Chicago Cemetery Visits: The O.A. Thorp Story

O.A. Thorp monument, Mount Olive Cemetery, Chicago.

One trip I try to make when I’m back in Chicago is to the cemeteries where my mom and dad and their families are buried.

My dad’s family cemetery, by which I mean the place where his parents and most of his mother’s family, the Sieversons, are interred, is Mount Olive, on Narragansett Avenue between Irving Park and Addison on the Northwest Side.

As kids, we were dragged out there for the occasional funeral. I only remember one in any detail: on a Saturday afternoon in September 1975 when Grandma Brekke was buried. I don’t recall that my father, whom I think was pretty stricken, stopped to take in the other family graves in the vicinity: His grandparents, Theodore and Maren Sieverson, for instance, or the several children surrounding them, or his Reque uncles and cousins, or the Helmuths or Simonsens or anyone else. Instead, we left the cemetery for a lunch at my grandmother’s church, Hauge Lutheran.

My siblings and I began visiting the cemeteries, I think, after our mom died in August 2003, followed by her last surviving sibling, our Uncle Bill, who died just four months later. My dad wanted to visit the cemeteries in the wake of those passings, for one thing, and we’d go with him. The two deaths so close together were so shocking in their suddenness that for me, I think going out to the cemetery when I was in town was a way to help process the grief. It also led us to find and visit all the family graves we had never seen before.

The inscription: ‘Christ my hope.’ Sjur was a Lutheran minister who died of the effects of Parkinson’s disease in 1932. Otilia was a devout young Lutheran woman who met him at her church when he was finishing his ministerial training.

Anyway. I made my rounds last week, and yes, everyone was pretty much where I left them. Mount Olive was predominantly a Scandinavian cemetery until the last few decades, and it’s filled with graves of Norwegians and Swedes and probably some stray Danes whose families came to the city in the 19th century. The place hasn’t gone wild, but the years are catching up with those old Scandinavian sections, with lots of markers askew or tumbled down. There are a few that have markers stamped with the words “perpetual care.” My grandparents’ stone, which is rather unique in its simplicity, is still straight.

On this trip, I took a few pictures around the various grave sites, then drove toward the entrance, my next destination being my mom’s family cemetery on the far South Side. On the way out, though, I passed the inescapably phallic monument pictured at the top of the post. I must have passed it at least a dozen times in the past, but it had never registered. Maybe the light was just right this time.

The stone, which is 15 or 20 feet high, bears the name “O.A. Thorp.” Not a household name, at least where I live. Here’s what I can piece together:

Ole Anton Thorp was born in the town of Eidsberg, south of Oslo — then Christiania — in 1856. He emigrated to the United States and arrived in Chicago in 1880, where he started an import-export business.

The moment that made him a public figure arrived in 1892.

A promoter of all things Norwegian, including trade, Thorp had puzzled over a way to bring goods directly from Norway to Chicago, thus skipping the British and East Coast ports where they’d normally be handled at great expense. His solution was to charter a small freighter and bring his cargo up the St. Lawrence River and through the various canals connecting that waterway to the Great Lakes and Chicago.

The ship, the Wergeland, left Bergen with a cargo of salt herring and cod liver oil in early April. It made the crossing to the St. Lawrence without difficulty. But the canals of the era were so shallow that the steamer had to be unloaded before it passed through, then reloaded at the other end, a process that was repeated several times.

The Wergeland made it to Chicago on May 26, six weeks after leaving Norway, and was greeted as the first steam cargo vessel to make the voyage from Europe to the city.

Part of the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean’s report on the arrival of the Wergeland, published May 27, 1892.

So that was Thorp’s major claim to fame. A writeup on important Chicagoans done shortly afterward declared Thorp “has during the last decade done more for the development of trade between Norway and the United States than any other man in the West, and possibly more than anybody on this side of the ocean.”

He chartered steamers to make the journey again in 1893 and 1894, but then the venture seemed to fizzle. A magazine article a few years later — “Chicago Our Newest Seaport” in the May 1901 number of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly — suggested that the nature of the cargo was part of the problem:

“… With each succeeding venture (Thorp) found it more and more difficult to dispose of a whole cargo of dried fish and cod liver oil at one time, especially in summer. In winter it might, perhaps, have been easier; but in winter navigation was closed, and it was impossible for his steamers to reach Chicago. Norway had little but fish and oil to send us … “

Thorp remained active in business, civic, and Norwegian American affairs in the city. He was one of the organizers of the campaign to commission a statue of Leif Erikson that was erected in Humboldt Park in 1901. He was appointed to the city’s school board in 1902; in the photo accompanying the appointment announcement in the Chicago Tribune, he looks vaguely like the accused Haymarket bombers of 1886.

How is Thorp remembered today? Hardly at all, though there’s a school named after him just a few blocks from Mount Olive Cemetery. And then there’s the giant O.A. Thorp shaft, rising amid the graves of less notable Norse folk.

In the individual graves around the monument, there are two markers with dates in January 1905.

One is for O.A. himself, who died Jan. 25, reportedly after surgery for an abdominal abscess. The other grave is for his daughter, Sara Olive Elizabeth, who died at age 14 on Jan. 5. The death notice in the Tribune says she passed at 4 in the afternoon at the family home in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.

Special Airline Edition: Reply Stop to Cancel

Jet fuel leaks from the starboard wing of Alaska Airlines Flight 1213 at O’Hare International Airport, Sept. 23, 2019.

We were in Chicago for a wedding last week and flew back to San Francisco on Monday. We got to the airport in plenty of time and discovered our flight was a little late. No worries.

We found a place to sit that had a view of the plane’s parking space and of the jetway at our gate. The incoming flight was later than advertised, finally pulling up and shutting down maybe 25 minutes late. I watched as the jetway was extended toward the plane to allow the arriving passengers to escape their confinement. But the apparatus stopped about 10 feet short of its target. The ground crew tried to retract it and re-extend it. They couldn’t get it to close the gap.

As the minutes went by, I was imagining the slow burn the passengers stuck on the plane were doing. I was wondering whether someone would appear with a couple of planks for people to walk across from jet to jetway.

What actually happened , after 20 minutes or so, was that two guys from American Airlines showed up. One of them got a step ladder and set it up adjacent to what looked like an electrical box on the jetway. Then he climbed up, took a “hundreds of Americans die every year doing stunts like this” stance, with one foot on the ladder and the other on the electrical box, and fiddled for about 10 seconds with a switch. He climbed down and signaled to someone to give the jetway a try. This time it worked. So at about 5:50, roughly 35 minutes after the plane parked, and about the exact time Flight 1213 was scheduled to pull away from the gate for the trip to San Francisco, the arriving passengers could get off.

An American Airlines technician climbs up a ladder to fiddle with a switch on a non-functioning jetway at O’Hare Gate G6.

It took about 30 minutes for everyone to make their way off the airliner and for a cleaning crew to race through the aircraft and straighten it up. Then it was our turn to get on, and I’m guessing another 20 minutes or so to hustle everyone on board. We pulled back from the gate at about 6:40, 50 minutes late, but not a disaster.

Once we were pointed toward the taxiway, but still just 50 yards or so from the gate, we had to sit for awhile to get in the takeoff queue. I was sitting pretty far back, looking out the window on the plane’s right side. Suddenly, liquid began spouting out of the wing. A lot of fluid. It kept going. What was it? Water? That didn’t make sense. Jet fuel? that wouldn’t be good. While I was pondering this mystery, which I thought someone ought to point out to the crew, someone else a few rows ahead of me said, “Hey! Look at this! Something’s coming out of the wing!”

That got a flight attendant’s attention. She looked out a window. Another crew member said, “Call them and tell them.” One of the flight attendants reassured us that there was nothing to worry about.

The liquid kept cascading to the ground. The flow gradually slowed, then stopped. Hard to say how much spilled onto the tarmac. One hundred gallons? Five hundred? Eventually, the flight’s captain got on the PA and confirmed that we had been seeing jet fuel spilling. More than once, he suggested that it had been a normal occurrence and tried to explain what happened. I’m not sure I understood, but it sounded like an issue with having failed to properly balance the fuel load between the aircraft’s tanks and that a valve had opened — to relieve fuel line pressure? — and released fuel onto the ground. (As I say, I’m not sure I understood the details. I’d love to have an Airbus mechanic explain it again.)

In any case, we had to go back to the gate so maintenance technicians could check out the issue. Then the plane took on additional fuel. Then paperwork had to be done. The plane was opened up so people could wander around the terminal if they liked — but not too far! — and maybe grab a snack. The woman setting next to Kate and me came back with pizza slices.

All of that consumed another two hours. Kate and I did not leave the plane, though we got up a couple times to stretch. Finally, all the checking and rechecking was done, the wandering passengers were called back, and at 8:40 — now nearly three hours after our scheduled departure, we again pulled back from the gate.

All that stood between us and actual flight now was the long line of airliners waiting to take off ahead of us. The wait for our turn turned out to be another 40 minutes, making our departure nearly three hours and 20 minutes late. I was hoping Alaska would spring for free beer, or at least beer nuts, as compensation for the delay. No such luck.

Long story short: We made good time to SFO, and were off our plane by 11:35 p.m. (1:35 a.m. Chicago time). I had visions of making the last cheapskate BART train back to the East Bay. But by the time we had collected our bags and made it up to the AirTrain for the ride to the BART stop, it was too late. We wound up taking a Lyft ride instead — kind of a treat, actually, and we didn’t have to schlep our bags the last couple blocks home from the station.

I was thinking about complaining to Alaska as all this was unfolding. But then I got a personal message from the airline that came in just as our plane landed. It made me feel kind of … well, see for yourself.