Friday, November 1, 2013


The western border of Rosehill Cemetery runs along Western Avenue in Chicago.  This is a part of the cemetery that was not developed and was let grow wild, for the most part.  On maps of the cemetery (see below) the land is marked "For Future Development."  Recently it was announced that Rosehill had sold this part of the cemetery to the City of Chicago for $7.7 million.  Plans are for it to be used as a city park and nature trail.  In the middle of this wooded area is a lake and a water tower.  I don't think that the water tower is used any more, and I believe it will be removed when this land goes over to the City.  So, before the Rosehill Water Tower disappears altogether, I thought I would tell you about the person who lost his life when he fell from the water tower in 1939. 

There are many dead people in Rosehill Cemetery, but this is the story of one of the few people who actually died in Rosehill, but is not buried there.  The Chicago Daily Tribune of March 29, 1939 carried a small item back on Page 10 of Section 1:

Let's see what we can find out about John Nielsen before his untimely death at Rosehill.  John was born Johannes Thorvald Nielsen in Chicago on August 25, 1895 to Jorgan Nielsen (1867-1942) and Katherine, nee Jensen (1865-1939).  The Nielsens were of Danish ancestry.  Johannes had six siblings:  Bertel/Harold (1894-1981), Richard (1898-1985), Jens (1901-1920), Ludwig (1902-1921), Karen (1904-1983), and Katherine (1906-1996).

Johannes' parents Jorgan and Katherine met and married in Chicago. Johannes and his brother Bertel/Harold were born in Chicago, but by the time Richard was born in 1898 the Nielsens had moved to Hixon, Wisconsin.  The 1900 census shows Jorgan and his family living on a farm with Jorgan's father Ludgard/Ludwig and mother Maren/Marion and several of Jorgan's brothers and their families.

When Johannes Nielsen registered for the draft on June 4, 1917 he was attending Iowa State College in Ames, Iowa. He listed his occupation as "Student" and that his home was in Withee, Wisconsin. According to the registrar, he was tall, had blue eyes and light brown hair.

Perhaps feeling that his being drafted was imminent, on April 22, 1918 Johannes enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve Forces.  He was a Seaman First Class in the Ninth Naval District in Wisconsin.  He was honorably discharged on September 30, 1921.

The 1920 Census shows 24 year-old Johannes living back on the farm in Hixon, but his occupation is listed as "None", even though he was in the Naval Reserve.  Perhaps he thought that with a college education and military experience he did not want to end up a farmer.  His older brother Bertil/Harold was still living at home in 1920 but was teaching high school.

In 1925 Johannes Nielsen married Karen K. Nielsen (1901-1994) (no immediate relation).  Karen (sometimes spelled "Karin") was born in 1901 in Illinois to dairy farmer Nels Peter Nielsen (1866-1944) and his wife Karen M., nee Bach (1871-1960), both from Denmark.

On May 25, 1929 Johannes and Karen's first child was born in Wisconsin, a girl, who they named Ellen B. Nielsen (Mrs. Christian Beck 1929-1999).

At the time of the 1930 Census Johannes must have been on the road looking for work, because Karen and Ellen had moved back in with Karen's father Peter Nielsen in Hixon, Wisconsin and Johannes does not show up on the census at all.  But, it was the beginning of the Great Depression, so men had to go wherever they could find work.

In the mid 1930s, as late as 1935, Johannes found work in Council Bluffs, Iowa and had moved his family there.  This was short-lived however because on August 1, 1936, when Johannes and Karen welcomed their second child, they were back in Wisconsin.  They named their son, Jorgen A. Nielsen (1936-2002).

In 1937 during the depths of the Great Depression, Johannes Nielsen was able to find work as a carpenter/painter in Chicago working for his brother-in-law.  His sister Katherine had married Allen B. Kuhlman who had his own contractor/decorating business.  Johannes moved in with Katherine and Allen and their family in the bungalow they were renting at 4724 N. Harding in Chicago.

4724 N. Harding, Chicago

Johannes' mother, Katherine Nielsen died March 21, 1939 after a long illness.  Here is her obituary from the Owen, Wisconsin "Enterprise" of March 23, 1939:

Nielsen, Katherine (12 Feb 1865 - 21 Mar 1939)

Funeral services were conducted this afternoon from the Danish Lutheran Church at Withee (Clark Co., Wis.), for Mrs. Jorgen Nielsen, 74, a loving, kind and generous soul had been seriously handicapped during her late years.  For over the past two and one-half years she has been confined to her bed with a lingering illness.  Despite the confinement to her home and bed she possessed a sunny disposition and was a cheerful patient.  Her loss in the home and to her friends will be keenly felt.

Johannes' was called back to Withee for his mother's funeral.  During the Depression, there was no such thing as "time off with pay" - if you didn't work, you didn't get paid - and there were 20 men anxious to take your job if you didn't want it.  So after the funeral Johannes hurried back to Chicago and resumed his duties as a painter.  He had been hired to repair and/or paint the water tower at Rosehill.  Here are photos of the water tower, which is still standing today:

Tower looking East

Tower looking West

Here's a map of Rosehill Cemetery with the location of the water tower marked in red.

For what happened on that fateful day of March 28, 1939, we will refer to the the Coroner's Death Certificate:

The death certificate indicates the cause of death was "due to shock and hemorrhage from fracture of skull and cerebral lacerations when deceased, while repairing water tower in Rosehill Cemetery, lost his footing and fell 80 feet to the ground."  Ironically, Johannes died one week to the day after his mother's death.

Here's a view of the tower from Google Earth.  You can see there is nothing around the base of the tower  to break a fall but hard ground:

Tower from Google Earth

Here is Johannes Nielsen's obituary from the Owen, Wisconsin "Enterprise" of March 30, 1939:

Nielsen, Johannes T. (25 Aug 1895 - 28 Mar 1939)

Funeral services will be conducted Friday afternoon from the Danish Lutheran Church at Withee (Clark Co., Wis.) for Johannes T. Nielsen, age 44, who passed away Tuesday at Chicago, the Rev. Jens Holst will officiate.

Mr. Nielsen’s death was caused by an accidental fall from a 125 foot water tower in Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago, where he was employed as a painter. Part of the steel ladder upon which he was working gave way, and he fell to the ground, a distance of about 80 feet. He is survived by his wife and two children, and his father, Jorgen Nielsen.

Mr. Nielsen had been called to Withee only last week to attend the funeral of his mother, and had returned to his work at Chicago, starting Monday morning. His sudden death has brought double sorrow to his relatives. His wife, Karin, is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Nielsen of Withee, and the family were former residents of this community.

The bereaved relatives have the heartfelt sympathy of a great many friends in their time of sorrow.

Johannes Neilsen was buried in the Nazareth Cemetery in Withee, Wisconsin near his mother:

Here is his wife's order for his military tombstone:

Karen K. Nielsen died in January of 1994.  She never remarried.

So that's the story of the person who was killed when he fell from the water tower in Rosehill Cemetery.  When the land along Western Avenue is taken by the City of Chicago and the water tower is razed, I wanted to make sure that the person who died there was not forgotten.

Johannes T. Nielsen - may he rest in peace. 

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