Rogers’ office has worked hard to try to find money to fix the cemetery. Mosley took part in a conference call with Rogers’ office Friday and said he felt more confident afterward about finding a solution.
Howard’s grave and two others might need to be moved soon, however.
After serving in the Revolutionary War — where he witnessed the British surrender at Yorktown that effectively ended the war — Howard was the first person to settle in what became the town of Harlan, said 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.
“He’s an ancestor to an awful lot of people in Harlan County,” Greene said.