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.

R.I.P., Mary Dahl

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Kate took this one during an August visit to Mount Olive Cemetery, up on the North Side of Chicago. It’s where my dad’s people are, and it’s impressive to see such a collection of Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians in one place. Every once in a while–pretty frequently, actually–you come across a headstone that, with only names and dates, seems to tell a story. In this case: the three short lives of Mary Dahl.

Briefly, here’s what I can find through looking at some genealogical records. George and Mary Dahl (nee Marie Johnson) arrived in Chicago from Norway in 1883 and ’86, respectively. George and Mary had several older children, born in Norway. Their first American-born child apparently was Mary II, born in January 1889. A Cook County death certificate (below) says she died on June 28, 1893. The cause: croup, which according to contemporary reports killed hundreds in Chicago that year and was perennially listed, along with diphtheria, another disease that involved airway obstruction, as a leading cause of death for children.

So where does Mary III come in? A Cook County birth certificate (middle document below) lists the birth of a baby girl named Marie to George and Marie (Johnson) Dahl on August 18, 1893. In other words, just seven weeks after the death of Mary II. By the 1900 Census, both Marie, the mom, and Marie, the daughter, are listed as Mary. (If not for the headstone inscription, that could be dismissed as a census enumerator’s error. The 1900 Census also lists Mary I, the mother, as not speaking English.)

My no-longer-quick search doesn’t find any documents for Mary III’s death in 1903. It does turn up a death certificate for Mary I, though, on April 14, 1908, age 59. Cause of death: carcinoma of the stomach. Under “duration of cause,” the document says three years and one month.

Update: I went back to the FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com databases to look again for the death of Mary Dahl III, born in August, 1893. This time I chanced across a death record on Ancestry that I hadn’t been able to find because her whoever wrote out the death certificate (bottom)had misspelled her last name as “Diahl.” She died April 26, 1903, of “brain fever” with a contributing cause of “convulsions.”

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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.

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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.