BELLEVILLE, NJ - In a rectangular plot of land behind the Dutch Reformed Church, scientists and students were painstakingly moving a long yellow tube along the ground.
Still more scientists and students were slowly guiding a grey box across the dirt floor in the church’s dimly-lit, dank basement.
These Rutgers-Newark graduate students and their professors were deploying ground-penetrating radar in the two historic sites on Main Street in search for unmarked graves dating back to the Revolutionary War.
The survey is tied into the students’ environmental geophysical class. Their work plotting and surveying the land stretched from early morning into the afternoon on Thursday, with high hopes.
After the data is studied and analyzed in the coming weeks, the findings may yield crucial clues to solving a longtime mystery in Belleville and perhaps substantiate long-repeated whispers in town about some Chinese workers who may have been buried in the church’s basement generations ago.
Many Chinese workers who helped build the Central Pacific Railroad were in search of a safe haven from rampant anti-Chinese sentiment that had spread across the country in the 1860s. That’s when they found Belleville. They settled here, lived here, raised families here and eventually died here. Some of their graves can be seen in the cemetery behind the church; others have disappeared from the landscape.
Some were buried out back and it is now believed that their resting places were covered over during one of the church’s expansions.
“Belleville was a place that accepted these Chinese workers with open arms,” Mayor Michael Melham said. “Belleville was the site of the first Chinatown on the East Coast. If there are workers in the ground under the church, we want to recognize their historical significance and give them a proper burial, if possible.”
Mayor Melham also revealed that the township is preparing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first Chinese New Year to be celebrated in Belleville. Although the festivities won’t be held until 2021, fireworks are already in the plans.
Meanwhile, the space behind the church is believed to be the resting place of unknown soldiers who fought in the American Revolution and sacrificed for freedom.
As it stands, the cemetery behind the church is the final resting place of what is believed to be the highest concentration of Revolutionary War soldiers – 68 in all – in any cemetery, according to Belleville Historical Society.
The church is so steeped in Revolutionary War history that the steeple was used as an observation post during the fight against the attacking British.
Belleville will be eagerly awaiting the results of Thursday’s surveys by the end of the year.
The Church, which was founded in 1697, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Reformed Dutch Church of Second River. It was rebuilt in 1725 and again in 1807.
Deputy Mayor Vincent Cozzarelli, Gabrielle Bennett-Meany of Belleville’s Historic Preservation Commission and Pastor Mike Ortiz were on hand for the survey.