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Rediscovering Kingston’s Skeletons: Ronen Goldfarb

[Ronan Goldfarb - photo by Greg Black]
Photo by Greg Black

For many people, some of the most recognized moments of Kingston’s history are centred on the political career of Canada's first Prime Minister and Kingston resident, Sir John A. Macdonald. For Ronen Goldfarb (Artsci’17) and his supervisor Dr. Laura Murray (English), Kingston’s history goes well beyond that.

Taking on an Undergraduate Student Summer Research Fellowship with Dr. Murray in 2016, Goldfarb participated in her oral history-based project SWIHHP – the Swamp Ward and Inner Harbour History Project. The Swamp Ward and Inner Harbour neighbourhoods are largely ignored in the traditional Kingston historical narrative in favour of the more glamorous stories of Sir John A. Macdonald and the Sydenham Ward. However, these neighbourhoods were the location of much of Kingston’s industry in the 19th and 20th centuries. Working with current Swamp Ward residents, as well as Queen’s Archives and the Kingston Frontenac Public Library (KFPL), SWIHHP is bringing some of this history back into the fold.

“There’s a lot of really interesting history in these neighbourhoods that has been explored and is yet to be explored,” says Goldfarb. His USSRF project began with many hours spent in the archives and at KFPL going through city directories, censes, and fire insurance maps to piece together an image of the historic Swamp Ward.

“All of this helps us to get a really holistic vision of what the neighbourhood would have looked like from the mid- to late-19th century up until today.”

After collecting these data, Goldfarb used the SWIHHP website and other social media to post blogs about the information and pictures he had found and to connect with the Swamp Ward community. “The posts got tremendous feedback,” he says, “with lots of people commenting and saying ‘I remember playing outside this house when these people lived there’ – and it actually allowed us to get in touch with those people and find out more about the neighbourhood.”

Energized by his community connections, the Swamp Ward’s McBurney Park, or “Skeleton Park” as it is commonly called, became the focus of the second half of Goldfarb’s USSRF project. Skeleton Park has quite a famous macabre history. Until the 1860s, it served as a burial ground for Catholics, Anglicans, and Presbyterians. After burials there stopped, the cemetery was not properly maintained and fell into disrepair. An 1893 decision to re-inter all bodies in other cemeteries and turn the burial ground into a park showed a promising new future for the area, but was overshadowed by a gruesome discovery.

“As [the exhumations] began, they found several bodies shoved in the same coffin – ‘casket stacking.’ In one case, they found 11 bodies stacked on top of each other up, with the shallowest burials three feet below the surface,” Goldfarb explains. “The exhumations had to be halted because the Americans were threatening to close their Canadian embassy in Kingston because of fear of a cholera outbreak. The situation in the park had become so grotesque that they just decided to level the ground and flatten any tombstones that were still visible.”

I think the park really represents the changing reality of what it means to live in the Swamp Ward.

[Skeleton Park Arts]
The Boxtopia rock and roll arcade at the 2016 Skeleton Park Arts Festival (Photo: Jason Middaugh)

Stories emerged throughout the 20th century of children playing baseball using the tombstone crop markers as bases, or of residents finding femurs in their lawns. Goldfarb became interested in finding out more about this morbid history and how it affected current Swamp Ward residents. However, after conducting many interviews during the Skeleton Park Arts Festival, he was surprised to find that residents were much more concerned with the “present day reality” of the park than its spooky history. Stories he heard painted the park as a growing family-friendly attraction for people in the neighbourhood.

“I think the park really represents the changing reality of what it means to live in the Swamp Ward,” Goldfarb says.

Each year, the Undergraduate Student Summer Research Fellowship (USSRF) provides an opportunity for students at Queen’s to engage in discovery-based learning and develop their research and presentation skills. The program is targeted to students in the social sciences, humanities and education.

“It seems like a real point of pride now – they talk about how it’s really become a much more family-oriented neighbourhood where kids can go play in the park.”

Goldfarb’s project, and the larger mission of SWIHHP, is to rediscover the history of the Swamp Ward and Inner Harbour and bring this history back to their communities. With more projects on the way, including an upcoming audio documentary, SWIHHP’s researchers are ensuring that the past of these historic neighbourhoods stays present in Kingston’s larger history.

Leigh Cameron
(e)AFFECT Issue 11 Spring/Summer 2017