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Pollution, vandals threaten historic cemetery

July 1, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ There is a place in the nation’s capital where history’s sleep is vexed by vandals, eroded by pollution, choked by weeds and lost in time.

Eighteen blocks east of the Capitol dome, Congressional Cemetery is the final resting place for 60,000 mortals, among them members of Congress sleeping under cenotaphs so squat and boxy that one 19th century lawmaker said they added new terror to death.

Founded in 1807, seven years after John Adams became the first president to occupy the White House, the privately owned cemetery is a textbook of history written in headstones, statues and sky-pointing obelisks.

In its 32 acres rest 19 senators, 70 House members, two vice presidents, march king John Phillip Sousa, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, President Lincoln’s valet, George Washington’s private secretary and chiefs of the Creek, Pawnee, Nez Perce, Sioux, Winnebago, Chippewa, Kiowa, Choctaw and Apache tribes.

There are also Revolutionary War veterans, Cabinet members, generals, explorers, musicians, authors, a Medal of Honor winner, the first chief of the U.S. Secret Service, a soldier of fortune, the paymaster of the war of 1812, Marine Corps commandants and librarians of Congress.

Last month, the faces of its marble angels melting from acid rain and many of its monuments broken, the 190-year-old cemetery was identified as one of America’s most endangered historic sites by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

``This is one of Washington’s most historic places and also one of Washington’s least known historic sites,″ said Richard Moe, the trust’s president, at a ceremony in the cemetery.

Rep. Bob Livingston, a Louisiana Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, called the cemetery ``a veritable who’s who of early U.S. history.″

Jim Oliver, a Capitol employee who heads The Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, calls it ``a national treasure ... a place of respect, pride and memory.″

Over the last few years, Oliver has logged all 60,000 burials into a computer database, simplifying the once daunting task of locating a grave.

But relentlessly, ``pollution eats at the stone and washes away inscriptions,″ Oliver said.

Under his association’s direction, area schoolchildren and other volunteers have begun a race against time and pollution, recording gravestone inscriptions before they vanish.

But pollution is not the only problem. Vandals have cause their share of problems, too.

One example is the grave of 10-year-old Marion Kahlert, who was hit by a bread truck and became Washington’s first motor-vehicle fatality in 1904. Her 3-foot-tall statue, with lovingly carved curls, was smashed by vandals in the 1980s. One small shoe is all that remains.

National treasure or not, help in rescuing Congressional Cemetery is not likely from a national government bent on eliminating the federal budget deficit. Although it’s called Congressional, Congress never owned the cemetery and is not responsible for its upkeep.

There’s also no help in sight from the city of Washington, even though 10 of its mayors are buried there.

``The fact is that it’s America’s cemetery but it’s nobody’s responsibility,″ said Eleanor Holmes Norton, delegate to Congress from the District of Columbia.

``Given the city’s financial condition, there is no money for the living, much less the dead,″ she said.

``The taxpayer is heavily burdened,″ Moe said. ``There does have to be a private solution, but I think the private community will rally.″

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