Rural parish's worries are laid to rest
BIG BEND -- Three decades of worry were laid to rest Thursday with the cutting of a ribbon and the applause from dozens of people. Parishioners of the Big Bend Lutheran Church joined to mark the completion of a project that will protect the 138-y...
BIG BEND -- Three decades of worry were laid to rest Thursday with the cutting of a ribbon and the applause from dozens of people.
Parishioners of the Big Bend Lutheran Church joined to mark the completion of a project that will protect the 138-year-old church cemetery from the Chippewa River. The river has been relentlessly eroding a steep, 60-foot bluff alongside the church cemetery and has threatened to wash away grave sites. The Corps of Engineers reports that the project will protect 330 grave sites in the cemetery.
There are more than 740 known grave sites in the cemetery, and church members felt they had no alternative but to move the cemetery if the erosion could not be stopped.
"A long time in the coming,'' said Wes Thompson, a former church council president, who was among dozens of people who joined for the afternoon ceremony. Thompson said he was among four church members who went to the state Capitol 32 or 33 years ago to first plead for help.
"I am the only one left,'' said Thompson. "The others are behind us,'' he said, gesturing toward the cemetery. "Thank God it happened.''
"An emotional time for many of us,'' said Kenneth Koenen, a member of the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners who helped assemble the parties who helped fund the project.
The project to "armor'' a 900-foot stretch of the riverbank alongside the cemetery cost $572,000, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District. It provided the engineering for the project and more than $363,000 in funding. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Chippewa County, and a host of organizations all played roles in providing funding and assistance.
Members of the rural parish of 300 to 400 worshippers collected more than $68,000 in contributions toward the parish share of the project. "It didn't take long,'' said church member Floyd Kanten. He said letters were sent to parishioners and former parishioners, and people responded.
While the danger to the cemetery has been known for three decades, the project took on added urgency as the floods of 1997 and 2001 moved the river precariously close to the cemetery. Kanten said there were fears that another flood would wash away graves before anything could be done to save them. Two grave sites considered to be in imminent danger were moved two years ago.
The project to enlist support and funding took years, but reached the critical tipping point when church members completed a study showing it would cost more than $1.6 million to move all of the threatened grave sites. It would also require years to contact survivors and complete legal obligations before the grave sites could be moved.
Craig Evans, project manager with the Corps of Engineers, said the project is designed to protect the cemetery against a flood event like those of 1997 or 2001. He recommended that five to 10 grave sites in the cemetery still be moved, however.
Due to undercutting that has already occurred, a portion of the upper bank will eventually fall and threaten those grave sites, he explained.
The project to protect the bank required about six weeks of work this fall, according to Bob Gordon, project contractor with Northwest Constructors of Mahnomen. It was completed Oct. 22. Workers placed nearly 8,600 tons of rock riprap and 1,700 tons of topsoil to protect the stream bank from erosion, according to the Corps of Engineers.