A crew digging up a section of Bloomingbank Road in Riverside to install a new sewer line on Sept. 14 unearthed human skeletal remains that could date back to before the development of the village.
The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed on Tuesday that the remains were “human and likely very old.”
“We have requested an anthropology consultation, which will aim to determine the age of the bones and more information about who they belonged to,” said Becky Schlikerman, spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office, in an email.
In the meantime, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issued a permit for the work, has indefinitely suspended work on Bloomingbank Road. Riverside Public Works Director Edward Bailey said the Army Corps of Engineers plans to send an archaeologist to examine the trench where the bones were discovered.
“We’re awaiting final disposition from the Army Corps,” Bailey said.
The Army Corps’ permit reportedly noted that the work area lay within the aboriginal homeland of several Native-American tribes and that if any human remains were discovered, the village was to contact the Army Corps.
Village Engineer Orion Galey said the crew was excavating a section of Bloomingbank Road around 1 p.m. in order to install a new sewer pipe that’s part of the storm sewer separation project underway all summer in the First Division.
Galey said the area had never been excavated previously, except to lay the road back in 1870. Crews dug down about six feet and uncovered the bones, which police, responding to the scene, said appeared to be human.
Police Chief Thomas Weitzel said the remains included part of a skull, a jawbone with teeth in it, a pelvis and what appeared to be arm and leg bones.
Because the remains were believed to be human, Riverside police had to treat the discovery as a death investigation and called out a detective from the west suburban Major Crimes Task Force forensic unit, which made it appear initially as if police were investigating a homicide. The area was cordoned off by both yellow caution tape and red crime scene tape.
A homeowner who lives near the site said he was able to get a look at the bones and said they were dark brown in color, similar to the sandy soil in which they were found.
According to Weitzel, the bones and any debris found in the vicinity of the remains were turned over to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.
The village shut down work on the excavation for the remainder of the afternoon, and has done no other work in the area since that time. There’s only about 30 to 40 feet of pipe left to be laid on Bloomingbank Road, Galey said.
Exactly when work might resume is unclear, but it could be weeks. In the meantime, construction crews are wrapping up pavement patching and other restoration work in other areas of the First Division. But work remains halted along Bloomingbank Road, the final leg of the project.
That area of Riverside, which is at the highest elevation in the First Division and overlooks the Des Plaines River, was for centuries hunting grounds for the Potawatomi and is also well-known as a Native American burial ground.
While the remains could be those of a Native American, they could also be from an early settler. According to Connie Guardi, a village historian and chairwoman of the Riverside Historical Commission, David Laughton, who around 1830 settled in what would become the First Division, is said to have buried his three Native American wives in the area.
“[Frederick Law] Olmsted [who laid out the General Plan of Riverside] named the area Indian Gardens because when he came in 1868, it was known as an Indian burial ground,” Guardi said.
In 1832, according to the book Riverside Then and Now, General Winfield Scott led an expedition during the Black Hawk War, during which his troops camped on Laughton’s land in the First Division.
Guardi said U.S. Army records indicated some of Scott’s troops, which were ravaged by cholera during the expedition, died and were buried in Riverside.
It’s not the first time a construction project has unearthed human bones in the First Division. Around 1980, a human skeleton was unearthed during a fire hydrant replacement project, according to a Suburban Life article from July 22, 2000.
The Riverside Historical Commission preserved the bones for two decades before turning them over to the Riverside Police Department.
Deputy Police Chief William Gutschick was an evidence technician at that time, and it became his job to find the appropriate state agency to test the bones. Gutschick drove the remains down to Springfield, where scientists were able to carbon-date some wood, presumably from a coffin also found with the bones, to the early 1800s.
A state report, said Gutschick, determined the bones belonged to an early settler, since Native Americans were not buried in coffins.