[Louisiana Cemeteries] Historic Chalmette National Cemetery gets help after Katrina Feb. 2009

  • From: Louisiana Cemeteries <louisianacemeteries@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: louisianacemeteries@xxxxxxxxxxxxx, Post RootsWeb <la-cemetery-preservation@xxxxxxxxxxxx>, LouisianaCemeteryPreservation Yahoo Group <LouisianaCemeteryPreservation@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>, Topica Louisiana Cemetery Preservation List <LACEMETERYPRESERVATION@xxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 22 Feb 2009 21:02:50 -0800 (PST)

Historic Chalmette National Cemetery returning to life


by Chris Kirkham, The Times-Picayune
Sunday February 15, 2009, 7:07 PM

Eliot Kamenitz / The Times-Picayune Workers sort through bricks and paint 
ornamental iron work at the Chalmette National Cemetery on Feb. 3. The cemetery 
was badly damaged after Hurricane Katrina, and restoration work is finally 

As the floodwaters receded from Chalmette National Cemetery in 2005, employees 
of the National Park Service confronted a grim scene: Storm surges from 
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had toppled sections of a historic red-brick wall 
lining the site, 140-year-old gravestones lay in pieces and soldiers' bones had 
surfaced from below.

After more than two years of meticulous planning by architects and 
preservationists, work is underway to restore the Civil War-era cemetery. A 
curious niche of historic-preservation contractors has descended on the site to 
undertake the largest-ever repair of a national cemetery.

The goal is to mimic the exact look of the graves and the cemetery wall before 
the hurricane damage -- even down to refashioning the exact red bricks and gray 
mortar in the two half-mile walls lining the gravestones.

"We're doing this with the highest degree of historical accuracy we can 
achieve, to preserve a national treasure," said Brian Strack, the facility 
manager for Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, which oversees the cemetery 
and adjacent Chalmette Battlefield.

The cemetery and the road leading to it will remain closed during repairs. The 
battlefield and the Malus-Beauregard House, built in the 1830s and repaired 
after Katrina, remain open.

Although the cemetery is next to Chalmette Battlefield, the location of Gen. 
Andrew Jackson's triumph over the British in the last battle of the War of 
1812, it is primarily a Civil War cemetery. Only one soldier who fought in the 
Battle of New Orleans is buried at Chalmette, moved there in the early 1900s 
from a local cemetery in Pike County, Miss., where he had died.

The cemetery is the final resting place of Sara Rosetta Wakeman, who was famous 
for posing as a man to fight against the Confederates, and more than 100 black 
soldiers who fought for the Union as the Louisiana Native Guard.

Veterans and their families from all major wars from the Civil War through the 
Vietnam War are buried in the national cemetery.

Shattered grave markers

Since November, crews have been working to piece together 74 gravestones 
smashed by fallen trees during Katrina. The National Park Service conducted a 
detailed inventory of the more than 15,000 grave markers on the site beginning 
in 2006, noting which had been broken and needed repair.

Workers from Pishny Restoration Services, a Kansas company, then started the 
sensitive process of tying each headstone back together with a steel rod and 
patching the cracks with a glue-like substance meant to match the exact marble 
color of the gravestone.

Some of the stones date as far back as 1868, when the cemetery opened, forcing 
workers to be especially careful when drilling into the deteriorating marble 

"Some of those were like the consistency of a sugar cube," said Corey Thomas, 
business development manager with Pishny. "You could just scrape it off with 
your fingernail."

Some of the most deteriorated stones had to be filled with a special hardening 
material that seeps into the marker's hollow spaces to bind it together again. 
On others, crews had to re-create inscriptions that been split or cracked.

Putting wall back together

The vast majority of the gravestones have been patched together, but other 
contractors are working to rebuild the two red-brick walls lining the graves, 
some of which date back to 1870.

The $3.7 million wall restoration is the most expensive post-Katrina project 
undertaken in Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, which includes the 
Barataria Preserve on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish.

About 15 percent of the wall was knocked down by Katrina, and the National Park 
Service sent samples of the bricks to laboratories to learn their exact 
strength and makeup. Those results were sent to St. Joe Brick Works Inc., a 
Pearl River brick-making company that uses old-fashioned wooden molds to create 
custom bricks for projects such as this one.

The company is developing a test batch for the battlefield wall, firing the 
kiln at different temperatures to produce a red color that matches the original 

"Our raw material affords us the opportunity to offer our product for these 
restoration jobs, because it is so close to what was used before," said Pete 
Schneider, St. Joe Brick president. "We've been able to virtually match every 
project according to the National Park Service requirements."

The company is still awaiting a final count of the number of bricks needed for 
Chalmette National Cemetery; right now, it is anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000. 
Meanwhile, crews are collecting bricks from broken sections of the wall in 
hopes of reusing them.

On a recent rainy morning, seven workers from WW Masonry Restoration and 
Waterproofing were chiseling away at a load of bricks in a nearby warehouse to 
remove old mortar. The cleaned bricks were stacked and repackaged to be used 
when the new walls are built.

The plan is to use as many of the old bricks as possible above the ground. Most 
of the new bricks will be laid as part of the foundation, which goes 3 feet 
underground. Even the mortar must be a precise match, and contractors are 
choosing among several different shades.

In the next few months, workers will construct a sample section of the wall for 
review by the National Park Service. If it is up to par, they will proceed with 
the rest of the 1,600 feet of wall that needs replacement.

If not, it is back to square one.

The entire cemetery restoration project, which includes repairs to the 
superintendent's lodge and the carriage house, is slated for completion in 

Chris Kirkham can be reached at ckirkham@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx or 504.826.3321.

Photographs in files on wiki





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