Waking the dead

Scott Gordon and Scott Gordon

Waking the dead

‘Seaweed Charlie’ and other legends unearthed at Calvary Cemetery

By Scott Gordon

The Daily Northwestern

In Evanston, the dead overwhelmingly outnumber the living.

Space in this city of about 75,000 (living) seems to be the most cramped in Calvary Cemetery, 301 Chicago Ave. While Evanston’s living walk the streets, 218,000

people lay buried underneath Calvary’s 92 acres of superb lakefront property.

These posthumous residents include some of the most accomplished people in Evanston history. Among the more elusive dead who inhabit the area is a World War II-era pilot known only as “Seaweed Charlie.”

Local legend states that Charlie crashed into Lake Michigan during a training exercise and drowned. He is fabled to crawl out of the lake at night, dripping wet and covered in seaweed, cross Sheridan Road, and disappear as he enters the cemetery.

Cemetery clerk Tom Berry says it’s a fact that Navy pilots trained over Lake Michigan during WWII and that some crashed, but beyond that, he really doesn’t buy the legend.

“Just about every cemetery has some ghost story associated with it,” he says.

“People always look for something to make up to be scary.”

But Chicago historian and supernatural explorer Richard Crowe has gathered some “very consistent” witness accounts of one of Seaweed Charlie’s appearances in 1993.

That year, two Columbia College students driving south on Sheridan noticed as they neared the cemetery that the cars ahead of them were swerving wildly. Then, Crowe says, they saw a tall and thin, glowing figure crossing the road toward the cemetery, wearing a heavy coat and apparently unaware of the traffic.

Crowe thinks the ghost could be a flight

instructor from Glenview Naval Air Station, about seven miles south of Evanston. A pilot crashed in Lake Michigan near NU’s Evanston Campus on May 4, 1951, and washed up two days later near Calvary — the south Evanston coastline is “a natural catch basin for flotsam and jetsam,” Crowe says.

THE Triumphant and THE transplantEd

Whether they’re resting quietly or still wandering, many of those buried here were actually dead long before the cemetery even opened. As the popular Lincoln Park Cemetery began to fill up in the 1850s, the Roman Catholic Church’s Archdiocese of Chicago began looking for new grave space, and ended up buying this plot — then transferred many Chicago residents’ remains to Calvary, which was consecrated in 1859.

Many of those previously buried in other cemeteries technically may be buried here only partially. Crowe says that during the

original move from Lincoln Park to Evanston, low-paid cemetery workers were dealing with bodies whose wooden coffins had rotted away and whose skeletons were falling apart. The workers only moved skulls, arms and legs, leaving behind ribs and toes, Crowe says.

“They couldn’t be bothered with the small stuff,” he says. “They just grabbed the biggest pieces they could find.”

Calvary’s luminaries include former Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey; writer James T. Farrell, an Irish-American who wrote of life in early 20th century Chicago; and Col. James Mulligan, another Irish-American who led the Chicago Irish Regiment into battle on the Union side during the Civil War. Joining these are many former mayors of Chicago, distillers, publishers and businessmen.

Crowe thinks it’s remarkable that Mulligan, who died of battle wounds in Virginia in 1864, was brought back to Chicago for burial — it was very unusual for bodies to return at the time, unless the deceased was especially well-respected at home.

Architect James J. Egan, who helped rebuild Chicago after the great fire of 1871, designed the main gate for Calvary, where he now rests. The towering gate, facing out on Chicago Avenue, introduces visitors to a place almost completely removed from the El tracks, offices, roads and homes around it.

New Ground Ahead

It’s easy to become disoriented in this cemetery, which stretches from Chicago

Avenue to Sheridan Road, stopping less than 100 feet from the shore of Lake Michigan. Faint noises from construction sites and passing cars float in, but the place mostly is quiet, disturbed only by birds and occasional visitors to gravesites. Huge monuments and elaborate family mausoleums sit among thousands of more modest gravestones.

To the south, a new condominium

building, Lake View Pointe, looms over the monuments; signs advertising condo spaces hang from the building and are visible from the cemetery.

Living near a cemetery initially seems morbid, but cemetery clerk Tom Berry says the presence of the well-kept cemetery “seems to be a selling point” for spaces at Lake View Pointe and the nearby Courts of Evanston apartment complex.

Peter Demuth, a songwriter and southeast Evanston resident who has spoken out strongly against new developments in the area, also likes living near the cemetery.

“There is a certain divinity” to the cemetery, says Demuth, who often walks and jogs there.

Earlier this year, Demuth wrote and recorded a song, “Down in Southeast Evanston,” to protest the possible future construction of a marina — a possibility recently studied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — just across Sheridan from the cemetery. He fears a marina would bring pollution and noise and spoil peoples’ enjoyment of the cemetery.

“If they build a marina there,” he says. “Young people might not even know that it was (once) a more tranquil place.”

A marina could be planned to accommodate these concerns, says Phil Bernstein, chief of planning for the Corps’ Chicago district. By restricting a marina to sailboats, for example, noise could be kept at a minimum. Other possibilities include planting more trees along the east side of Sheridan.

“There are a lot of things that could be looked at and, if they decide to move on with it, should be looked at,” Bernstein says.

Today’s Evanston residents have a good chance of being able to enjoy Calvary Cemetery in the future, and may even have a shot of being buried there, though most of the grave space is currently full.

Patrick Gaynor of Patrick J. Gaynor

Monument Company, 222 Chicago Ave., says the cemetery will expand its grave space soon by digging up some of the paved paths that run through the site.

In the future, though, people buried at Calvary might not be memorialized in as grand a style as a Mulligan or a Comiskey. Gaynor, who does most of his business for graves at Calvary, said the diocese’s current regulations require all monuments to be level with the ground and made of

granite, not marble.

But even if they don’t get to erect

ornate monuments to themselves, the future dead of Evanston can be

accommodated modestly in Calvary — without resorting to being covered with seaweed and crawling across the road to get into Calvary Cemetery.