Tuesday morning shed light on the damage done to Old Gray Cemetery in Knoxville by Monday's severe storms. Strong winds uprooted two large oak trees and damaged some of the historic grave markers.
We're thankful there weren't more than two major trees down, but they were very large and caused a lot of damage," said Gaines Pittenger, president of the Old Gray Cemetery's board of trustees. "The overwhelming thing is just the size of the trees that went down."
The rootball from one of the collapsed trees completely lifted the curb of the paved driveway in the cemetery and also included a headstone. The grave marker was suspended more than 12 feet in the air, still firmly planted in the soil surrounding the tree's trunk.
The uprooted tree peeled away several feet of soil above the grave of a man buried in 1898. There were no visible skeletal remains, but the rootball contained remnants of a coffin's handle as well as some plate glass that may have been part of a casket's viewing window.
"We're just trying to fill in the hole and limit the damage to the extent we can," said Pittenger.
The large trees that provide shade and a picturesque canopy for the historic cemetery also require a great deal of maintenance. The two trees that came crashing down Monday were both healthy.
"This cemetery is like an outdoor art museum," said Alix Dempster, director of the Old Gray Cemetery. "A lot of these headstones were hand-carved more than a century ago and are irreplaceable."
While the trees caused a great deal of damage in the cemetery, Dempster marveled at many of the near-misses that spared many of the tombstones.
"You look around and see some branches missed beautiful headstones by just a few inches. It just goes to show that something good can come out of something bad," said Dempster.
"There are still a lot of tombstones underneath the trees that we can't really see yet," said Pittenger. "There will be a cleanup effort. We're not sure exactly how to go about it, but we have some great volunteers."
The Old Gray Cemetery is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is also featured on Tennessee's Civil War Heritage Trail. Knoxville residents have used the ground as an ornate burial site and park since 1850.
The private cemetery relies on volunteers and private donations to maintain the grounds. Those interested in assisting the cemetery may call its main office via phone at 865-522-1423 or by mail at P.O. Box 806, Knoxville, TN, 37901.