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Successes in Stewardship
Monthly Newsletter
August 2003

Preserving History While Advancing Transportation: US 77 in Texas

burial sites associated with the Mission Refugio pictured along US 77
Despite the discovery of more than 175 historical burials in the project right-of-way, this highway improvement project was completed with minimal delays. Proper planning, prompt response, sensitive archaeological investigation and construction, and continuous stakeholder involvement helped make the project a success. (TxDOT image).

Rapid Response to Unexpected Discovery Keeps Project Moving

Work came to a halt when a historically significant cemetery was found in the project right-of-way during an upgrade of US Route 77 (US 77) in Refugio, Texas. But the rapid response of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) got the project back on track. Aware that the project was near land associated with a historic mission, early in the design phase TxDOT had begun archaeological investigations, which indicated the presence of only a few burial remains within the right-of-way. Upon the unexpected discovery of an entire cemetery, TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Texas Division took immediate action, initiating innovative techniques in archaeological investigation, construction, and public and Tribal involvement. This approach not only met the transportation needs and preserved more than 175 burials, but also helped generate community interest in local history and support of US 77 project management.

Proper Planning, Careful Archaeological Investigations, and Sensitive Construction Techniques

Historic features associated with the Mission Nuestra Señora del Refugio (Mission Refugio), the last Spanish mission in Texas, were thought to exist on both sides of the 1.7-mile section of US 77. Accordingly, TxDOT worked early and often with designers and archaeologists to identify resources and minimize all possible impacts. Remote-sensing technologies could not penetrate the pavement to find historic features, but archival information indicated that only a few burials existed in the right-of-way.

When an entire church cemetery was discovered, TxDOT immediately fenced off the area and posted 24-hour security to prevent trespassing. TxDOT and FHWA, with the State Historic Preservation Officer, developed a special emergency burial recovery plan. TxDOT used the plan to identify burials and to begin excavation and recovery in a sensitive manner that did not overly delay construction.

Tips for Balancing Preservation & Construction

  • Identify historic issues during project planning.
  • Consult early and often with historical and cultural organizations, local governments, and the public to address concerns.
  • Investigate suspected historic features early to identify potential stakeholders, develop preservation plans, and prevent delays.
  • Involve archaeologists in project planning and pre-construction meetings to develop preservation plans that minimally disrupt the construction schedule.
  • Include requirements for meeting archaeological commitments in the construction plans, specifications, and estimates.
  • Use special recovery plans to determine how and when to monitor construction and immediately begin excavation if features are found.

A variety of construction techniques were incorporated that helped TxDOT ensure that project work fit into its historic surroundings. Project designers redesigned the stormwater system to avoid the Mission Refugio area and suggested to city officials that sewer lines be moved to prevent future impacts. TxDOT also worked with FHWA to insert several requirements addressing the sensitivity of the archeological concerns into the plans, specifications, and estimates (PS&Es) provided to construction contractors.

As instructed in the PS&E, contractors agreed to:

  • Contact the TxDOT archeologist five days prior to pavement removal in the area of archaeological concern, to ensure that both a TxDOT archaeologist and an archaeological contractor could be onsite quickly to monitor construction.
  • Saw cut and lift out existing pavement, instead of using air-driven machinery, to minimize disturbance.
  • Minimize the typical section of construction within the area of archaeological concern. Left turn lanes and new sidewalks were fit into the existing 80-foot right-of-way to avoid historic features on both sides of the road.
  • Construct no stormwater systems in the area associated with the Mission Refugio site.

Continuous Public Involvement and Education

In 1998, TxDOT began conducting public meetings in Refugio, and contacted the Texas Historical Commission, the Catholic Church, and the Mexican consulate to discuss the possibility of finding burials related to the Mission Refugio. When more burials than anticipated were discovered, TxDOT expanded the scope of its public involvement process and contacted other possible stakeholders, including the Refugio county judge, Refugio government officials, a local history museum, and community members. Many of these stakeholders helped TxDOT identify historic features and artifacts.

To keep stakeholders informed, TxDOT and FHWA continued public meetings and sent regular mailings reporting on project details and burial analyses. During burial excavation in 1999, TxDOT held weekly meetings onsite for construction crews and the public and sent monthly letters outlining their burial recovery progress.

To help generate community interest in local history as well as the project, TxDOT developed and distributed educational materials to the local museum and school system. A brochure and video cover the history of the mission and the US 77 project. The video, "Road to Discovery," was also shown on the local public access television station. A historical report produced as a result of this project has been of local and national interest.

Mission Refugio and US 77

The Mission Refugio was established in 1793 for nearby Karankawa Indians, who once inhabited portions of the Texas coast. Located 40 miles northeast of Corpus Christi, the Mission Refugio closed in 1830.

After TxDOT began plans in 1994 to upgrade the Refugio section of US 77 to help alleviate growing private and truck traffic, it identified features associated with the mission in the project right-of-way. Working with the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), in 1999 TxDOT found three mission-period pits filled with over 100,000 artifacts. The pits contained fragments of Native American pottery, animal bones, and stone tools. In addition, TxDOT and UTSA found the Mission Refugio cemetery, which contained the graves of Native American, Hispanic, and European inhabitants of the mission.

After consulting with affiliated Tribes and the Catholic Church, TxDOT and UTSA exhumed the 177 burials found. TxDOT then worked with affiliated Tribes, the Catholic Church, and Refugio County to develop plans and location sites for the re-interment of the mission inhabitants. TxDOT finished road construction in 2000 and reburied all found remains by December 2002.

TxDOT's report of archaeological findings has since won awards for excellence from the Texas Historical Commission and the Council of Texas Archaeologists. In addition, several university presses have expressed an interest in printing an edited version of the report for the public.

Early Tribal Coordination and Consultation

Given the sensitive nature of the historical issues, TxDOT strove to involve and consult with all potentially associated Native American Tribes, by beginning to contact Tribes a year in advance of the project. Although approximately 40 federally recognized Tribes have ancestral roots in Texas, only 3 still reside in the state — the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe, the Kickapoo of Texas Tribe, and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. After contacting all potentially interested Tribes and reviewing archival research and mission burial records, TxDOT learned that the Mescalero Apache Tribe and the Tonkawa Tribe of Oklahoma were affiliated with the Mission Refugio burials. TxDOT and FHWA regularly provided these Tribes with project updates and burial analyses. TxDOT invited and paid for Tribe representatives to visit the excavations, evaluate potential reburial cemeteries, and develop an appropriate Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act re-interment plan with the Catholic Church and the governor of Texas. Members of the Mescalero Apache Tribe attended the reburial ceremony in a nearby cemetery.

Contact Information

Sandra Allen
FHWA Texas Division
300 East 8th Street, Room 826
Austin, TX 78701
Phone: (512) 536-5944
Fax: (512) 536-5990
Email: sandra.allen@fhwa.dot.gov

Look What's New!

National Transit Institute course "Linking Planning and NEPA: Towards Streamlined Decisionmaking." Executive Seminar pilot held July 2003. Technical Course to be piloted in late Summer 2003. For more information, contact Sean Libberton at the Federal Transit Administration at (202) 366-5112 or John Humeston at FHWA at (404) 562-3667.

"Successes in Stewardship" is a Federal Highway Administration newsletter highlighting current environmental streamlining practices from around the country. To subscribe, call (617) 494-6352 or email esnewsletter@volpe.dot.gov.

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