Rosehill: Quiet Respite for the Meek and the Mighty

Vol. I No. 1 - FALL 1988

Rosehill Cemetery, on the western border of Edgewater between Peterson and Foster, is a Chicago landmark. Dedicated in 1859, it is "an historical archive that chronicles every saga of the city’s past."

Twelve Chicago mayors, an Illinois governor, famous forefathers and contemporaries alike, veterans of the Revolutionary to the Vietnam wars, and citizens of every era share the same quiet repose here.

There are miles of winding roads and walkways, shimmering lakes, stately oaks and sprawling lawns. Pheasant, duck and fox populate one of the world’s most beautifully landscaped memorial parks.

Rosehill is also known for its rich cultural heritage. Splendid examples of Roman, Greek and Egyptian architecture are represented in monuments and mausoleums. The entrance "medieval castle" building designed and constructed by William W. Boyington (architect of Chicago’s Water Tower) and the several monuments sculpted by Leonard Volk (best known for his bust of Lincoln in the Illinois State House) are impressive examples of the numerous artistic treasures.

It was the fantasy castle and gateway straight out of Ivanhoe that beckoned a group of 55 adventurers to join EHS’s tour of Rosehill on the morning of August 6th. That and the magnetic personality of tour guide Tom McGann, a local historian who has published articles on Rosehill to his credit. His voice was rich with promise of stories to please both young and old. We weren’t disappointed.

A stone’s throw away from the entrance lies the tracks of the Chicago & North Western Railway. As Mr. McGann explained, that location was important in the days before autos allowed easy access to outlying cemeteries and periodic cemetery visits were still part of the social pattern.

Rosehill had its own stop on the C&NW. Bodies were transported from the city on special funeral trains and via the baggage cars of regular trains. When the rail link was no longer needed, the stop disappeared. All that remains of the station is the elevator once used to lower coffins from trackside on the embankment.

Along the broad drive running west from the gate lies the grave of Brevet Major General Thomas Ransom, a storybook hero of the Civil War. Battle names are still legible on the weathered monument: Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Corinth. The memorial dedicated to Company B, 1st Regiment of the Illinois Light Artillery, carries this quote credited to "O.B." at the Battle of Ft. Donelson: "I die for liberty, boys. Go back and man the gun."

Not far off is the gravesite of Frances E. Willard, founder of the World’s Woman’s Temperance Union and the first Dean of Women at Northwestern University. Her simple epitaph reads: "She made this world wider for woman and more homelike for humanity."

Much more elaborate is the tribute to George S. Bangs, designer of the first railway mail car. The granite monument is a miniaturized replica of a mail car resting at the base of a tall, ivy-entwined tree.

Tour guide Tom got everyone’s rapt attention, including one-year-old Alexander Limanowski, at the monument of "Long John" Wentworth, one of Chicago’s more flamboyant mayors. At six feet six and weighing 300 pounds, size alone would have made him a giant among men. But John preferred legends.

Wentworth arrived in town in 1836 with a degree from Dartmouth and his shoes slung over his shoulder. Now those shoes were probably removed on the edge of town to protect them from the mud. But being a sly "frontier" politician, he let the story spread that he had walked barefoot the 60 miles from Michigan City, Indiana, trudging along the sand dunes on the last leg of the journey from his native New Hampshire.

Wentworth even turned his grave into a story. He himself planned the 72-foot obelisk, Rosehill’s tallest, before his death. "Long John" purposely left the stone blank so he would be remembered when later generations asked who was buried beneath the impressive monument. But his wishes were ignored (after his death) and an inscription was added.

Equally entertaining was Tom’s narration of the 1929 Valentine’s Day Massacre upon our arrival at the tombstone of Reinhart Schwimmer. Seems Reinhart was a "gang groupie" who loved to pull up a chair and chat with Bugs Moran and the boys. The poor optometrist’s only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Capone came a-calling. "A stern warning," Tom noted, "for kids who like to just hang out."

After visiting tributes to Albert B. Dick, inventor of the duplicating machine, Henry Windsor, publisher of Popular Mechanics, and Norman W. Harris, banker, to name a few, we couldn’t resist a brief inside look at one of Rosehill’s most prized gems.

The magnificent general mausoleum has an exterior of granite and an interior of polished white marble and bronze. Many of its private rooms have intricately sculptured bronze and brass doors and original Tiffany stained-glass windows. The names read like a "Who’s Who" of fame and fortune: Milton Florsheim, Charles A. Stevens, Maurice L. Rothschild, John G. Shedd, Richard W. Sears and A. Montgomery Ward.

It was time to give our feet a rest. Rosehill does, after all, cover 330 acres. Thanks to the expert guidance of Tom McGann, ably assisted by EHS’s Bill Steinfeld and Al Walavich of the Uptown Historical Society, we had a wonderfully educational experience. Thanks to Claire Conley who followed along in her car with an ice chest of goodies, we had a refreshing one.

At Felice’s Round Table, where a dozen or so people gathered to relax after the tour, Gloria Evenson aptly commented: "You know, I usually go to Rosehill just when I’m burying relatives; this has been my first pleasure trip! I’m looking forward to the next one." So are we, Gloria; so are we.