Garden of the Dead tour unearths forgotten history of Lincoln Park

The Garden of the Dead Walking Tour has run for the past 10 years and is led by Pamela Bannos. It starts at the Chicago History Museum and walks past the Couch Tomb and Lincoln Monument. 

By Blaise Mesa

Grab your flashlight and prepare to walk through history as the Garden of the Dead Walking Tour sheds light on a time when Lincoln Park was Chicago’s only graveyard.

The tour is hosted by the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., and is led by professor of instruction in the Art Theory and Practice Department at Northwestern University Pamela Bannos. Two tours are scheduled for Oct. 23 and 30.

The tour—which has run for 10 years—starts at the Chicago History Museum and walks to such historic sites as the Lincoln Monument, the Benjamin Franklin Monument, the Couch Tomb, the South Pond and Potter’s Field, according to Bannos. She said the tour lasts between 1.5 to 2 hours.

Bannos discovered the forgotten history of Lincoln Park while searching through the Chicago Tribune’s digital archives, which were published in 2007.

She said she searched through the Tribune’s archives using keyword phrases, such as “Chicago cemetery” and “city cemetery,” to find articles about Lincoln Park.

Bannos discovered articles that detailed residents digging up bones, then began to map them on a satellite map. When Bannos was finished, she noticed the dots on the map were scattered.

“[At one point], this was Chicago’s only cemetery,” she said. “Everybody who lived in Chicago was buried in this ground from 1845 until 1859. The records I found show that 35,000 people were buried there.”

Water from Lake Michigan would find its way into the graves when the tide would rise and fall, said Norman Raidl, former leader of the Lincoln Park docent program and current volunteer at the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool.

Raidl said this caused a series of epidemics because the water flowing back into the lake would become contaminated.

The bodies were exhumed from Lincoln Park and moved to other burial sites in the 1860s, Bannos said. But she estimated there are at least 12,000 graves left in the park.

Junior radio major and creator of The Chicago Beat podcast—a Chicago history podcast—Eva Eig came to Chicago from Maryland in July 2017. 

Eig began researching the city’s history when she first moved to Chicago, but she did not read about the history of Lincoln Park. Eig  was surprised to learn how common it is to find bodies or bones in the park and that confederate soldiers are buried in trenches in Lincoln Park.

“Any kind of Chicago history is interesting to learn about,” Eig said.

In her years leading the tour, Bannos said the majority of people were unaware Lincoln Park was used as a graveyard, despite the historical markers located throughout the park to describe the history of that location.

Raidl said there are no ongoing preservation programs at Lincoln Park, but part of the docent training program includes a lecture that chronicles the history of Lincoln Park, with a segment on the time it was a graveyard.

“It’s a history that has never been documented or told in any Chicago history book,” Bannos said. “It was mind-boggling that we didn’t have this history of our entire first generation [who were] buried in Lincoln Park.”