At peace with the jets
Graves on the Savannah International Airport runway are a reminder of the land's former use.
Richard Dotson's gravesite marker reads, "At rest."
Nearby is wife Catherine, with a marker reading, "Gone home to rest."
These simple late 19th century messages suggest surviving family members hoped their forebears would find rest after spending a lifetime laboring to tame what was, for a time at least, the still pretty wild outskirts of Savannah.
At 20,000 feet, though, the Dotsons' final resting place looks like a giant cross -- the intersecting runways of Savannah International Airport.
Since the wartime days of bombers landing at Chatham Field -- the airport's first incarnation -- through expansions and runway extensions, the Dotson family's wish, to keep their patriarchs' markers where they are, has yielded a unique and yet curious runway feature. Nearly 60 years ago, the Dotsons' gravesites became a permanent part of the runway.
But how did this couple come to spend forever at the airport?
Being there first is only part of the story.
Richard and Catherine Dotson each were born in 1797. It's believed that Richard was born in Ireland. The couple was married for 50 years. Catherine died in 1877, and Richard seven years later in 1884 -- nearly two decades before the Wright brothers' first flight.
The family's land was farmed. The thought of Savannah encroaching onto the Dotson property wasn't really a concern until World War II. The area was basically woods and farmland before the war, said Lewis Dotson, a great, great, great grandson.
This was land that had been called Cherokee Hills because, well into the Dotsons' adult lives, Native Americans were frequent visitors.
The familial cemetery contained perhaps 100 or more graves, including those of many slaves, said Terry Dotson, Lewis' wife and a great, great, great granddaughter in-law.
But with Europe already embroiled in war, the need to keep civilian air traffic separated from an increasing amount of military planes flying into the area, led to the construction of Chatham Field. Much of the Dotsons' property became part of the airport. What remained recently was sold to earth-moving equipment maker JCB. Before the war, the bulk of air travel, civilian and military, came through Savannah Airport, now Hunter Army Airfield. Some planes tended to land at local golf courses and even Daffin Park during the earliest days of air travel.
The Dotsons' great grandchildren couldn't bring themselves to move their ancestors off land originally obtained by a king's grant.
So, even though the federal government has a reputation for paving over what it wants to, the urgency of World War II proved to be an ace card for the Dotson family's negotiations.
The need for B-24 "Liberators" and B-17 "Flying Fortresses" to rain bombs on Nazi-controlled Europe far outweighed the prospect of wrangling with reluctant property owners over a cemetery.
Army officials agreed to foot the bill for moving most of the Dotson family cemetery to Bonaventure Cemetery. But Richard and Catherine Dotson, along with the gravesites of John Dotson and Daniel Hueston, were left in place. John and Daniel died a day apart in 1857, but there isn't much known about who they are.
Ever since, the airport's staff has honored that arrangement and the family's wishes, explained Patrick Graham, the airport's executive director.
Since airports typically needed large tracts of land that couldn't be found inside large cities, nearby farmland was commonly used. Moving or working around cemeteries has been a common task for airport officials, Graham said.
Even the Georgia Ports Authority had to work around a cemeterywhen it built the Garden City container terminal. The authority owns the land, but Garden City's Fairlawn Baptist Church still uses the site, said Diane Strickland, an authority spokeswoman.
But as far as anyone can tell, the airport is the only one with grave markers in a runway. People shouldn't be creeped out about this, though, Graham said. When the runway was extended, it was found that really only the markers were left of the graves. Plus, since the markers are near the runway shoulder, planes really don't roll over the site, just past it.
Still, squeezed in between jet landings and takeoffs makes for an interesting gravesite visit for family members. And they can't just drop in because they need an airport escort. Leaving flowers on the graves isn't an option.
"It's really a weird feeling to be out there with those graves," Terry Dotson said.
Though family members make only infrequent visits, the Dotsons are far from being neglected.
Sometimes pilots are heard asking the control tower whether those were really graves they just passed on the runway, Graham said. Other pilots, especially those who haven't been to Savannah before but have heard the rumors, have asked if they could use the runway with the graves, just so they could see them.
Business reporter Ben Werner can be reached at 652-0381 or by e-mail at email@example.com.