CEDAR RAPIDS — This time of year, folks find many reasons to visit a cemetery, from paying their last respects or enjoying a peaceful walk below autumn-colored trees to taking a historical tour or visiting ghosts among the tombs.
While many caretakers encourage the first three kinds of visitors, they’d usually rather not see the fourth.
“We love ghost stories,” says Jane Thoresen, who joins her husband, Carl, to care for Oak Hill Cemetery. “But the difference between a ghost story and a ghost sighting, a paranormal sighting, is extraordinarily different.”
She points to the tale of Tillie, a ghost that has reportedly haunted Oak Hill Cemetery since a young Czech immigrant named Tillie was buried in the late 1700s or early 1800s. But, the facts fall apart immediately — Oak Hill was founded in 1854 and Czech immigration occurred after that. Sure, there are 11 Tillies and 11 Matildas buried in the cemetery, but none as a young girl. There are no written references to Tillie before the 1960s, Jane says, adding credence to a theory that a worker in nearby City Cemetery made her up to scare a gullible co-worker.
Night ghost hunters also face dangers, such as tripping over uneven ground and markers, as well as trespassing because most cemeteries are closed after dark.
But, come during the day, and it’s amazing what you can learn.
After months of research, Jane has compiled a map of the graves of dozens of people with connections to the early days of railroads who are buried at Oak Hill. It provides information on each connection, although some stories also require additional handouts.
“We can’t spend 20 minutes at each gravesite or we’d never get through the cemetery,” Jane says about periodic tours.
So, who’s her favorite?
William Williams Walker, without hesitation, she says. He came to Iowa from New York in the 1850s, became a “rod” man for the Chicago, Iowa and Nebraska Railroad from Clinton to Cedar Rapids, was superintendent as it was built through Cedar Rapids and helped organize the line west of town to Missouri.
“Had he had his way,” Jane says, “the railroad would have come through Cedar Rapids on a diagonal to the west side of town instead of through downtown. We wouldn’t have the Fourth Street tracks.”
Among the others were Charles J. Ives, president of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern Railroad, George Douglas Sr., who built stone arch bridges for railroads, and Fred Perkins, grandson of a Virginia slave who worked 44 years for the railroad as a car porter and brakeman.
His father, Marshall Perkins, had a restaurant near where Theatre Cedar Rapids is now.
“They chose to call it Marshall’s,” Jane says, “because they thought that was a better name than Perkins.”