Workers came across the graveyard last month during excavation for the $225 million Turnpike interchange that will service the Secaucus Transfer Rail Station commonly called Allied Junction. However, local officials and Turnpike contractors knew there was a pauper's burial ground in the area for several years, and just weren't sure of the exact location of the bodies. Reports in the New York media about the discovery of the bodies last month led to new attention on the site and to a pledge from Turnpike authorities to carefully move the bodies to a new site.
The graveyard, which may hold as many as 600 to 900 bodies, has an interesting past.
For Just, who has talked about the cemetery for years, the site caused him some profound moments during his life and became a subject extreme displeasure for him when the Turnpike was first constructed near it in the early 1950s.
The cemetery, he said last week, was hardly a secret, even though in the mid-1970s, the county built a temporary jail that blocked the view of the cemetery from the road.
"Many old-timers knew it was there," Just said.
State prisoners housed at the county facility for over a decade, little suspected that they were living over or near a former graveyard.
Turnpike officials, however, knew there was a graveyard in the vicinity. A report done for the Turnpike in 1999 on the site said the burial ground was associated with the former Hudson County jail at Laurel Hill, but according to town historian Dan McDonough, the history of the grave yard may have its roots in the original poor farm located in the area.
Old Bergen County, which now comprises modern Passaic and Bergen counties, acquired 200 acres in the late 1700s for a poor farm. In 1845, the new county of Hudson took on the site for its own poor house, but only after about 10 years of bickering did it do anything with the land - at which point it began to set up county institutions on the spot. These include a new and old Almshouse, a county jail, a lunatic asylum, Hudson County General Hospital, a tuberculosis hospital, a boys camp, a Catholic and a Protestant Church, a unit of the Hudson County Fire Department and storage buildings for supplies and electronic equipment.
"Most of the people in this graveyard came from these institutions," McDonough said.
Many people, McDonough said, confuse this cemetery with a cemetery on County Avenue.
The cemetery the Turnpike uncovered could date back to 1845 when the county set up its poor house.
"You have to remember during that era, people didn't have Social Security to fall back on," he said. "If you had no children and you became homeless, the county put you on a poor farm where you worked. Many helped raise animals and vegetables."
If a person died in any of the institutions, they were likely buried in this pauper's grave. McDonough said he has tax maps from 1905 to 1923 showing the cemetery. Oddly enough, the cemetery seemed to shrink year by year.
Mayor Just lived near the cemetery when he was a boy. He said he remembered graves being left open sometimes for days in order to bury more than one person at a time. Just said his father - at the request of a friend who did business with the Just farm - helped cut the high grass that had started overgrowing the place.
"My father dried out the grass and fed it to our cow as hay," Just said.
During his wanderings there as a boy and later, Just said he recalled people didn't get gravestones, but small four-inch, numbered markers.
"The names of people were probably recorded somewhere else in a county office," he said.
Over the years, Just even knew people who were buried there. While no fan of the late Jersey City mayor Frank Hague, Just did claim the cemetery was maintained well during the Hague era.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the cemetery was nearly destroyed when the Turnpike was constructed. Just believes some of the graves were disturbed. McDonough, however, said the Turnpike Authority had promised not to disturb the cemetery.
"My uncle took photos of the Turnpike when under construction," he said, noting that a bridge had been constructed over the cemetery site. "When you're driving on the Turnpike, you find yourself on a bridge that seems to go over nothing. That's where the cemetery is."
Just continued to wander to that area decades after the pig farms disappeared and the county put up its jail to house state prisoners.
"One time someone threatened to call the police on me for wandering around back there," he said.
But Just recalled on particularly time when he took his son for a walk in the area.
"I parked my car where the temporary jail is now and walked along the Amtrak line to the other side," he said.
He was near the graveyard, but the years had been unkind, and except for the area immediately under the Turnpike bridge, most of it was overgrown.
"I looked on the ground and saw what I thought was a fieldstone," he said. "It was the a human skull, all but its jaw. I looked at it, and then put it along side of a tree. I didn't have a shovel or I would have buried it."
A closer look revealed other human bones laying around, something that still haunts Just many years later.
"That was the resting place for the poorest of the poor, and it was not cared for," he said. "People on my farm wound up there. It's sad. That place should be part of Laurel Hill Park, with flowers and plants, not the base of a Turnpike exit."
Just remembered as mayor a woman approaching him looking for records about her grandfather, whom supposedly resided and died in old Laurel Hill.
"I wondered how upset she would be if she thought her grandfather's bones were lying around on the ground," Just said.
Turnpike officials said they will spend as much as $1 million to rebury the remains of those recovered. They are not sure yet where they will move the bodies.