First Person / To the souls of Woodville: Less than a footnote in history, they too once lived here

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Somewhere, I had heard, there was a place where the remains of hundreds of people were laid to rest. They were human beings whose lives were deemed so meaningless that their graves were marked simply with a small concrete slab and a number.

They were residents of the no-longer-existent Woodville State Hospital in Collier who had died between the years 1867 and 1949. They were people whose bodies had no other place to go after they left this world.

Also nearby, buried deep beneath the earth, are countless others who spent their lives in utter servitude. They were the slaves on the 900 acres of land of what was once part of Woodville Plantation. They toiled on the same land that was later transformed into a repository for those designated unfit to live among the sane.

I wanted to pay homage to all of them in my own little way, but first I needed to locate them. A friend had told me that you could get there by way of a drainage pipe that ran underneath the six-lane highway that is Interstate 79. There had to be a better way.

In my research I found a video of a man standing by the cemetery. I saw that there was an electrical tower nearby. From the highway I could see a string of electrical towers, but I didn't know which one it could be.

I thought of the drainage pipe described by my friend and determined which of the towers would most likely be near it. I set my sights on one of them, which became the beacon in my quest to locate the graves of the now-nameless people who had been laid to rest at Woodville. I considered it hallowed ground, and getting to it would be my greatest challenge.

It was a sunny September afternoon when I set forth on my quest with my loyal companion, a furry black-and-white Border Collie named Quincy. I had parked my car on a residential street and from there we walked about a half-mile, over the I-79 bridge. I climbed over a guardrail while Quin chose to crawl under.

We were met with a deep ravine, and a hillside covered with dense thickets of vines, poison ivy and prickly burrs. There were several downed trees to climb over and other obstacles to crawl under. We were on a mission, and nothing was going to stand in our way.

Once we were far enough from the road, I unleashed Quincy. She bravely ran off like an army scout, blazing the trail before us, while keeping a vigilant eye out for any dangers that might lie ahead. I lost sight of her, but I trusted that she would find her way back to me.

I was alone with my thoughts as I labored my way down into the ravine by facing the hillside, holding onto roots and vines. While I struggled, I thought about the lives of the Woodville Hospital residents and the servants of the Woodville Plantation who had been so intensely subjugated by a society that values hierarchy.

The people are interred on grounds once owned by John and Presley Neville. The Nevilles were men whose greatness had been given a place in history, not only in the name of the community built on their land, but also in the names of streets and of an island in the middle of the Ohio River. Their memory lives on in a place of honor and esteem, while so many other people who had inhabited their land rate less than a footnote.

As I began my ascent out of the darkness of the ravine, Quincy came running down from the top of the hill to meet me. Together we climbed to where we could see the electrical tower in full view. I knew from the video that we had arrived -- exhausted, muddy and covered with burrs.

I felt a moment of triumph as I looked over and saw a stone monument to the patients of Woodville that had been erected in 1986. I wondered if I would experience the presence of spirits as I entered the wooded cemetery. Were these souls in everlasting turmoil?

As I walked between the unmarked graves, I found serenity. It led me to believe that those who had been laid to rest in this place were now at peace. I wanted to honor each of the lives of those interred here, in both marked and unmarked graves. I hoped that somewhere they had found meaning amid the drudgery of their humble existence. I reflected on the notion that we are all equals in the realm of eternity, whatever our station on Earth.

We don't all leave our mark in this world before we make our transition into the great beyond. Like the souls of Woodville, I will not have left a legacy in the annals of history, but I do strive to capture meaning wherever I am able.

As I looked out from the woods, I saw a brand new section of a housing plan. I then realized that I could have simply driven up to the edge of the field and walked a few hundred yards to my journey's end. It would have been a far easier route, but sometimes the easiest route is not the best.


Kathleen Burk is a writer and communications specialist who teaches public speaking at Duquesne University (


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