Historians researching possible burial site at the former Colgate property in Clarksville
The former Colgate-Palmolive property in Southern Indiana is known for its iconic clock and for being a centerpiece for Clarksville’s new downtown. But before it was a manufacturing plant, the site was home to a state prison and reformatory.
In March, Diane Stepro got an email from Shrouded Veterans, an organization that helps identify and restore the neglected graves of people who served in older wars.
It kicked off a search into what historians say could be many people buried at or near the former Colgate site.
Frank Jastrzembski, founder of Shrouded Veterans, was asking about a Civil War veteran who he said died and was buried there, during the property’s days as a state prison and reformatory. He wanted to know why he couldn’t find more information on the burial location.
“And it’s because we really don’t have much information about that cemetery,” said Stepro, the genealogy and history librarian at the Jeffersonville Township Public Library.
But that’s changing, as Stepro and others try to piece together records of who died at the facility and who was buried there.
Early days as a state prison and reformatory
Indiana Prison South was built in 1847 along what’s now South Clark Boulevard in Clarksville, blocks away from the shore of the Ohio River. It was later turned into a reformatory and, in 1921, sold to the Colgate Company.
Clark County Historian Jeanne Burke said conditions were inhumane at the prison. People incarcerated there were subjected to hard labor, abuse and poor food.
“They were harshly worked, they were beaten,” Burke said.
The work conditions were so severe that people would sometimes drop dead, Burke added.
“They were in business, so to speak, from 1847 until it became a reformatory,” she said. “So you've probably got a lot of people interred over there.”
Sifting through historical documents
In recent months, local and state researchers have found records of at least 50 people showing they were buried at the cemetery. The paper trail includes death certificates, newspaper articles and prison registers.
The Indiana Archives and Records Administration has found 30 names. Jeffersonville Township Public Library volunteer Eden Kuhlenschmidt has found around two dozen additional names.
Stepro has a separate running list of prison deaths, but most are from records she said don’t list burial information.
The search is hampered by the lack of newspaper obituaries in the earlier decades of the prison. Stepro called the process “slow, painstaking work.”
Researchers also know not everyone who died in custody would have been buried there.
“I think in most cases it would be people who either had no families that wanted to contact them or had families that were so poor they couldn’t afford the train fare for the body,” Stepro said.
Determining who was buried there is painstaking work, and so is trying to find out exactly where on the property the cemetery is located. But Burke and others are putting together clues.
“You go to the deedbooks and you see where the state of Indiana sold the property to Colgate,” Burke said. “There are some hints in there as to where the cemetery might be, but they’re only hints.”
Burke said people may have been buried along the back and side of the facility, likely near railroad tracks.
It’s possible there was more than one cemetery and that the burials could be on land sold long ago for infrastructure, like roads or railways.
“[The state] sold the land to the railroads and to Colgate-Palmolive,” Burke said. “And most of those people were just forgotten. They were paved over and forgotten.”
Jastrzembski, with the veterans organization, recently shared findings about the cemetery’s potential location with LPM News.
In writings published in 1871 by a person who was incarcerated there, the author describes the layout of the prison, including a garden northeast of the facility, “while a little further out lies the prison burying-ground.”
Jastrzembski also passed along an 1889 article in The National Democrat, a newspaper that served the area during that era, found by Burke. It references the state previously selling the ground of “the old Prison graveyard” to the Pennsylvania Company, which owned railroads.
Clarksville resident Danny Spainhour believes people could be buried under a Colgate storage facility built decades ago.
Spainhour, a history buff, has collected documents, photos and maps of the historic site. This includes a blueprint from around 1950 showing plans for the storage facility, over what was previously the correctional facility’s hospital.
He also worked at Colgate for decades, and so did his father. Spainhour recalls stories from his father, who said he and others saw the human remains when crews were excavating for the new building.
“And of course everybody in the plant knew it,” he said. “It's just like in an office. … Something happens [and] everybody by the end of the day knows it.”
Implications for redevelopment efforts
The search comes as the Town of Clarksville and the property’s current owner are locked in a court battle over ownership. The site and its giant clock are a focal point for the town’s ongoing construction of a new downtown district.
Over the past year, the town has sought to take the property by eminent domain, saying the historic structures are falling into disrepair and that the owner has failed to advance development plans.
Attorneys for the owner, Clarks Landing Enterprise Investments LLC, have said in court filings there are still development plans in the works, including a hotel.
This week, the Clarksville Town Council voted to start the eminent domain process on a nearby smaller parcel owned by the same company, to make way for a street grid as part of the downtown buildout.
Regardless of ownership, it’s not clear how any potential burials could affect redevelopment efforts — if the cemetery is on the land in dispute.
A representative with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources told LPM News the agency has no record of where the cemetery is located.
But there are state — and possibly federal — regulations that have to be followed related to burial sites. Indiana DNR must be contacted if any human remains are found. A cemetery development plan has to be approved for certain work — including repairs and excavation — within 100 feet of a burial ground.
DNR works with the parties seeking redevelopment on a plan to avoid or recover any remains determined to be archaeological. Federal law comes into play if a development receives federal funding or permitting.
Recognizing the names lost to history
Historians and researchers will continue trying to identify who died and was buried at the former prison and reformatory, and where any burial grounds might be located.
Stepro, with the Jeffersonville Township Public Library, said she plans to eventually share the information — through printed indexes and on the library website — to help people find their family members and to name those long forgotten.
“In many cases these were the most mistreated, maligned people in Indiana at the time,” she said. “Since we’ve lost the graveyard there’s been a real lack of respect for their remains, and we need to show them the respect they deserved.”
Coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by Samtec, Inc. and the Hazel & Walter T. Bales Foundation.