Now, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority plans to put a Turnpike exit in their place.
"When they dug the holes for the pilings for the jail, workers used to find skeletons," Just recalled as he watched Turnpike contractors scramble to remove the jail's remains. The crews moved ceaselessly last week despite the recent snow and the freezing rain. Heavy equipment carted huge bundles of concrete piping for the drainage, installing curbs and even sections of the ramp that will within a year carry traffic off the Turnpike and into the new Secaucus Rail Transfer Station - the dome of which was just visible in the mist.
According to documents submitted by Turnpike experts to Superior Court Judge Thomas Oliveri this past Dec. 7, this area contains three graveyards in which impoverished residents of Hudson County had been buried since the 1840s. According to Dan McDonough, a Secaucus historian who testified before the court, the area has been used as a graveyard for as far back as public records show. The graves were used for paupers and for those who had stayed at the old county hospital or jail.
Although the Turnpike Authority knew the location of at least one graveyard since it constructed the Western Spur here in the 1950s, an additional section was discovered during the summer of 2000 when the construction crews began work on the $225 million exit. In their testimony to the court, Turnpike officials said these remains were part of a graveyard used from 1920 to about 1962 for residents of county facilities located in nearby Laurel Hill - an area now used as a county park, but one that had housed various county facilities including a jail, a mental hospital and several other hospitals.
Most of the people buried in these graves came from those institutions, although in the rain, the snow and wreckage, even Just's recollection could not stir up visions of the stately elm trees that once lined the road leading to the county's facilities there.
Just said he could remember clearly when the county dismantled the old buildings in the early 1960s, and how some bodies recovered from uncovered graves were loaded onto trucks and hauled off to a mass grave behind the existing Meadowview Hospital campus further down the road on County Avenue, a site to which many of the county's institutions were relocated after Laurel Hill closed.
Laurel Hill and the graveyard became part of a series of disputes between the town of Secaucus and Hudson County during the 1970s and 1980s. Secaucus demanded taxes on the land. Hudson County scrambled to find a use - but for most of that time, the land remained vacant. The former buildings, and part of a vast rock formation, were quarried by the county for stone. In 1982, the county constructed a new temporary jail over part of the existing graveyards. Secaucus fought against the jail's construction, and lost their case in court. In 1988, when Hudson County sought to expand the jail to include what some residents then called a "tent city," Secaucus prevailed. The town also won several cases requiring the county to pay taxes on the land.
Then-County Executive Robert Janiszewski floated several plans for the land. At one point, the county sought to sell the land off for a large townhouse complex. Eventually, part of the land became a park, with the county's latest plans for the area including park expansion and possibly the construction of a county school. Earlier this year, Hudson County struck a deal with the NJ Turnpike for the five-acre site on which the graveyards sit.
"I think the county freeholders have to look at this and determine if they really want to balance their budget by selling this land," Just said. "I think these people need to be respected."
The judge will tour the site
Over the last few months, Just had driven here to keep and eye on the progress of the project, pointing out the fact that the Turnpike didn't have to run through the graveyard site.
"The Turnpike has plenty of land along side its roadway; it didn't have to come this way," Just said, pointing to some of the vast stretch alongside the existing Turnpike. Such an option, however, would have forced the Turnpike to purchase several existing buildings, currently used as terminals for trucks. The county's property with the closed jail seemed a better option at the time.
Turnpike officials have asked for a ruling on relocating the remains they uncovered, and have made it clear to Judge Oliveri that the Authority will do what is right.
Calling it "a sensitive issue," Joseph Orlando, the spokesperson for the Authority said last week, "At the end of the day, when there is a ruling, everyone involved should have their concerns satisfied."
The Turnpike Authority wants to move the remains to a mass grave in a Hudson or Union county cemetery. Estimates said the site could have as many as 3,500 bodies, but there are poor records and no markers to show exactly where anyone is buried.
Just, however, pointed to a still undisturbed wooded section near the road and said, "If you go in there with a weed-whacker and clear some of the brush, you'll find markers."
Before making a ruling on a possible relocation plan, Judge Oliveri said he would tour the former county graveyard. "I do think it's important to look at the site," Oliveri said
But now snow covers a great portion of the ground here, and various projects in this end of Secaucus have installed roads across what used to be field of remains.
"After all these years, trees have grown over the graves, and with leaves falling, you have about a foot of that to dig through," Just said.