SOUTH PORTLAND — Long before there was Bug Light Park, or even the city of South Portland, there was a prominent colonial man who dominated local history: Col. Ezekiel Cushing.
What is now Bug Light Park once hosted Cushing’s prosperous West Indian trade center and home. The scenic spot was known until the mid-1900s as Cushings Point.
Cushing lived in luxury, purchased and operated off of several islands in Portland Harbor, most notably Long Island, and commanded a regiment in the area militia. He was one of the most respected local men in the 18th century and an important character in South Portland history.
He died in 1765, at the age of 67.
While his name and significance have been mostly forgotten, his descendants recently came calling upon the city for an answer to an unsolved mystery: where in the city is Cushing buried?
Anil Melwani, 36, an eighth-generation descendant of Cushing who lives in New York, gathers with more than 100 other members of the Cushing clan every year in July on Long Island for a family reunion.
This year, the 249th since Cushing’s death, Melwani hoped to find out whether Cushing is in fact buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Cottage Road, where historical evidence suggests he would be buried, but where there is no headstone identifying his grave.
Cushing was an influential figure in the First Congregational Church, and historians have long found it curious that his headstone does not accompany that of his first wife, Hannah Doane, and one of his sons, Nicholas, at the cemetery across the street from the church.
John Coleman, superintendent of the cemetery, believes the large fir tree in between their headstones was planted at least 150 years ago.
“People are very interested to know if he’s there,” Melwani said.
And if he’s not there, where is he?
Melwani spoke with Glen Vaillancourt of Dig Smart, a Scarborough excavation company, who volunteered to use his ground-penetrating radar and expertise to scan the area where Cushing might be buried.
Although the scan could not determine anything with complete accuracy, it could tell the family the likelihood of human remains being in the unmarked spot.
“I’ve heard speculation for years and years,” Kathy DiPhilippo, executive director and curator of the South Portland Historical Society, said Saturday at the cemetery. “… It’s exciting to think we’ll maybe have some kind of an answer.”
She joined nearly 50 Cushing descendants gathered around the graves of their ancestors. They waited for the verdict from Vaillancourt, who pushed his device over the unmarked grave and scrutinized frequency waves that indicate interruptions in the soil.
“(Ezekiel’s) one of us, or we’re one of him,” Steve Cushing, of Wakefield, Massachusetts, said while he waited.
The results: there’s a 75 percent to 80 percent chance Cushing is buried two graves over from his first wife and son. Or at least “something” is buried there, about four feet down, a depth Vaillancourt said is consistent with older graves.
Though it is impossible for a non-invasive test to be definitive, Melwani and the family members were satisfied with the results.
“After years of wondering, 75 percent to 80 percent is great,” he said.
Susan Longanecker, a sixth-generation Cushing descendant, agreed. She was the only relative at the cemetery who still lives in South Portland; she runs the Cushing Homestead bed and breakfast on Long Island.
“When I was growing up, I heard stories, and it was always a mystery where he was,” Longanecker said. “It’s happy news.”
Melwani said the family has discussed returning to the cemetery next summer to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Cushing’s death with a new headstone, or possibly searching for more evidence with a core sample of the grave.
But a few days after the scan, he said it might be OK to leave the mystery as solved – with an asterisk.
“I’m personally satisfied that he’s there at this point,” Melwani said.
Descendants of Col. Ezekiel Cushing, including Anil Melwani, center, holding his daughter Clara, his wife, Gloria Kui Melwani, and his mother, Jackie Cushing Gulhaugen, left, watch Glen Vaillancourt as he scans Cushing’s unmarked grave Saturday, July 19, at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Cottage Road in South Portland.
Chris Gulhaugen, right, and Warren Brayley inspect Nicholas Cushing’s gravestone at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in South Portland.