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.

Family Group

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When I was back in Chicago following my dad’s passing in late July, I went for a couple long walks from my sister Ann’s house to local cemeteries. It’s amazing how quickly you can cover six or seven or eight miles after you’ve set out for a stroll up there.

One day I wound up in Rosehill Cemetery, one of Chicago’s oldest, between Western and Ravenswood south of Peterson. Another day I walked up to Calvary Cemetery, a Roman Catholic establishment on the southern edge of Evanston that stretches between Lake Michigan on the east to Chicago Road on the west.

The Calvary visit was late in the day. On the way up there, I walked past a railroad viaduct that had some attractive sunlight shining through it. I stopped to see if I could get a picture that captured the light and shadows (I didn’t get anything worth keeping). What I didn’t spot when I first started shooting was a group of people on the sidewalk on the other side of the passage–two women, a man, and a girl of about 10. “You want to take my picture?” one of the women asked. I didn’t understand what she was saying and didn’t respond, so she repeated the question. “Sure, I’ll take your picture.” The man hung back, but the women and the girl posed briefly. I took a total of four or five shots.

I got an email address from one of the women; I sent these pictures there, though I never heard anything back. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any names, even first names.


Cemetery Wildlife, Avian Edition


While I was in Chicago earlier this month, we went on tour across the South Side–Jackson Park to take in the general vicinity of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Oak Woods Cemetery (future resting place of former Illinois Sen. Roland Burriss), the site of the home of one set of great-grandparents (on Yale Avenue in the Englewood District).

In the cemetery, a great blue heron got our attention by swooping in and alighting in the branches of a tree next to a pond. While we were staring at it, we noticed that a hawk (not sure what kind) was perched in a tree another 50 yards or so away.

Chicago Cemetery, with Coyote


Part of a ritual we’ve taken up recently on visits with my dad in Chicago. We “go for a ride,” as he used to say when we were kids, across the North Side. We stop at the Dairy Queen on Irving Park Road just west of Central Avenue. Then we might drop by Mount Olive Cemetery, where much of his (very Lutheran, very Norwegian) family is interred.

Yesterday we went for a ride even though it was the beginning of the homeward rush hour, dodged most of the traffic, and swung by the DQ. I managed to dump part of my chocolate shake down my front before we proceeded. “You feel like going to the cemetery?” my dad asked when I’d cleaned myself up and started up the car to leave.

Through the gate off Narragansett Avenue, keeping left until you can’t go left anymore, then turning toward a section I’ve come to recognize. My grandparents are off to the right, just beyond a couple small conical piney shrubs. My dad’s grandparents and most of their children are off to the left. Other relatives are scattered around and about, and yesterday my dad stopped us near a gravesite we’ve passed recently without mention–an aunt, an uncle, a couple of cousins and their wives (the men died young; one of the women lived to be 103).

Up ahead, an animal moved across the road: a coyote, inside the cemetery and well inside the Chicago city limits. I’d heard they were here, but I’d never seen them. This one–a female, I think–settled into the grass just beyond the Brekke grave. We watched for about five minutes. When the mosquitoes started to swarm, we decided to walk over to the grave. The coyote got up and moved off among the headstones and monuments.


Mixed Marriage, Revisited


I’ve written about this grave before. About five years ago, my dad and I spotted it while visiting the Mother Jones Memorial in a union miners’ cemetery just outside Mount Olive, Illinois. The Cardinals and Cubs logos got our attention, of course. Last week, I stopped there again with my brother Chris and son Liam. After we got done gazing upon Mother Jones’s final resting place, we went across the road to the Kalvin grave. Chris noticed a metal capsule on the back of the stone, which happens to be the side facing the road. It has a hinged cover. Beneath the cover is what I take to be a picture of Steven and Verona, some time during their long marriage and lifelong residence in Mount Olive. A date is noted below: their wedding day. For a little historical baseball perspective, Steven Kalvin was born three years before Wrigley Field opened (and five years before the Cubs made it their home); Verona Kalvin was born the same year the last Yankee Stadium opened. They were married three seasons after the Cubs’ last pennant.

Verona, here’s hoping you don’t have to wait too much longer.


Chicago Cemetery Trip


Saturday, Dad and I made a quick run down to Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, on 111th Street outside the city, to visit some family graves (my mom, my brother, an uncle, my grandparents; there’s a bunch more of them out there we didn’t have time to see this time).  

Then we went over to Oak Woods Cemetery, at 67th Street (Marquette Road) and Cottage Grove Avenue. Among reasons I might want to visit this place is the fact–I think it’s a fact–that Confederate prisoners from the Civil War prison at Camp Douglas are buried there. But what drew us yesterday was the presence of a future grave: that of “Senator” Roland Burris. Among the many quirks that distinguish him is that he has already had an elaborate memorial set up at Oak Woods. Maybe that’s not so quirky, but the listing of items from his curriculum vitae–for instance, that he was the first African American exchange student from Southern Illinois University to the University of Hamburg, Germany–has struck many observers as a little odd.

One wants to see for one’s self, so we went down to Oak Woods to take in the sight. We pulled up to the gate at 4:10 p.m. to find the entrance gate closed and a sign saying the grounds closed at 4:15. The exit gate was open, though, so I drove in only to be stopped by a caretaker who said, “Closed 4:15!” “We’ll be out in five minutes, I promise. By the way, which way to Senator Burris’s memorial?” We got the simple directions (take a hard right once inside the gate, then the first left, and it’s about 100 yards away, straight in front of you). We didn’t have time to savor the scene. Just a few quick shots of the Burris gravesite and one of the resting place of Olympic great Jesse Owens, whose stone is across the drive on the bank of the cemetery’s pond. Then back to the gate, as promised. “Did you see Harold Washington’s grave?” the caretaker asked. “No — we have to come back,” I said.

Next trip to Chicago, maybe.

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Here It Is: Your Norwegian Cemetery Picture of the Day


Today’s outing: The Dairy Queen at Irving Park and Central, then over to Narragansett to swing by my dad’s childhood home on Nashville Avenue. Headed down the crowded, brutally potholed avenue, Dad said, “Here’s Mount Olive Cemetery.” Where most of his family is interred. We turned in. I have a general idea where the relatives are buried–mostly his mother’s family, the Sieversens–but he has a precise sense of where to go. So there they were: his parents, his grandparents, many aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Until five or so years ago, I remember going to Mount Olive just once, the day my grandmother was buried in September 1975. But since my mom passed away in 2003 and we started visiting her family’s cemetery–Holy Sepulchre, so far on the South Side that it’s actually beyond the city limits–I’ve come to Mount Olive several times, too.
Many stories to tell there, I’m sure. Here are a couple of surface things I’ve noticed. It’s clear from the great majority of older graves that the cemetery was a resting place for Norwegians (maybe some other Scandinavians, too), mostly Protestants. There’s a drinking fountain near the entrance in the form of a Viking warrior, complete with helmet and flowing beard. But like the rest of the city, the ethnic makeup of this neighborhood is changing, too. Most new graves appear to belong to Latino families, many Catholic. It’s the kind of mixing that I expect would have been unlikely in life. Now here the communities are together.
Cemetery walking always produces something striking or poignant. Maybe because we had a brother who died at the age of 2, I’m always been brought up short by children’s markers. At one of the family graves I saw that three children, ages 4 or younger, were buried with their parents.
Nearby, I came across the grave of Junior Jansen, 1925-1930, a grave remarkable for the legend “Our Boy” and the vivid, clear photo of the boy who had been buried there. It’s hard for me to imagine that picture has lasted out in the weather all these decades. Next to Junior Jansen’s stone was another Jansen marker–a broken monument bearing a sculpted figure of a young girl. Strange thing: someone has evidently gone to the trouble of setting the figure upright–but unattached to its damaged lower portion or the original base.
Another thing about the Norwegian part of the cemetery: slowly, surely, nature is taking its course. Trees and shrubs have overwhelmed some graves. But what you notice more are stones left askew as the ground heaves and shifts through the seasons and maybe through the sinking or collapse of the underground vaults that are supposed to keep everything tidy. You come across headstones that are falling onto their faces and monuments that have toppled backward or sideways. You find groups of markers that seem jumbled together, clumped at odd angles, with a collection of apparently unrelated names. Looking at the years on the markers I passed, it seems that most date to between 1900 and 1950. I saw only a handful dated after 1960. The most recent was from 1997. One has the impression, looking down the rows of tilted, angled, sometimes broken markers that for the descendants of most who lie here, this is a place out of mind.

One More Cemetery Visit

Back in Berkeley now — since late, late Monday night; remind me to bore you with the tale of United Airline’s feat of taking half an hour to move a planeload of bags 100 yards — but I undertook another family cemetery excursion in Chicago before returning west. And another cross-city bike ride, too.

I decided to go out to Mount Olive Cemetery, where my dad’s parents and other relatives are buried. I’ve only been there once: for my grandmother’s funeral, thirty-one years ago this month. Otilia Sieversen Brekke was buried next to my dad’s dad, who died twenty-two years to the day before I was born. I’d never seen his grave before: Sjur Brekke. 1876-1932. He was a Lutheran minister and member of the Hauge Synod, a branch that rebelled against the state-established Lutheran church in the early 19th century (bits of the history here and here). He died when Dad was just 10, of Parkinson’s Disease, long before there was an effective way to treat it.

I rode from Dad’s place, roughly Touhy and Western (7200 North, 2400 West) to the cemetery, near Narragansett and Addison (3600 North, 6600 West). I did an online map of the route I took, but the rough path was: Pratt west to Kedzie; Kedzie south to Irving Park; Irving west to Pulaski; Pulaski south to Addison, and Addison to Narragansett; on the return: Narragansett north to Nagle; continuing north on Nagle to Gunnison; west on Gunnison to Austin; Austin north (with the help of a pedestrian overpass across the Kennedy Expressway) to Bryn Mawr; Bryn Mawr east to Elston; Elston north to Central; Central north to Devon; then winding through side streets east and south back to Bryn Mawr (there’s a river and expressways and forest preserves in the way of a direct route); Bryn Mawr east to California, and California north to my starting point.

Aside from that numbing recitation of street names only a Chicagoan could cotton to, I have to observe that while I had to ride on busy streets with plenty of traffic, the local drivers behaved pretty generously to the freak on a bicycle they encountered. I’m sure riding day in and day out you get to see the same hostile attitude on occasion that’s a daily reality riding in California, but on my two long city rides, I had just one car honk at me, heard no one curse me for being on the road, and saw no raised digits.

When I got to the cemetery, I rode in the gate believing I’d be able to hunt down Sjur and Otilia’s headstone from my thirty-one-year-old memory. I rode in a couple hundred yards and when I came to a turn realized how much I’d overestimated my power of recall. Before I turned back to the cemetery office, I saw a sign listing prohibited cemetery activities. Bicycling was one. I rode back to the gate, went into the office, and asked the manager for help finding the Brekke site, mentioning that I hadn’t been to the cemetery since 1975. He complied with no hint of enthusiasm or engagement, but didn’t say anything about not cycling in the graveyard. He gave me a very general outline map of the grounds and marked the rough location of the grave in Section G, Lot 482. The guidance was good enough, though: I found the spot after looking for no more than 10 minutes. Different from how I remembered it.

When we were down at Holy Sepulchre on Sunday to see my mom’s family burial places, Dad commented on how much more activity there was there than at Mount Olive. Tuesday afternoon, I saw just one car in the cemetery. The place has a bit of an about-to-be-overgrown feel to it. The ground seems unlevel. Stones are leaning and atilt, and rows don’t seem to line up. The grass is a little long. It’s not a bad feeling, in itself; the trees out there are beautiful. It’s just that the families that buried parents, spouses, siblings, and children here have gone somewhere else — California, for instance. They don’t come back often or at all, and nobody’s minding Uncle Ole’s little patch up there on the Northwest Side too closely anymore.


A friend of mine recently called cemeteries a waste of valuable property, and I know what he was saying. It’s a lavish use of land. Out of necessity, mostly, other cultures seem to remember the dead a bit more economically; in Japan or China or India, where land is food, it would be reckless to give so much to those who no longer need it. The thought came to me while I was out amidst the Brekkes and Reques and Sieversens (all my dad’s folks) that cemeteries are memory; that’s what gives them value, that’s what makes them poignant and absorbing even when you know nothing about the people you encounter there. Our national fascination with genealogy aside, though, memory — the kind that tries to weigh the past, personal and collective, not to romanticize it but to provide context and maybe a lesson or two for the present and future — doesn’t look like a hot commodity. People without that sense of memory, of the value of memory, of the importance of connecting today with what’s gone before and what’s to come — for them, cemeteries might really be a waste.