Erosion at Seneca cemetery dredge lingering bitterness 7-07

by Genaro C. Armas

BRADFORD, Pa. (AP) - Forty-one years ago, water washed away
Pennsylvania's last American Indian land.

The creation of the Allegheny Reservoir led to the razing of a small
town settled by whites, known as Corydon. Nearby, the cemetery of a
Seneca Nation Indian chief, Cornplanter, had to be unearthed and
moved to an idyllic bluff overlooking the new body of water - and the
land he and his descendants once owned.

Now, locals fear the Riverview-Corydon Cemetery might be slipping
away, too. Erosion has endangered the burial grounds, critics say,
and the federal government isn't heeding their calls to shore up the

``We're not in a crisis situation yet, but that's what we're trying
to prevent. We're trying to prevent a crisis unearthing of graves,''
said Justin Schapp, of the Seneca Nation Tribal Historic Preservation

The grounds are located west of the northcentral Pennsylvania town of
Bradford, just about 100 yards from the New York state line. The
cemetery contains what are believed to be the remains of Cornplanter,
his descendants and residents of Corydon.

Many Senecas and former Corydon residents still harbor ill feelings.
They place the onus of fixing the erosion squarely on the Army Corps
of Engineers, which built the Kinzua Dam that created the reservoir
in 1966. The Corps still oversees the dam and reservoir.

The Corps' public stance on the issue has been consistent and firm.

Last month, Corps personnel traveled to the dam and the cemetery to
investigate and ``could not see any observable difference in erosion
over the last 20 years,'' said Georgie Reynolds, tribal liaison at
Corps headquarters in Washington.

Reynolds said she was just alerted to the issue last month and vowed
to thoroughly study the issue, in part by studying photos of the area
going back at least two decades.

A Corps inspection in October 2005 yielded similar findings,
according to Curt Meeder, deputy for programs and project management
for the Corps' Pittsburgh district. The reservoir, about 190 miles
north of Pittsburgh, helps to reduce flooding downstream on the
Allegheny River.

The Allegheny National Forest owns the land that surrounds the
private cemetery, including the strip of property in between the
private cemetery and the reservoir.

``We acknowledge over time there has been erosion that occurs on
Forest Service land,'' Meeder said in a phone interview. ``Our
observation about 18 months ago is there is no imminent threat to
cemetery property.''

Forest officials may soon be taking a step toward a possible fix.
Stephen Miller, spokesman for the Allegheny National Forest, said an
archaeologist recently visited the site with his counterpart from the
Seneca Nation and a hydrologist and ranger are planning on visiting

``We're in conversation with the Seneca on this, as we have been off
and on for some time,'' Miller said. ``But for a variety of reasons,
I think things are moving forward.''

The issue of which agency is responsible wasn't as clear-cut with Miller.

``There are a couple different issues associated with it. One of
which is: Whose land is it? Whose authority is it?'' Miller said.

Members of the cemetery association and relatives of those buried say
the ground has been slipping away steadily since the dam was built.
They've pestered government entities about the issue for two decades.

Fueling the frustration among some is bitterness that lingers among
displaced residents and their families _ both white and Seneca _ over
the construction of the dam in the first place.

``Myself, I don't use the reservoir because it has such a negative
connotation attached to it,'' said Pam Bowen, president of the
Cornplanters Descendants Association. She works about 30 minutes
north of the cemetery on the Allegany Reservation in Salamanca, where
many displaced Senecas from the Cornplanter land moved.

``How can you use something recreationally that was taken from you?'' she said.

Large rocks and chunks of gravel sit on the shoreline, roughly 60
feet below the cemetery. It is evidence, said cemetery association
member Tom Pitts, that the bluff is crumbling from the constant
changes in water levels and boat wakes belting away at the shoreline.

Pitts once lived in Corydon before being forced out because of the
project. His wife and in-laws, Corydon natives, are buried in the

He helps Harry Tome, 85, help care for the grounds. Graying and
wrinkled, Tome is full of energy and knows the grounds well. His
great, great-grandfather, Philip, founded Corydon and most of the
people buried in the cemetery, he says with a proud voice, are Tomes.

He estimates the cemetery, when first relocated, was about 90 feet
away from the edge of a gently sloping bluff. Now parts of that slope
have turned into a cliff.

At its closest point, the bluff's edge is 2 feet from the cemetery
fence. Behind the fence, about 20 feet back, the closest graves date
back to the Civil War. The Cornplanter cemetery is the next section

Pitts once drove a lawn tractor around that point to clear off brush,
he said. That point now serves as a marker for erosion. The water at
its highest point in the spring can lap within 20 feet of the fence,
he said.

In the summer, that point is the start of a steep drop to the shore
that can be descended with sturdy hiking boots, good jeans and a bit
of bravery. The ground isn't very compact, causing loose sand and
pebbles to fall to the shoreline.

Schapp fears a worst-case scenario of back-to-back hurricanes or
tropical storms could have disastrous impact. Pitts said he would
settle now for a temporary solution, such as having the government
use earth-movers to push dirt and rocks up back on shore when water
levels are typically lower in the fall.

Those water levels are controlled by the dam, a project which cost
$120 million to build in the 1960s. The project also helps dilute
pollution, maintain navigable depths for commercial traffic on the
Allegheny and Ohio rivers and creates hydroelectric power.

Recreationally, the reservoir is a haven for ice fishermen in winter
and water enthusiasts in the summer. On average, there are 27 miles
of shoreline, though that varies according to season.

Pitts sees something else when he looks out from the bluff.

``Right out there was the town of Corydon,'' said Pitts, pointing to
the middle of the reservoir, near where a boat cruised by.

Near the former town was the land deeded to Cornplanter by the
Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1791 as a gift for his diplomatic
help with other American Indian tribes. Cornplanter and his relatives
lived and were originally buried on that land.

In New York, about 10,000 acres of Seneca land was inundated by
reservoir waters. The federal government eventually paid about $15
million to the Senecas for the land and relocation costs including
new housing.

Now, Pitts, Bowen and other locals want the government to satisfy
their requests to ensure the cemetery's safety.

Some safeguards have been put in place, Miller says, such as creating
no wake zones for boaters near shore.

``It seems like it should be a relatively easy fix,'' he said. ``The
question of course is everyone getting on the same page of what the
fix is, and doing it.''


On the Net:

Army Corps of Engineers' Allegheny Reservoir site::

Seneca Nation of Indians:

Warren County Visitors Bureau Cornplanter site: