Chicago memorials: My visit to Stephen Douglas' tomb

October 28, 2011

I pass by Stephen Douglas’ tomb -- or about a block from it, on East 35th Street -- about once a week. The sky high tower always beckons but it seems lost from Cottage Grove, buried between train tracks, highrises and the confident limestone houses that line the streets down that way.

But the other day, with time on my hands and a beautiful afternoon in full bloom, I made the trek down to the end of 35th Street and the memorial dedicated to Illinois’ “Little Giant,” as the man who debated Abraham Lincoln was known in his time.

The memorial is, well, just weird. Set in a well-kept little park from which you can hear the rumble of the Metra train, it’s peaceful and inviting. There were picnic tables resting against a fence in the back that suggested maybe folks do come here in warmer temps, though the emptiness was striking. A flagpole held two flags, both faded and frayed, at half-mast: the stars and stripes and the Illinois state flag.

The long 96 foot column that I can see from blocks is so high up close, though, that Douglas’ figure on top is obscure when you’re looking up at it from its base. In fact, it makes you feel like you’re looking up the man’s britches.

Around the base of the memorial are scenes of European expansion, like a train scene (Douglas was big on trains), and upside down torches, a Greek symbol, I’m told, signifying both great learning and the end of life. Douglas was a Mason, though, and these are also frequently used in Masonic tombs.

There are also four statues of muse-like women, voluptuously wrapped in loose robes, at each corner of the tomb, each topping a word that, I presume, is meant to describe Douglas, because they don’t otherwise go together particularly well: History, Eloquence, Illinois, Justice.


 

Douglas himself is buried here, his sarcophagus open to visitors on the side of the memorial. A bust of Douglas sits atop it, a little furrow-browed, a little disembodied and eerie. The legend below reads: “Tell my children to uphold the laws and obey the Constitution.”

Dry guy, this Douglas.