Chattanooga Now 'Cemetery Detective' sheds light on the lives behind the tombstones

Chattanooga Now 'Cemetery Detective' sheds light on the lives behind the tombstones

October 1st, 2017 by Sunny Montgomery in Get Out - Features

"As I am now so shall you be,

Prepare yourself to follow me."

— a common epitaph found on Colonial New England gravestones

We paddle east on Bennett Lake, the water like glass beneath the evening sky. We pass the quarry and through a tangle of milfoil and come to an arm of the Tennessee River known as Mullins Cove. There stand three tombstones, cracked and weathered, sagging above the water. The tide has long since replaced the epitaphs with black mold, but despite their tired lean, a shared engraving hovers above the water line, depicting the image of a hand, one finger pointing to the heavens.

Since 2014, Keith Harper has visited this private underwater cemetery no less than two dozen times. He has become familiar with the history of the land and the family who lived and died there more than 100 years ago, even though their names can no longer be seen on the tombstones that mark their existence.

The graves belong to Henry Long, his wife Zilpha Long and their 3-month-old great-grandson Moses Merritt Long — a family whose history was once as nebulous as their tombstones' reflection on the water, rippling in our wake. Harper, a Chattanooga local and self-proclaimed cemetery detective, has been investigating cemeteries around the world for more than 20 years, but his fascination with them has been lifelong.

Mystery surrounds the submerged tombstones of Henry Long and Zilpha Long, both buried in the late 1800s. Their 3-month-old great-grandson Moses Merritt Long was buried a couple of yards away, though his tombstone has since toppled into the water.

Mystery surrounds the submerged tombstones of Henry Long...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

As we float alongside the Longs' small burial plot, the cove silent save for the sound of water lapping at our kayaks, Harper's voice breaks the stillness to offer a prologue to the scene.

Two hundred and 10 years ago, 200 miles upstream, "[Henry] had no idea what was just downstream. He just waved goodbye to his people and he never saw them again," Harper muses.

Harper recalls one of his earliest memories, visiting a relative's grave in Liverpool, England, where Harper was born. He knew he was supposed to feel sad, but instead he was mesmerized, imagining each life behind the engraved name.

Keith Harper has been fascinated by graveyards for as long as he can remember. "Why spend our lives fearing something that's inevitably going to happen?" he asks.

Keith Harper has been fascinated by graveyards for...

Photo by Erin O. Smith

Every tombstone tells a story, Harper says.

"Cemeteries tell history, not just of the people, but also the communities," he says.

When Harper was 6 years old, his family relocated to Bradley County, Tennessee, about 50 miles west of Mullins Cove. Throughout his life, Harper maintained an interest in graveyards. In college, he worked for a cemetery, cleaning tombstones and landscaping plots. Now, 20 years later, he leads various cemetery-related programs, including workshops on how to start a grave care business or how to create three-dimensional cemetery maps, and history presentations on six sites he has extensively studied — though he has visited hundreds of sites.

Harper has traveled the world visiting notable cemeteries, including Hawaii's Keopu Cemetery, entombed by lava; Scotland's Greyfriar Kirkyard, characterized by its 16th century grotesque carvings; and Tennessee's submerged cemetery at Mullins Cove, also known as Long Cemetery No. 2 — Harper's favorite.

Beginning in 2012, Harper heard rumors about this submerged cemetery. Finally, in 2014, he located the site on Google Earth. He loaded his kayak into the back of his van and drove out to the Bennett Lake boat ramp. Following that first 7-mile round-trip paddle to the tombstones, Harper was filled with curiosity.

Who were these people, and why were their graves underwater, he wondered?

Harper began his investigation with a quick Google search, followed by more in-depth research on websites such as billiongraves.com, findagrave.com and ancestry.com. He went to the Jasper Public Library and the Chattanooga Public Library and pored over old microfilms. Two years later, Harper had answers.

Henry Long, he learned, had been 25 years old when he made the journey from Jonesborough, Tennessee, to what is now known as Mullins Cove. He and two companions had traveled aboard a crude raft along the Tennessee River, known as the "Great River of the Cherokees" at that time. It was 1807; the state was just 11 years old and its population was less than 150,000 — a number that likely didn't include Native Americans.

Shortly after Henry arrived in southeast Tennessee, he married a 15-year-old woman named Zilpha. Harper believes she was a local with the maiden name of "Stephens," or "Stevens," depending on which document one reads.

"As with many cemeteries I research, there are a few contradictory reports out there hence the name 'the cemetery detective.' Fitting all the pieces together truly is detective work," Harper says.

According to Harper's research, Henry and Zilpha became livestock traders, acquiring 2,000 acres along the river in Marion County. There they raised 10 children and continued to work the land until their deaths: Zilpha's in 1860; Henry's in 1875.

The couple was buried side-by-side on their property, a quarter-mile from the river. Their graves were marked by matching tombstones showing the image of a hand with one finger pointing up. It was a popular engraving in the 1800s to mid-1900s, symbolic of one's hope of entering heaven, Harper says. Moses Merritt Long died in 1881. His headstone, small and square, shows a hand holding an open book, representative of the Bible and the embodiment of faith.

Keith Harper says he has visited the submerged cemetery no less than a dozen times.

Keith Harper says he has visited the submerged...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

A tombstone's engraving tells a significant story. First, Harper says, the imagery can tell about that person's religious beliefs; like the Longs, who were Christian. Or, it can reveal the circumstances of that person's death. For instance, a lamb typically represents a child; a broken column represents a life cut short, he explains.

Moreover, the way a tombstone is engraved can indicate one's economic status. Based on the engraving's precision, Harper can usually determine if it was hand-chiseled by a local carver or manufactured by a larger, often more expensive company like Sears Roebuck, which offered a Roebuck & Co. Tombstones and Monuments catalog up until the early 1900s.

In regards to the surrounding community, Harper says he's noticed that many graveyards in the Southeast have a common feature: All the headstones face east. This type of graveyard, he explains, is known as an "Upland South" cemetery, popular during the late 1700s to early 1800s as early American settlers moved into the area.

"The idea is that when the rapture is here and Jesus rises again with the sun, they can rise up and face Jesus," Harper says.

The three tombstones in Long Cemetery No. 2, however, face west. Though, perhaps they once faced east, Harper surmises. In 1999, the Tennessee Valley Authority reset the headstones after decades of submersion caused them to topple. However, it is unclear exactly how long ago the cemetery was flooded — though there are a few clues.

For instance, for little Moses Merritt Long to be buried alongside his great-grandparents in 1881, the plot must have still been dry. In 1913, five miles downstream from the cemetery, Hales Bar Dam was completed, raising the water level. In the 1920s, flashboards were added to the dam, helping increase navigability by raising the water level again. The Tennessee Valley Authority purchased Hales Bar Dam in 1939 and 10 years later decided to increase its capacity again, which raised the water level to approximately 634 feet above sea level.

According to Harper's research, which included a rudimentary survey of the cemetery's ground level, the Longs' burial plot is 631 feet above sea level, meaning this increase in 1949 would have finally submerged the cemetery.

But, Harper says in his documentary "The Submerged Cemetery at Mullins Cove," over the decades, silting may have raised the cemetery's elevation. It is possible that the cemetery's ground level used to be lower and, in fact, already underwater in the 1920s.

According to TVA officials, Harper says, it was.

Construction of Hales Bar Dam. Shows forebay excavation and coffer dam.

Construction of Hales Bar Dam. Shows forebay excavation...

Photo by Wm. H. Stokes

"Honestly, I think TVA seems to have a really responsive, structured cemetery removal policy. If there is a cemetery that's going to be flooded, [TVA] contacts next-of-kin and asks if they want [TVA] to move it," says Harper, adding that since 1933, TVA has relocated more than 550 cemeteries within the utility's service area in the Tennessee Valley. In his investigation on Long Cemetery No. 2, Harper uncovered evidence that in 1944, TVA made an agreement with surviving members of the family, who asked that the burial sites remain in place.

One reason next-of-kin may have decided against moving the cemetery is that, as its name suggests, there is another family cemetery. Harper discovered this additional family burial ground, located a few hundred yards uphill in a dry, wooded lot, using a drone to survey the land.

The tombstone of Zilpha Long's daughter, also named Zilpha, stands a few hundred yards uphill in a dry, wooded lot, alongside the tombstones of five other family members.

The tombstone of Zilpha Long's daughter, also named...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

There, Harper found six more gravestones, all descendants of Henry and Zilpha, including that of James Long, father to 3-month-old Moses Merritt Long.

"But where was Moses' mother?" Harper wondered.

He returned to the public library and again pored over microfilms. Harper eventually learned that Moses' mother, Rhoda Long, had moved closer to Chattanooga following her husband's death in 1936 — when her infant son's burial plot was either already underwater, or about to be.

"Just imagine the emotion that was experienced here," Harper says as we paddle toward the submerged tombstones.

More than just the journey that shaped the Longs' family history, Harper is interested in understanding the psychology, too.

"We all know basic truths about each other; we all have aspirations. We want to be successful. We want to be loved. We want to protect our families. There are a lot of assumptions you can make strictly based on these things," Harper says. "For Henry to get into a raft and go down this unknown river, into this unknown territory to acquire and protect 2,000 acres, he had to be strong-willed. He had to have tenacity."

Exploration — like death — is an inherent part of human progression.

"Why spend our lives fearing something that's inevitably going to happen?" asks Harper, who finds peace in knowing that while the physical body will cease to exist, one's story can live forever.