Mission Creek cemetery restoration delayed until 2021

MnDOT says its timeline for developing plans from its Fond du Lac Band-approved landscaping concept turned out to be too aggressive.

Members of the burial recovery crew, most of whom are members or descendants of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, use soil sifters to look for bones and other artifacts at the MnDOT project site on Highway 23 in Duluth's Fond du Lac neighborhood in 2018. file / News Tribune

Reconstruction of an Indigenous burial ground in the Fond du Lac neighborhood of Duluth won't start as expected this fall. Instead, the Minnesota Department of Transportation said it would begin work in spring 2021 and finish later that fall.

"It turned out to be too aggressive of a schedule," MnDOT project manager Randy Costley said Wednesday. "We weren't going to be able to get the quality that we need in a plan set we need for builders. It's too important of a thing to rush through and run the risk of making mistakes. We kind of had to take a breath and give ourselves more time."

The cemetery was disturbed in 2017 by heavy-equipment work on a Minnesota Highway 23 bridge replacement project over Mission Creek. That original $3.1 million project was scrapped as recovery efforts took over for the ensuing two years.

This summer a small crew from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa will work to skim some remaining soils underneath where piles of soil had been placed during recovery of burial remains and artifacts. The piles have been done for some time and the soil returned to the cemetery from which it came. The remaining recovery work will be completed this summer, Costley said.


Mission Creek burial site.jpg

In February, the Fond du Lac Band agreed to a simple concept that would reforest the hillside cemetery and uncover a natural spring that is currently piped underground through the cemetery. The restored cemetery would also be marked by a stone border wall.

The original timeline had been to start landscaping and restoration in September. The work is estimated at up to $1.7 million.

The Fond du Lac Band could not be reached for comment. Costley said the band and Minnesota Indian Affairs Council have been involved in talks to delay the start of cemetery reconstruction.

"We have been able to develop a good relationship and have got a good team that works together pretty well," Costley said.

Costley said MnDOT continues to believe it can revisit the bridge reconstruction project in 2024 with its $4.2 million estimated price tag.

An estimated $20 million start-to-finish cost, including recovery and restoration, dwarfs the original $3.1 million bridge replacement project.

But by spending more time turning the cemetery concept into a construction plan, MnDOT could likely save money, Costley said, by avoiding errors that could have occurred with a rushed building plan.


"We will have a good, quality plan," he said.

Traffic will continue to be restricted to two-lane, two-way sharing on the eastbound side of Highway 23 this summer, and will stay that way until restoration efforts have been completed. The speed limit adjacent to the worksite has been reduced to 30 mph.

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