News & Politics

Hill Collapse Could Threaten Historic St. Elizabeths Cemetery

The site has graves dating back to the Civil War.

A slope collapsed at Saint Elizabeths Hospital. Photo by Evy Mages

It’s a scene straight out of a horror movie: Civil War-era graves on the grounds of a famous mental asylum in danger of being unearthed. That’s the situation right now at the West cemetery at St. Elizabeths. A slope right next to the graveyard has collapsed, potentially threatening burial sites in the historic cemetery. No graves have thus far been affected, according to a spokesperson for the US General Services Administration, which maintains the site. On a recent visit to the cemetery, the edge of the collapse was visible right up against gravestones. It seems likely that any further erosion would imperil stones and burial sites.

The collapse happened in early March, the spokesperson says, and the GSA immediately notified the DC State Historic Preservation Office and the DC Archaeologist’s Office. Now the slope is being stabilized by using gravel and concrete to protect the retaining wall, which borders the collapse. That stabilization effort is a temporary fix until construction can begin this summer on a permanent solution to the issue. 

The West cemetery dates back to 1856, just a year after the facility opened as the Government Hospital for the Insane (it was officially renamed St. Elizabeths in 1916). The institution was also used as a hospital for injured soldiers during the Civil War. Though poor record keeping makes it hard to know exactly how many graves are there, hundreds of Civil War veterans are likely buried at St. Elizabeths, along with an unknown number of civilians. It is thought to be one of the earliest American cemeteries where Black and white people were buried together.

This story has been updated to include new information from the US General Services Administration. 

Photo by Evy Mages