In a recent post, contributor Gregory Ruth discussed how for him “autumn has meant archive time.” I wish I could say the same, as I’m sure my scholarship would markedly improve with more time spent with the “yellowing records.” For me, however, the magic of autumn lies in beautiful displays of brightly colored leaves, in apple cider straight from the mill, and in the quiet stillness of cemeteries. That’s right, cemeteries. What better time of the year to explore the history and memory ensconced in Chicago’s cemeteries than in October? So, forget about your Halloween costume, that paper due in November, and that mountain of laundry — tour a cemetery instead! Although the haunts may not be as terrifying, I promise you history is alive, and it’s lurking in the cemetery.
Rosehill Cemetery at 5800 North Ravenswood Ave, Chicago
Located on Chicago’s North Side, Rosehill Cemetery is the oldest and largest non-sectarian cemetery in the city. Chartered in 1859, Rosehill was still in its formative years when the American Civil War broke out. In an effort to advance its reputation within the community, the cemetery actively pursued the families of prominent war dead in hopes of having them interred at Rosehill. In part because of these efforts, the focal point of the east side of the cemetery is a Civil War section featuring the Our Heroes: Civil War Monument designed by Leonard Wells Volk, the Major General Thomas Edwin Greenfield Ransom Monument, and several prominent battery monuments. The Civil War section lies just inside Rosehill’s castellated gothic gate designed by William W. Boyington (the architect of the Chicago Water Tower).
On the west side of Rosehill is Chicago’s largest public mausoleum. Designed by Sidney Lovell and dedicated in 1914, the mausoleum features Italian Carrera marble, Doric columns, and Louis Tiffany stained glass. Notables interred in the Rosehill Mausoleum include Aaron Montgomery Ward, Richard Warren Sears, and John G. Shedd.
The Chicago History Museum offers guided walking tours of Rosehill East and Rosehill West, but unfortunately, their fall tour dates have already passed. The cemetery is open daily, however, so stop by for a walk anyway. Interspersed with the cemetery’s more famous occupants – twelve mayors of Chicago, four governors of Illinois, several former Congressmen, a Vice President of the United States, twelve Civil War Generals, and countless architectural, commercial and social notables – are the graves of the veritable unknowns. Their history beckons.
Graceland Cemetery at 4001 North Clark Street, Chicago
If you’ve ever ridden the CTA Red Line from Loyola to the Loop, you’ve seen Graceland Cemetery. A private cemetery established in 1860, Graceland is located in Uptown and lies just west of the ‘L’ between Wilson and Sheridan. Known as the “Cemetery of the Architects,” Graceland is a who’s who of Chicago architects. Interred in Graceland are architects including William Le Baron Jenney, the “Father of the Skyscraper,” and Fazlur Khan, the designer of the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center. The landscape and architecture of the cemetery itself can be credited to Chicago’s architectural geniuses. Graceland was designed by famous landscape architects H.W.S. Cleveland and Ossian Simonds and features cemetery buildings by acclaimed local firm Holabird & Roche.
Graceland is owned and operated by the Trustees of the Graceland Cemetery Improvement Fund, a not-for-profit trust. Their website provides wonderful information on the history of the cemetery and the biographies of some if its most notable residents including John Kinzie, Allan Pinkerton, Marshall Field, Potter Palmer, George Pullman, and Cyrus McCormick. A map of the location of these and other monuments is available here. It also shows the location of the cemetery’s crematorium, the oldest in Chicago.
The Chicago History Museum will be offering walking tours of Graceland on October 27th, 28th, and 31st. More information is available here.
Oak Woods Cemetery at 1035 East 67th Street, Chicago
Located in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood on the south side, Oak Woods was founded in 1853. The cemetery’s English Gothic chapel and crematory were designed by William Carbys Zimmerman. Notable residents include Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, crime boss Giacomo “Big Jim” Colosimo, Olympian Jesse Owens, civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, and physicist Enrico Fermi.
Oak Woods is also home to one of the largest mass graves in North America. The Confederate Mound Memorial is the final resting place of over 6,000 Confederate prisoners-of-war who perished in Camp Douglas. During the Civil War, over 26,000 Confederate prisoners were held in Camp Douglas. Nearly twenty-five percent died there. No monument exists to them at the site of the camp. The monument in Oak Woods is the only recognition of their service, suffering, and death.
Oak Woods, like Rosehill, is owned and operated by Dignity Memorial, a funeral, cremation, and cemetery provider. Little to no information is available on their websites about the history of the cemeteries they operate. There do not appear to be regular tours of Oak Woods; however the cemetery grounds are open to the public. The Confederate Mound Memorial is located in the southwest corner of Oak Woods and is well worth the trip.
Bohemian National Cemetery at 5255 North Pulaski Road, Chicago
Located a few miles west of Rosehill Cemetery, Bohemian National is a fraternal cemetery founded in 1877 by Bohemian, Moravian, and Slovak immigrants and their descendants to provide a place for burials free of religious restraints. Features of the cemetery include a Gothic style gatehouse with the original funeral bell and a crematorium with chapel and columbarium.
The Bohemian National Cemetery website provides detailed information on the history of the cemetery and on points of interest including the communal plot of victims of the 1916 Eastland disaster and the mausoleum of Mayor Anton Cermak who was assassinated while making a public appearance with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. A map of the location of these and other sites is available here.
Side Note: Lakefront Historian Contributor Samantha Chmelik presented a poster on Bohemian National’s limestone tree grave markers as protest symbols at the 2012 NCPH conference in Milwaukee.
The Chicago History Museum is offering special tours of Bohemian National on November 4th and 11th. Entitled “Bohemian National Cemetery: Locked in After Dark,” the tours begin as the gates are locked and conclude after dusk. More information is available here. If you cannot make either of these special tours, the Friends of Bohemian National Cemetery offer guided tours of the cemetery in the spring and in the summer.
Chicago City Cemetery
If you’ve ever walked, biked, or explored Chicago’s Lincoln Park, you have been on the former grounds of the Chicago City Cemetery. Over 20,000 were interred in the City Cemetery between 1843 and the cemetery’s closing in 1870. After its closing, most of the bodies were moved to cemeteries outside the city limits including Graceland, Rosehill, and Oakwoods. Some traces of the City Cemetery remain. The most prominent is the mausoleum of Ira Couch, the owner of the Tremont House Hotel, which is located near the Chicago History Museum.
More information on the Chicago City Cemetery is available on Northwestern University Professor Pamela Bannos’s website “Hidden Truths: The Chicago City Cemetery and Lincoln Park.” The Chicago History Museum is offering several events in November featuring Professor Bannos and information on the Chicago City Cemetery. Details are available here.
Forest Home & German Waldheim Cemeteries at 863 South Desplaines Avenue, Forest Park
Although not located within the City of Chicago, the Forest Home & German Waldheim Cemeteries in Forest Park offer visitors willing to brave the Eisenhower Expressway an opportunity to see the stories of the cemetery come to life. For over twenty years, the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society has sponsored annual walking tours of these cemeteries. The 21st annual Tale of the Tombstones, entitled “Parks, Preserves, and a Deadly Excursion,” will explore how area residents have worked to preserve and enjoy nature. Dramatic, costumed performances make this event perfect for the child in all of us.Information on the history of the cemeteries is available here. Details on the October 21st Tale of the Tombstone walk is here.In addition to the visiting the sites highlighted on the walk, plan to stop by the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the marker commemorates the workers hanged on accusations of instigating the events of May 1886.
Chicago’s cemeteries are rich with history to be explored, questioned, and analyzed. So, take a break from the books, escape the archives, run screaming from the laundry — get outside and enjoy!