The first indication that burial recovery is nearing an end was evident Monday at a historic cemetery in the Fond du Lac neighborhood of Duluth.

Amid ongoing archaeological activity on the site, three structures came down — all hoop houses once piled high to protect cemetery dirt. The dirt has since been sifted through as part of a $6 million project to recover human remains, grave goods and other artifacts from a Native American cemetery disturbed by a state-run bridge replacement project in 2017.

(Previously: Burial site stops Highway 23 project)

“This was one of the bigger stockpiles of cemetery dirt, so it is kind of a milestone,” said Randy Costley, project manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Another sign of progress: The state has hired a landscape architect to come up with a design to satisfy the cultural needs of the cemetery, where human remains uncovered on the project will be re-interred.

“The burial recovery part of the project is nearing the end,” Minnesota Department of Transportation spokeswoman Stephanie Christensen said. “The goal is to put everything back where it came from.”

More workers scrambled over the mile-long site on Monday than at any time in two years.

Since the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa took over the recovery effort from Hamline University in June, crews have doubled in size to more than 30 and the work intensified.

“They really have put together an aggressive work plan and they’ve been executing it,” Costley said.

The site is defined by its tall security fence and the closure of the westbound lanes of Minnesota Highway 23 through the neighborhood. Many workers could be seen inside the fence as they employed sifting trays to comb through dusty soil.

A worker with Ray Riihiluoma Inc. begins dismantling one of the Fond du Lac burial recovery efforts temporary buildings Monday. All of the project’s buildings and trailers east of 131st Avenue West will be removed. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
A worker with Ray Riihiluoma Inc. begins dismantling one of the Fond du Lac burial recovery efforts temporary buildings Monday. All of the project’s buildings and trailers east of 131st Avenue West will be removed. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Construction trailers stretching through the neighborhood were scheduled to be moved in the coming weeks as work grows concentrated on the hillside cemetery alongside Minnesota Highway 23 near Mission Creek.

The hillside cemetery was disturbed by the start of the Highway 23 bridge replacement project over Mission Creek. That project has long since been discontinued and will start from scratch following the end of rehabilitation efforts at the cemetery, where all displaced dirt will be returned, the slope fortified and the cemetery boundaries defined by the state archaeologist.

All told, 1,600 cubic yards of soil — 160 dump trucks worth — was displaced from the cemetery at the start of the bridge project. Much of the soil had been moved around to other parts of the construction site prior to the discovery of remains, Costley said.

MnDOT Project Manager Randy Costley talks about burial recovery efforts in Fond du Lac. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
MnDOT Project Manager Randy Costley talks about burial recovery efforts in Fond du Lac. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

“Luckily, none of the cemetery soils were ever removed from the site — all of the cemetery soils are here, just not in the cemetery anymore,” Costley said.

Last winter, to work indoors, some soil was moved into an old MnDOT salt shed located at the nearby Wobegon bar and restaurant across the St. Louis River.

The News Tribune reported in May that recovery has proven to cost the state twice the price of the original $3.1 million bridge project.

Compared to Fond du Lac’s bustling crew, MnDOT's is a small presence on the site — five people total, including Costley, a construction supervisor and a construction inspector.

MnDOT communication with the active site work amounts to a weekly working group meeting with the Fond du Lac crew and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council — the lead agency on the burial recovery site and the official liaison between the state and 11 tribal governments within the state.

The Fond du Lac cemetery disturbed by a state road project in 2017 is protected with fencing and warning signs. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
The Fond du Lac cemetery disturbed by a state road project in 2017 is protected with fencing and warning signs. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

MIAC has been mostly quiet on progress and has not been represented at recent public update meetings about the project. The News Tribune did not hear back from MIAC for this story.

“We’re here to provide all the support we can,” said Costley, who will manage the renewed bridge reconstruction project once the cemetery is restored. “We’re also trying to keep the site as livable for the neighborhood as possible.”

MnDOT’s on-site crew has gained an appreciation for the work being conducted. Seeing the three facilities come down “was a big accomplishment,” Christensen said, adding that the chosen cemetery landscape architect was John Koepke, a University of Minnesota professor and principal in the architectural firm Urban Ecosystems. He has Ojibwe heritage.

“All of the agencies involved have done a really great job of working together to get this far," Christensen said. "The crew puts in a tremendous effort. The work that they do is difficult work and MnDOT really appreciates it.”

MnDOT will be holding a public update meeting on Aug. 27 at Chambers Grove Park. The meeting will take place from 6-7 p.m. at the park pavilion. Following a presentation and question-and-answer session, St. Louis County Soil and Water Conservation will be on hand to talk about the restoration project it is currently doing on upper Mission Creek.