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.

Oakland’s Homicide Rate vs. Chicago’s

So here I am on vacation. I slept late; or more accurately, went back to bed after my spouse/best friend went off to work. I got up, microwaved the early-morning coffee, and sat down at the computer.

I happened across a headline about a fatal shooting over the weekend in Oakland — the city’s 52nd homicide this year. That brought to mind a conversation I had with a friend last week during which I rashly said that though Chicago has gotten lots of media attention this year over its shocking wave of killings, Oakland’s rate was still actually many times that of Chicago. Yes — I said “many times.” But doing the arithmetic in my head as I spoke, I corrected myself — Oakland’s rate is higher than Chicago’s, though not “many times.”

Seeing the story about the weekend murder, I decided to quickly run the numbers to see whether my assertion was true. (Reminder for the next time this impulse hits me: When I run the numbers, it’s never “quickly.”)

What I’ve done in each case is to “annualize” the number of homicides by taking the current toll, dividing by 9 to get a monthly average, then multiplying the result by 12 to project a 2016 total based on that monthly total. To get a rate of homicides per 100,000 population, I divided the projected 2016 totals by the city population — or actually, by the number of 100,000s in each city’s population. Oakland’s population is currently estimated at about 420,000 (divisor used in my arithmetic=4.2) and Chicago’s is 2,720,000 (divisor=27.2).

So, as of Monday, September 26, with 52 homicides reported so far in Oakland and 545 reported in Chicago, here are the annualized rates:

Oakland’s 2016 homicide rate per 100,000 residents: 16.39
Chicago’s 2016 homicide rate per 100,000 residents: 26.72

Regard those as rough (but good ballpark) numbers. Each includes a few “justifiable” killings — those committed in self-defense, for instance — that the FBI won’t count in its annual tally of homicides and cases of non-negligent manslaughter.

How much have things changed in the last few years?

In 2012, Oakland experienced a spike in homicides: 127, excluding a handful of killings that were ruled to be justifiable. Chicago had a total of 500 homicides, excluding a half-dozen “justifiable” killings. Using the same method, here are the rates:

Oakland: 31.75
Chicago: 18.45

The FBI calculated the national homicide rate in 2012 at 4.7 per 100,000 population. Chicago’s number was four times the national rate; Oakland’s was more than seven times the national rate.

The limited takeaways from the Oakland vs. Chicago rates:

Oakland’s decline is historic, in a sense: Barring a sudden surge in killings, the city is headed to its lowest annual homicide toll since 1999, when 60 were recorded, and would be the second lowest since 1985, which is as far back as the FBI numbers go. (Yes, I could hunt down the earlier numbers and perhaps will on some future vacation or workday.)

One also observes that 1999 was at the height of the dot-com boom, when employment was high and the regional economy was generally robust. Right now, we’re in the midst of an even bigger boom — characterized by home prices that are out of reach for many. Coincidence or correlation?

Chicago’s murder surge is also historic in a sense, with the projected number representing about a 50 percent increase in homicides in one calendar year. Though the overall total is still far below the terrible years of the early ’90s, when the city’s homicide toll topped 900 in 1991, 1992 and 1994, the city hasn’t seen anything like that year-over-year jump in the past 30 years (and maybe ever).

Road Blog: Chicagoland

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Chicagoland. Where did that name come from, anyway? I just submitted that question to WBEZ’s Curious City, which is a really interesting project if you haven’t heard it or seen it, so maybe they’ll investigate. I can tell from a brief scan of Google Books that my main assumption about the history — that it was the post-World War II brainchild of some advertising or marketing ace, is apparently incorrect. The name Chicagoland shows up at least as far back as the late 1920s. The favorite title I’ve found listed so far is 1938’s “Chicagoland Household Pests and How to Get Rid of Them.”

Fast forward to Tuesday, and here were my day’s activities in Chicagoland: I breakfasted with my sister Ann’s family on the North Side. I watched it rain. I drove down to the South Side (and a little beyond) to meet my brother Chris and visit the various Brekke, Hogan, O’Malley and Morans graves at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. We went to lunch (Smashburger on 95th Street in Oak Lawn). Then I made a slow northward trek to Mount Olive Cemetery, where much of my dad’s family was buried.

I rounded out the excursion with a drive down Irving Park Road to the Dairy Queen near Central Avenue. I had a chocolate malted and actually said aloud, “Here’s to you, Pop.” He was a longtime DQ customer, and he and I visited that location many times in the last few years before he died.

It was cold out, in the 30s and windy, and after dark, but I wanted to check out a taxidermy place across the street from the Dairy Queen to see if I could get a decent shot of specimens in the windows. I don’t think I did. Then I walked west a couple blocks, cross Irving Park, then walk back east, just looking at what was happening in he storefronts along the way.

Dr. Charlemagne Guerrero, M.D. A music store advertising lessons in guitar and music theory. A dance studio with a kids’ ballet class going on. Several bars — Pub OK and The Martini Club and a couple I didn’t get the names of. A Polish antique store. Dr. M.A. Starsiak, general dentistry. A barber shop. A door bearing a sign reading “Emperor’s Headquarters.” Then I was back across the street from the taxidermy shop.

The warm car afterward was nice.

Riding the Rails, Again

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Continuation of the foregoing: Well, Amtrak made good on its promise to get me to Chicago on the train from Washington. The sleeper car–I loved it except for the “sleeper” part. I liked the “roomette” compartment I had–a private compartment with facing seats that was perfect for sitting and watching the landscape roll by. The attendant on my car pulled out the bed and made it up at 10 p.m., and even though the accommodations are on the spartan side, the setup was comfortable enough. But the rocking and rolling and horn-blasting and occasional stops take some getting used to, and then I made things a little harder by not closing the curtains because I thought it was so cool to watch the countryside pass in the dark. A couple times–once in Cleveland, once in Toledo–I woke up with bright lights shining in the window from station platforms.

One surprise to me: The train fell a little bit behind schedule on its way through Maryland, but we actually pulled into Pittsburg 10 minutes or more ahead of the published arrival time, seven hours into the trip. We left Cleveland right on time or even a couple minutes ahead of time, about 3 in the morning. South Bend, Indiana, is the last stop before Chicago–about 80 miles out–and we seemed to be on time leaving there.

Then we hit Gary, maybe 30 miles from the end of the trip, and we stopped. A conductor explained the delay was due to “freight congestion.” (There’s a long history of conflict between Amtrak and freight railroads about which trains get priority on the routes the passenger trains use.) We sat for more than half an hour, then rolled forward slowly for less than a mile and sat for another 10 minutes. And that was what it was like the rest of the trip–it took about two hours to do that final 30-mile leg, and a nearly on-time trip was turned into one that was an hour and a half late. I wasn’t a big deal for me–I was in my nice little compartment and wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, and I actually liked taking a look at the urban scenery as we headed into the city. But watching the crowd of coach passengers exiting at Union Station, I’ll bet there was some complaining going on back there.

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Top photo: The Potomac River in western Maryland. Bottom: The Dan Ryan Expressway, Chicago.

Riding the Rails

I was in in Washington (District of Columbia variety) for a work conference the last couple days. I was all set to fly to Chicago to visit the homeland when things wrapped up. But a little while after our meetings ended early this afternoon, I wondered whether I could take the trip by train instead. I checked Amtrak online, and the Capitol Limited–you don’t take it for granted these trains exist anymore–was scheduled to leave in about an hour. I thought it over for a few minutes as I had coffee with one of my San Francisco radio colleagues. The conclusion of my deliberations: Sure, why not? So I went and grabbed my suitcase from the hotel and walked down to Union Station. I bought a ticket on one of the sleeper cars, and now I’m nearly seven hours out of Washington and twelve from Chicago.

It’s my first overnight train trip since one I took in 1976 after an attempt to hitchhike from Berkeley to Chicago ended with an unfriendly encounter with police in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I decided to catch the train east from there, called my folks and had them wire the money for a one-way ticket. I hiked to the Western Union office, then the train station, and paid my fare. It had been a miserable road trip–rides few and far between and never really long enough to make a dent in the 2,000 miles I was trying to cover. And there was other unpleasant stuff I’ve kind of put out of my mind over the years. A scary ride ride with a couple of drunks who I was scared were too out of it to make the long plunging descent on Interstate 80 from Donner Pass to Reno. The guy who picked me up in Reno and became very threatening after I declined his invitation to come home with him. (Very threatening? When I insisted he let me out of his car–we were now near some desolate place about 10 miles outside town–he complied. But a few minutes later he stopped on the other side of the interstate and called out to me that he had a gun and was going to shoot me. Yeah–I ran down the embankment off the road as fast as I could and stayed there until I saw he was gone. But for the hour or so it took for someone else to stop out there, I expected every approaching car to be this guy coming back to get me.)

When I got on that train in Cheyenne, I was drained and decided I should have a beer. One beer in the middle of the afternoon. It knocked me out, and when I came to I was alone in a coach car, which was filled with a beautiful golden light from the setting sun. For maybe 30 seconds, I had no idea where I was or what I was doing on a train car. It seemed a lot longer. Then I put it together–this is the Chicago train, we’re stopped in Denver, and everyone else has gotten off to have a smoke or stretch or grab a cup of coffee.

This trip is tame compared to that. I’m sitting in the lounge car writing on my phone–Amtrak seems to be a WiFi-free zone, and this is the only way to post. I’m ready to turn in–that’s my mini railroad bunk in the picture. See you in the morning.


Riding the Rails

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.

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Chicago and Midwest Weather: Condition Orange

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My brief stay in Chicago has included a couple of Summer of 2012 heat spikes, interspersed with less radical summer weather, as a frontal boundary oscillates across this part of the Midwest. Today’s National Weather Service forecast map for the Chicago region is orange in every direction, indicating a heat advisory. Temperatures in the city are expected to hit 100. Outside the city, up to 105. (I note that the forecast high in San Francisco today is … 63.)

Tom Skilling, the dean of Chicagoland TV weather forecasters, and a meteorologist who is unfailingly informative first and entertaining second, sums up today’s torrid conditions on the WGN/Tribune Chicago Weather Center blog:

“The blisteringly hot air mass responsible for 100-degree or hotter temperatures across sections of 19 states Tuesday re-expands into the Chicago area Wednesday. It’s on track to bring Chicago its fifth triple-digit high temperature of 2012—the most official 100+degree readings here of any year since 1988.

“Temperatures surge past 90-degrees for a 34th time this year at O’Hare and 35th time at Midway—extraordinary when you consider the average since weather records began in 1871 has been only 17 such days at O’Hare and 23 at Midway!

“…This summer’s warmth has been nothing if not persistent. If you needed any additional evidence this weather pattern has been unusual, WGN weather producer Bill Snyder, in surveying the city’s official temperature records, finds Chicago is to log an unprecedented 29th consecutive day of above normal temperatures—making this the most back-to-back days to post a surplus in the 5.5 years since a Dec. 10, 2006 through Jan. 14, 2007 mild spell in which above normal temperatures were recorded over 36 consecutive days.”

Procrastination Friday

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I’m writing an assigned work-related blog post, which means that I’m procrastinating. Which means that I found it necessary to vacuum my office and back hallway. Which means that I’m posting another shot from my recently completed trip to Chicago. Last Friday, Ann (my sister), Ingrid (my niece), and I went on a Chicago River boat ride. Westbound, I happened to look up through a bridge grating to see the Marina City towers looming overhead. When we came back east, I tried to get situated to take a picture of what I saw. I was a little slow, so I didn’t get both towers in the frame. I still like the result, though.

Now back to work.

Road Blog: The Fog

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URGENT – WEATHER MESSAGE

NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE CHICAGO IL
1216 AM CDT TUE MAY 8 2012
...DENSE FOG ESPECIALLY NEAR LAKE MICHIGAN TONIGHT...
.LIGHT WINDS AND CLEARING SKIES HAVE ALLOWED DENSE FOG TO DEVELOP
ACROSS MUCH OF NORTHEAST ILLINOIS AND NORTHWEST INDIANA...WITH
DENSE FOG ALSO PUSHING INLAND FROM LAKE MICHIGAN. DENSE FOG WILL
CONTINUE THROUGH MUCH OF THE OVERNIGHT BUT VISIBILITY MAY START TO
IMPROVE FROM WEST TO EAST BY AROUND DAYBREAK AS WESTERLY WINDS
INCREASE SLIGHTLY.
ILZ006-014-INZ001-002-081300-
/O.CON.KLOT.FG.Y.0013.000000T0000Z-120508T1300Z/
LAKE IL-COOK-LAKE IN-PORTER-
INCLUDING THE CITIES OF...WAUKEGAN...CHICAGO...GARY...VALPARAISO
1216 AM CDT TUE MAY 8 2012
...DENSE FOG ADVISORY REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 8 AM CDT THIS
MORNING...
* VISIBILITY...LESS THAN A QUARTER MILE IN SOME LOCATIONS
ESPECIALLY NEAR LAKE MICHIGAN.
* IMPACTS...VISIBILITY MAY CHANGE RAPIDLY OVER SHORT DISTANCES
MAKING TRAVEL HAZARDOUS. VISIBILITY MAY BE NEAR ZERO AT TIMES
ALONG THE LAKE MICHIGAN SHORE.
PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS...
A DENSE FOG ADVISORY MEANS VISIBILITIES WILL FREQUENTLY BE
REDUCED TO LESS THAN ONE QUARTER MILE. IF DRIVING...SLOW DOWN...
USE YOUR HEADLIGHTS...AND LEAVE PLENTY OF DISTANCE AHEAD OF YOU.

Road Blog: Sidewalk Sharpener

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Late last Thursday morning, I went walking up Western Avenue from my sister’s place. Ultimate destination: the long-term-care/assisted-living facility (a.k.a. “nursing home”) where our dad landed after his most recent hospitalization for pneumonia. Secondary destination: Starbucks, for the coffee I hadn’t yet had.

On the way north, just across Touhy Avenue, I encountered the gentleman pictured above, sharpening scissors outside a beauty salon. I passed, went about 10 paces, thought “I don’t see that every day,” then doubled back.

His name is Richard Johnson. He was sharpening scissors for the salon workers engaged in the beauty trade. The open-air contraption he was using, he said, “was designed by a genius”–meaning himself. He’s an engineer by training and said that back in the ’60s he worked on ballistic missiles stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. His sharpening contraption consists of what looks like an emery belt and a polisher that he runs off an electrical outlet. The cord snaked across the sidewalk into the salon. It was his first time at this particular establishment. “Mostly I work at pet groomers. They’re always dropping their scissors and clippers.” “The clients aren’t as cooperative as here,” I said. “Yes–they always blame the dogs.”

The most urgent task he was facing the morning I met him was reconditioning some “texturizing” scissors for a woman who already had a client in the chair. He worked on them, tested the sharpness on his arm hairs, then worked on them a little more. Then he brought them in to the shop. Looking inside, I could see the beautician making a few preliminary snips. Then Richard came back out with the scissors. “They let them get rusty and dull, and then they expect miracles,” he said.