Neighbors James Robert Whitehead and Theresa Novak are on a grave mission: blocking an access road planned for a section of land in Columbia Hills that they believe contains an antebellum cemetery.
"It would be just terrible for them to dig in the . . . historic gravesite," said Mr. Whitehead, who kept part of a tombstone marked "Arthur" that he found near his back yard in 1973.
Their efforts -- aimed at preserving local history and avoiding the embarrassment of disturbing a hallowed site -- already have had an impact.
Last week, the State Highway Administration (SHA) halted work on part of the access road while archaeologists continue to search for evidence of a family graveyard.
Yesterday, they ruled out the second of two possible sites. But evidence from local historians remains strong enough that state archaeologists later this week will interview a neighbor who recalls playing in the cemetery as a boy.
"I don't know where that cemetery is," said Charles Hall, who is heading the team of archaeologists. "So far, I know where it's not -- it's not where we tested."
Just to be safe, however, workers have moved to another part of the project, 3,000 feet away, to work on erosion sediment control on Long Gate Drive while the investigation continues.
The state's actions are intended to avoid a controversy similar to the one the county faced in 1992 with the St. Mary's Cemetery on St. John's Lane in Ellicott City.
In that case, the county approved a construction project over the warnings of Ellicott City residents about the presence of a historic graveyard -- only to have remains unearthed during the excavation of sewer lines.
A year later, the county passed a cemetery preservation law that requires developers to preserve burial grounds as open space and halts development immediately when remains are discovered.
Councilman C. Vernon Gray, who sponsored that legislation, said he will do what he can to determine if a there is a historic cemetery in Columbia Hills. "Based upon oral history, they say it's there," he said.
The Columbia Hills neighbors voiced their concerns last week when the SHA started a project to build a mile-long, two-lane access road from Sybert Drive to Long Gate Parkway in Ellicott City.
The $1.3 million project, funded by the county, includes a new 303-space park-and-ride facility off Route 100 at Long Gate Parkway, said Chuck Brown, an SHA spokesman.
When Mr. Whitehead saw a state engineer near his home on South Leisure Court on May 30, he told the state worker that the road alignment would disturb a former cemetery.
Bowing to his concern, the state immediately halted work in that area until archaeological tests could confirm or disprove Mr. Whitehead's claim, Mr. Brown said.
Evidence for the cemetery remains sketchy but intriguing.
Though the state had surveyed the area years ago, state highway officials began researching the parcel's history last week after they were told about the possibility of a cemetery. They also contacted Ellicott City historian Joetta Cramm.
Ms. Cramm's research shows that an acre was given to Mary Dorsey Pue in 1815 by her son, Dr. Arthur Pue, for burial ground. The Pue-Dorsey family owned the "Bethesda" mansion, which still exists on land that pre-dates Columbia Hills.
"We have traced to Annapolis, the Hall of Records there, the original deeding, one acre of property in the 1800s," Dr. Hall said. Although research indicated the cemetery was on a hill somewhere in the area, "the location of the cemetery was not specified."
"I know there is a cemetery," Ms. Cramm said. "There's no question about it." The problem is its exact location and how many are buried there, she said.
And Sandra Pezzoli, chairwoman of the county's cemetery preservation advisory board, said although the cemetery is not listed on the list of historical sites, records could be wrong.
"We're just trying to get information at this point, to prevent problems," Ms. Pezzoli said.
Mr. Whitehead and Ms. Novak, longtime residents, are convinced.
"They are going to hit graves out there, just as sure as I'm sitting here," said Mr. Whitehead.
Standing behind his back yard, Mr. Whitehead pointed in the general direction of the area where he found part of a tombstone in 1973. He believes the gravesite isn't in his yard because remains would have been unearthed when he built his 10-foot-deep pool 12 years ago, he said.
"I can't be exactly precise," he said walking around the grassy area. "All I know is somewhere, there's a grave with a lot of bodies."