Oliveri said he would wait until he had reports from experts hired by the New Jersey Turnpike to determine if he would allow the removal of the remains for exit construction.
Turnpike workers stumbled across the burial ground in 2001 during excavation for the $225 million interchange that will service the Secaucus Transfer Rail Station, commonly called Allied Junction.
"Until I get more information, I'm not denying the application, and I'm not granting it," Oliveri said, asking for a report by experts before issuing his ruling.
Turnpike officials would like to move the remains to a mass grave at another as yet undetermined site where a memorial might be constructed listing the names of those who were buried there.
The estimated number of people buried in the site varies. Although there at least 1,000 graves, some graves could contain two or three bodies.
The Turnpike attorneys had presented to the court a ruling by the New Jersey Historical Preservation office saying that said the site had no historical value. Secaucus Town Historian Daniel McDonough said the judge did the right thing in waiting for more reports from the experts.
McDonough, who presented the court with a 1906 tax map showing the grave site as well as a letter proposing a memorial, said the Historical Preservation Office may have been skewed by the information presented to it. "The preservation office only saw what the Turnpike showed them," he said.
Most of the remains at the site come from people who were patients or residents of the numerous Hudson County facilities once located in the southeastern corner of Secaucus known as Laurel or Snake Hill. These include a tuberculosis hospital, a sanitarium, and a poor house.
Jerry Colangiovanni, public information officers for the Turnpike Authority, said the Turnpike originally constructed a bridge over the graveyard when the roadway was constructed in the 1950s. When engineers started studies for a new exit last year, they came upon the remains.
"During excavation, they did a sampling in the area and came upon some remains," he said. "Work stopped. A firm was hired to investigate and get background. But it is difficult to identify who was buried there or track family lineage. We knew that some of the people worked for or lived in Hudson County."
A graveyard for centuries?
McDonough also disagreed with the use of the term "Potter's Field," often used to designate people too poor for regular graves, and felt that it somehow had helped make it easier for the Turnpike to move ahead.
"That's the Turnpike's term," he said. "There are a lot of people buried there."
The site may have been a graveyard for centuries, according to McDonough.
"That site was originally known as Mount Pinhorn," he said. "It was the only dry land in an area that was mostly marsh. If a person had tuberculosis, they went to that hospital. At the turn of the century, nobody wanted to touch them. If they died, no one was going to bring them back to Jersey City or anywhere else."
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 the site for its own poor house. Eventually, south Secaucus housed a small city that included 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
Not everyone buried in the graveyard was a pauper. If a person died in any of the institutions, they were likely buried in this pauper's grave, McDonough said. Wealth people with tuberculosis or suffering from Alzheimer's would have gone to one of the hospitals. If one of these people died, lack of communication and the inability to preserve the remains could have forced county officials to bury the person there.
Relatives have been searching
Relatives of patients at Laurel Hill have searched in vain for years to find out information about plots. Reports about the fate of records varied.
Patrick Andriani has been searching for his grandfather's burial place for decades. Since 1979, Andriani has written letters and talked to officials seeking information about the grave. He got some responses. Some claimed the records did not exist. Others said they once existed but have since been lost. Still others said the bodies had been moved.
"It was a bureaucratic nightmare," he said.
Former Secaucus Mayor Anthony Just, who lived near the cemetery when he was a boy, recently appeared in court to argue that the graves be respected.
Just recalled that during his wanderings there as a boy, as well as later, 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.
McDonough said he had seen the register of names in 1990 when it was put on display as part of the county's 150th anniversary. He assumed that after that, it was dumped in some basement.
Two investigators hired by the Turnpike eventually found the ledgers in the office of the county engineer along with five very accurate maps.
Andriani has asked permission to be at the grave site when his grandfather is disinterred.
The Turnpike Authority has objected to this.
"It is a liability issue," said Francis Journick, the attorney representing the Turnpike.
Andriani said he has spent several decades seeking information about his grandfather, but it took Turnpike investigators a year to find the list of names.
Judge Oliveri is expected rule on both the fate of the graveyard and Adriane's request at a Dec. 6 hearing.
Was neglected for years
Just said the grave site was never maintained very well, even though people were buried there as late as 1962. As early as 1967, the caretaker's house was abandoned with windows broken and wood floors rotting. In 1968, Just took his son for a walk in the area.
He walked 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 a human skull, all but its jaw. I looked at it, and then put it along the side of a tree. I didn't have a shovel or I would have buried it."
While he didn't know whether it was either of the two people who he knew were buried in the graveyard (see sidebar), he did realize that it was someone's relative and felt these people had not been respected.
"I knew that it was a person just like me and that no one had respected them," Just said.
McDonough believes only remains uncovered during construction should be relocated, and those put nearby.
"If someone wants to come and see where a family member, they shouldn't have to worry about coming to the right town," McDonough, encouraging the installation of a memorial that might show the engraving of the buildings from the historic Laurel Hill. "This would be a place families could bring flowers."
Real people buried at Laurel Hill
Patrick Andriani was born in Jersey City and grew up in Union City, and has always wondered about his grandfather - who reportedly was buried in a pauper's grave in Secaucus. He has been looking for his grandfather's burial site for decades.
His grandfather, Leonardo Andriani, came to United States from an area of Italy known as Molfetta. It was a custom of many Italians to settle here with people from their own village. Hoboken has many people from Molfetta.
"He worked in Hoboken but didn't want to bring his family here," Andriani said. "Many Italians believed they would go back to Italy someday."
Then, Leonardo got sick. He packed up his possessions and sent them back in a suitcase to Italy.
"The family knew something was wrong when they got the suitcase," Andriani said.
Back in Hudson County, Leonardo was considered indigent and sent to the hospital at Laurel Hill.
"He died on Christmas Eve 1948 and was buried on New Years' Eve," said Andriani, who has only about six photographs of the man. Even Adriane's father didn't know the man well. They had only been together a few times.
When Adriane's father came to America in 1955, he did not search for Leonardo's grave. People in Hudson County discouraged him, saying the county would saddle the young man with his father's medical bills.
This has been a constant regret for Andriani, who believed the site might have been easier to find back then.
Former Mayor Anthony Just remembers two other people buried at the site.
Tony Zielonka was from Jersey City. During the depression, he needed work and he came to the farm owned by the Just family - just off County Road in Secaucus.
"He needed work," Just recalled. "So we let him work on our farm. He would help clean out the barn."
When Just's sister needed a babysitter, she hired him for that duty, and when she moved to Born Street, Zielonka went there to babysit.
"He was very poor," Just said. "So when he died around 1951, he wound up in the county's graveyard. Nobody had life insurance in those days, or if they did it was for something like $500. It was not enough to bury a man."
Joe Brunakowski - often called Joe Brown - also worked on the Just farm.
"He was a terrific storyteller," Just recalled. "He could tell ghost stories that would scare us - and he would pause during important parts to take a drag on his cigarette."
Brunakowski was a short man who had come from New York State. His family had a history of foundry work.
"He knew my father from Poland," Just said. "One day he came in from the snow. He was nearly completely covered. He looked like the abominable snowman."
Brunakowski had been working at a huge dump near the north end of town, roughly where the Mill Creek Mall is located today.
"He would sort out rags and pipes to resell," Just said. "A lot of men did that. They lived in truck bodies and would use the money to buy food they could cook on a pot-bellied stove. One winter he came to our farm house and begged my father for a job. He worked for us in the winter and would leave over the summer."
Just said Brunakowski ate with the family and paid him a few dollars that allowed Brunakowski to go down to the local tavern for a beer or two.
At some point, Brunakowski got caught in the rain, and someone found him ill near Metro Way, along what is County Avenue today. When the Just family was to sell their farm, they got a call from Laurel Hill saying Brunakowski was in the hospital and had listed the Just family as his next of kin.
"He was dying," Just said. "So I rode up there and gave him a cup of tea. I held the straw for him as he drank. That was his last cup of tea. He died a short while later." - Al Sullivan