The following is excerpted from my book: “Forgotten Tales of Alabama.“
What happens when a highway crew encounters long-buried bodies while digging The dead go to the highest bidder. At least, they did in one unusual case in northern Alabama.
In 1968, while completing Interstate 65 from Birmingham to Nashville, crews encountered several bodies buried in southern Limestone County near the edge of the Tennessee River.
Initially, twelve bodies were unearthed, but still more were found, until the final count was 194 bodies. No grave markers remained and, with one exception, the dead had been buried in wooden coffins and only a few of those remained. Using scrapers, the crews could see dark spots in the earth that indicated where bodies were buried. Local historians believed the bodies must once have been residents of a long forgotten town near the river called Cottonport, which was settled in 1818, the year Limestone County was officially formed.
Cottonport, which had a landing along Limestone Creek for steamboats that entered from the Tennessee River, was a thriving community with a town square, homes, warehouses for cotton and other goods to be transported, and even a racetrack.
It was the watery area’s plentiful mosquitoes that led to the town’s demise. A malaria epidemic in the 1850s chased residents further inland and the town soon ceased to exist.
The 194 mystery graves were likely those buried in a town cemetery during the community’s more than thirty years of existence.
The Alabama Department of Transportation, which now owned the land in which the bodies were found, had to decide what to do with them. No one knew the identities of the dead, and in any case, their descendents were likely scattered. So highway officials did what highway officials do: They put the project up for bids. Funeral homes across the state were asked if they would like the job of reinterring the bodies. It was a funeral home more than 50 miles away in the small community of New Hope in neighboring Madison County that won the bid.
The owner of the funeral home purchased a small parcel of land adjoining Hayden Cemetery for the reinterrment. The state reportedly paid $45,000 to have the bodies moved.
At Hayden Cemetery, the bodies are marked with inset granite stones, each inscribed with a number and set randomly in three rows at the edge of the cemetery. A sign among the markers reads: “194 Unknown Graves.”
Hayden Cemetery has been in use since 1858 on land later donated to the community by Tranquilla J. Hayden. A state historical marker at the site refers to the mystery graves, mistakenly stating the bodies were from Collier Cemetery in Limestone County. Two Collier family cemeteries still exist in Limestone County, and they lie the western portion of the county rather than along the interstate route.