The Inter Ocean, August 14, 1887
FROM THE COURTS.
VALUABLE LAND IN DISPUTE.
The children of Andreas Zirngibl filed a bill to the Circuit Court against the Calumet and Chicago Canal and Dock Company, Charles W. Colehour and others to clear the title to a considerable amount of land bordering upon the Calumet River and Lake Michigan. In 1855 Andreas Zirngibl purchased the land, comprising forty acres, for $150 and settled upon it. Shortly after he died, and at his own request was buried upon the property, which is in South Chicago, on the east side of the Calumet River, and extends for about a quarter of a mile south from Ninety-second street bridge to Ninety-fifth street. They buried him on his land and fenced his resting-place and erected a monument to preserver the spot where he lay. The property went to the children, who erected a number of buildings for living purposes and let them to some of the defendants. The property adjoins that of the Calumet and Chicago Canal and Dock Company, and the Dock Company, it is said, desires to secure the land for an extension of its facilities. It is claimed that the Dock Company made a fraudulent deed of one-twenty-fifth of the forty acres and purported to convey to to ex-Governor Tabor. It is alleged that the deed was never accepted by Tabor, but by a lawyer who pretended to be acting for him. Suit was brought by the lawyer against the tenants for a partition which is still pending. Complainants were advised by Colehour, they allege, that they had but a slim chance in the litigation, and induced them ti deed in trust to him three-forths of the property, the entire forty acres being estimated at $500,000. The land was finally delivered over to the Dock Company and is now being used for tracks. The court is asked to set aside the deed of trust to Colehour and to establish complainant’s title to the property.
Chicago Tribune, May 30, 1897
Almost in the heart of South Chicago a dead level stretch of land, twenty-five miles acres in extent, lying in the triangle formed by the slip of the Chicago and Calumet Canal and Dock company on the west, Ninety-second street on the south, and the tracks of the Chicago and Blue Island railroad company on the northeast. To the south electric cars for Roby, Whiting, and Hammond trundle by; to the west masts and spars cobweb the sky; to the north the black smokestacks and flaming funnels of the rolling mills lie like a cloud; to the east sulphurous gray smoke from a stifling smelter drifts like a bank of poisonous fog. A clump of oaks stand sentinel in the midst of this green tract and under them, flecked by the shadows of young leaves, are the white railings marking a grave. Thirty square feet inside this railing is the property of old Andreas Zirngibl’s heirs and assigns forever, with the right of ingress and egress never to be denied them; all else is the property of the canal and dock company, which values at $500,000.
Sentiment Triumphed Over Capital.
Behind all this are the bitter contentions of squatter sovereignty, the spoliation of sentiment, and the dogged fight in the courts, through which means the bones of old Andreas Zirngibl, fisherman, hunter, and trapper, lie under the trees, which were only saplings when his body was buried there nearly fifty years ago. Years before the white man’s paddle dipped the Calumet the dead of the Indian village were buried there; the dead of the Zirngibs followed, and years afterward the dead which were given up by the lake were added to them. Today all is unmarked and desolate, save for the little square of earth which marks the burial place of Andreas Zirngibl. Near to the spot was part of the big two-masted Argo when it went ashore there in 1878. Two years later the brig Mary foundered there and three of its sailors lie buried almost where their bodies lat when cast up by the sea.
All around the dead lie thick, but of them all only old Andreas Zirngibl holds out, as he did in brave squatter days, against the encroachments of deeds and titles.
In all of it is a story of deep human interest, and today in the hearts of old Andreas Zirngib’s heirs are the bitternesses which rankled in him nearly a half century ago when he was first called “squatter.”
Came When Land Was Cheap.
Andreas Zirngibl came to Chicago in 1853 and as a hunter and fisherman settled in the banks of the Calumet. In those days the river flats stretched away for miles, people with frogs, muskrats, and the creeping things of the marshes. A fisherman named Jones was the owner of the squatter claim of forty-five acres, and Zirngibl bought it for $100 in gold. He built a house in the clumps of oaks with his wife and children and lived comfortably. But in 1855 swamp fever swept the little settlement and old Andreas Zirngibl was a first victim. He was buried in his dooryard, and soon afterward the family moved to Chicago, leaving a tenant named Maragartz to hold the land.
Then the great fire swept Chicago in 1871 and in the troublous times which followed the Zirngibl heirs were lost to the tenant at the mouth of the Calumet. Deeds, documents, and transfers of all kinds were destroyed. Taxes were unpaid and the family waited for the issuance of new deeds by the government. An attorney was engaged to look after the new deeds, but he ran away with a French actress, taking a retainer of $85 with him.
For several years the land was virtually tenantless, with taxes unpaid. Then the big dock company, taking up back tax receipts, began action to secure title. Later, it is said, the Zirngibls were offered $10,000 to compromise, but they refused. Finally the case went against the heirs in the lower courts. Carried to the Supreme Court, the heirs were left with full title to the thirty square feet inclosing the grave of Andreas Zirngibl, and with the right to come and go across the property on their way to and from the grave.
Heirs Revere the Spot.
From Ninety-second street the little railing, broken and bent, which surrounds all that is mortal of Andreas Zirngibl, speaks mutely of a time which modern South Chicago has distanced past all recall. Here and there little patches of whitewash cling to the rude boards. A few plants are budding on the little mound. March 30 was the 100th anniversary of the old man’s birth, and his widow, still sturdy under her 86 years, gathered with her children to do the old pioneer honor. The grave was decorated with evergreens, and an effort was made to freshen the inscription in German which adorns the wooden headpiece. This inscription, apart from sentiment, recites that:
The widow of Andreas Zirngibl now lives at 111 Thirty-third street. She talks freely of her trials, and bitterly of the corporation which now holds the title to that which was once hers.
My husband’s father was a baron in Germany and was a personal friend of
Emperor Wilhelm IV. He was also a warm friend of Radowitz, one of the Ministers of that political period.
But the family became involved in political troubles later. Then we heard glowing accounts of how fortunes were made in America, so we came in 1853. At that time there were only four houses in South Chicago, and land on which Hyde Park Hotel now stands was offered to us at $2 an acre. My husband made his mistake, I suppose, in not paying taxes, and in depending upon his squatter claim, bought from old man Johns. But it was our land in all justice, for we paid for it out of our hard-earned savings.
Stories of the Locality.
Louis Hausler, 9393 Avenue K, whose father was keeper of the government lighthouse years ago, recalls much of the early history of the Zirngibl case. He says the land in question had been set aside by the government, on which it had agreed to build docks. Save for a lighthouse, however, nothing was done and it was taken by the squatters. He tells a vivid story of the wrecks of the Argo and of the brig Mary.
There was only a long strip of sand between the Calumet and the lower curve of the lake shore, and often in a storm the waves ran up this peninsula of sand and tumbled into the river 200 yards from the mouth. Running before a northeast storm the Argowas beached one night not a hundred yards from the old grave.
After repeated efforts in boats a line was got to the vessel and about a dozen men were puklled through the surf, half drowned before they got ashore. Old Man Maragartz and his boys worked at the rescue and the men were revived in the old Zirngibl house, which stood close to the grave. The line was made fast to an immense willow in the sand, and today there is another tree there growing out of the stump of the old one, which was so girdled by the friction of the rope that it died.
Scene if Several Wrecks.
In 1880 the brig Mary went ashore in the night. When we awoke it was pounding heavily on the beach, with the water sweeping its decks. I remember seeing those three drowned sailors lying on the beach not a hundred yards from where the smelter now stands. Very few of the sailors were saved and the bodies of some were not recovered. The Mary was torn up after the storm, but the Argo lay there for years and years. You can see some of its timbers now, but most of them were covered in the grading of the railroad.
Old Maragartz lived on the Zirngibl place until 1889, when the old house burned down. He was sour and crusty, never speaking unless he was spoken to, and forbidding trespassing on his land under any pretext. His widow now lives with her son in Avenue M, though she is very feeble.
The Coal and Dock company maintains offices in South Chicago and also down-town in La Salle street. Representatives of the company when questioned regarding the South Chicago property and its dead refusal to talk. As it is now, the property is put to no use whatever.
Frank Zirngibl, a son of the old man, is now living at 5302 Wabash avenue, cherishing all the bitternesses of the long night in the courts. Another son, George, is dead, but his widow is living at 877 Southport avenue.
Chicago Tribune, October 4, 1908
Thirty-five acres of manufacturing site in the heart of South Chicago, valued now at 50 cents a square foot, has lain idle and fallow for half a century for the reason that a dead man holds the title to thirty-six square feet in the heart of the tract. Somber and out of keeping with its surroundings, his white railed grave in the midst of smoke, clamor, the din of the vast industries which commerce and industry would push.
Not only the last resting place of this man stands here, challenging the inroads of a living world pledged to materialism, but under a decision of the Supreme court if the state of Illinois, the right of ingress and egress from the grave forever must remain unquestioned of those who in after heirs might be moved to visit the spot dedicated to the dead.
Bounded by the Calumet river at Ninety-second street on the north, by the railroad tracks of the Illinois Steel company on the south, and by Ewing avenue on the west, lies an almost triangular tract of land over which the remains of all that is mortal of old Andreas Zirngibl has kept watch and ward for half a century.
93rd and Ewing Avenue
Grave that is Unmovable.
A pine slab, surrounded by a wooden fence, shoes the head of the sleeper turned to the east and his feet to the setting sun the railing of white pickets, kept trim by one of the Zirngibl heirs, protects mound and headstone. Inside the railings are a few big plants, a few begrimed verbenas choking under the dust, cinders and poisonous vapors from the steel mills, and encroaching upon them in profusion are banks of cockleburs, ripening under the autumn sun. The scrub oaks which once shadowed the lonely grave are gone—strangled and dead and fallen, uprooted as they stood.
Only the pickets are renewed with white coatings and the lettering upon the headstone retraced in black as the ravages of time and weather blur them:
The story of this lonely grave in its wilderness of giant industries dates back to a time when only the miasmatic mists of the marshes obscured a virgin sky; to a time when modern Chicago was undreamed of and when the site of South Chicago was given over to the mink, the muskrat, and the creeping things of the marshes. Only the fisherman and the trapper frequented the desolateness of the low lying rim of the lake country. Now and then some schooner driven by northeast gales, ran helpless upon a desolate point of sand curving out into the water, and the sailor dead were washed upon the sands to find burial there. Fevers decimated the squatter families that settled there, and the chill winds of winter marooned them on wastes of sand.
Zirngibl Bought Squatter’s Claim.
An old squatter named Johns held squatter claims to forty acres of this marshy point when Andreas Zirngibl, a German immigrant, bought the squatter acres for $100 in gold. Here the elder Zirngibl lived the life of the hunter and trapper and fisherman, bringing up his sons and daughters. Swamp fever swept the colony in 1858 and Andreas Zirngibl, a victim, was buried almost in his own dooryard.
In the years that had gone before other dead had been buried thick about him. The Pottawattomies had dedicated the ground to their fallen; the sailor dead, washed in by the white breakers, hav=d been buried there where the seas cast them up. All around him were graves of scores of squatter dead. At the death of Zirngibl his family moved into Chicago, leaving a tenant named Maragartz in the squatter cabin.
According to evidence in after litigation, the great fire of 1871 served to loss the Zirngibl to the knowledge of the old tenant. Records of deeds were lost and documents and transfers turned to ashes. Taxes on the squatter claim lapsed, and the Zirngibl heirs waited upon the issuance of new deeds that never were issued. An attorney employed to follow up the claim ran away with a French actress, taking with him $7=85 as a retainer.
Fir years the land lay, shunned by the superstitions. Then as Chicago evolved and as the Calumet river region awoke, the Calumet and Chicago Canal and Dock company, active in that region bought up a tax title to the Zirngibl tract, among others and began suit to establish title. Then it was, in the ’80’s, that the Zirngibl heirs began a contest in the courts.
Squatters Lose Chief Points.
It was the old fight for squatter sovereignty, waged with all the bitterness with which such fights are fought. Through the Circuit Court and to the Supreme Court of Illinois the case was taken. Old men and old women, seemed and bent by the hard life of the squatters, were brought in as witnesses. Stories conflicted and stories coincided. But in the Supreme Court of Illinois a fine point at law was brought out and decided adversely to the Zirngibls.
The old cabin in which Maragartz had lived as protecting tenant for the Zirngibl claim had been burned. Maragartz was dead. Only the grave of old Andreas Zirngibl and a questioned signboard, “No Trespassing Here,” were brought into evidence oif the Zirngibl claim.
Summing up the evidence, the Supreme court decided that all title of the Zirngibl to the original squatter tract was forfeited through lapse of time and the nonpayment of taxes. But in respect to the dead squatter, it was decided that the thirty-six square-feet of ground railed in around the grave should remain inviolate forever; that heirs of the dead man forever should have the right to ingress and egress from this plot, to keep the railing intact and decorate the old man’s last resting place as they would.
Commercialism Halted by Grave.
So today, in the midst of a tract of bare ground, thirty-five acres in extent and valued at $700,000 at least, this white-railed grave of the old trapper holds out against the inroads of commercialism. On the wooden railing which protects the pedestrian from stepping from the high wooden sidewalk on the Ewing avenue side of the tract is the sign,
For Sale by the Calumet and Chicago Canal and Dock Company,
9233 Commercial Avenue.
But a grave in perpetuity on such a site is not a commercial proposition. Perpetual rights of ingress and egress are not encouraging to the modern great industry which walls its plant against the public and stations guards at the gateways. Corresponding lands east of the Illinois Steel company’s railroad lines were sold to the Iroquois Iron company on the oasis of 50 cents a square foot. On this basis the grave of old Andreas Zirngiblis worth just $16. What it might be worth in final settlement with the heirs is problematical. When the Canal and Dock company a few years ago offered to purchase a burial lot in Oakwoods, remove the body to it, and enter into an agreement to care for the plot forever, the offer was refused.
Altogether the situation probably is unique in the history of American cities. Thirty-six dollars’ worth of land has been holding out against $700,000 worth of real estate that one day must be almost necessary to the development of industrial South Chicago.
Heirs of old Andreas Zirngibl—half a dozen of them—are listed in the Chicago directory. One son, a painter, keeps the picket fence and the pine headstone immaculate against the influence of the weather. Occasionally on Memorial day a few pilgrims representing the Zirngibl family make their way from the city and lay flowers on the low mound. Some of these heirs hold all the bitterness with which the fight was made in the courts. It is told of them that they once were offered $10,000 for relinquishment of claims to the burial place and that they refused.
Whatever the future, today the ashes of old Andreas Zirngibl are holding out in the spirit of grim invincibility which marked the stolid, silent old trapper to the memory of those living few who knew him.
Chicago Tribune, February 11, 1911
If the Great Lakes Docks and Dredge company obtains a little strip of land near the mouth of the Calumet river, it will have to pay the price the owners’ demand. A suit attacking the title of the strip, which is held by heirs of Andreas Zirngibl, Chicago pioneer, was dismissed last week by the Supreme court, and the grave of the old Dutch fisherman with its crude wooden monument will continue unmolested until the heirs are ready to sell.
Zirngibl originally owned eighty acres of what is now regarded as one of the most valuable dock sites on Lake Michigan. Little by little it was disposed of until only the plot surrounding his grave remains.
On either side of the strip are big mills, and every available foot of space in the neighborhood has been sought for industrial purposes. The Zirngibl grave will not just yet give way to the march of commercial progress.
Chicago Tribune, March 4, 1928
The question is often asked by passing motorists, observing the slab and white picket fence at 93d street and Ewing avenue. The marker, in German reads:
“Andreas Zirngibl, born 1797, died 1855. Here rests his ashes. Amen.” Zirngibl, an arm fighting in Blucher’s army against Napoleon. Later he came to America. Reaching Chicago, he followed the curve of the lake southward to build his cabin and catch fish. T his death he was buried, as he wished, on his land. The family scattered, taxes were neglected, the court record was lost in the Chicago fire, industry came, and, out of it, Zirngibl’s heirs b=have been left the right to protect his resting place for all times.
Chicago Tribune, October 29, 1939
By Eleanor Ireland Barker
Only a fisherman buried here.
Envied by men more favored than he.
Tho his surroundings are factories drear,
Peaceful he rests for eternity.
None to this ground has any more right;
His mortal shell neath the marker lies.
The steel mills glow for his altar light,
While man made din drowns the seagulls’ cries.
Perhap[s he laughs, from some twinkling star,
Knowing mere money his grave can’t buy;
But seeing how smoke and soot may mar
The spot once loved, he heaves a sigh,
Thinking how molehills or mountains now;
Tombs for the dead; a path for a cow.
The Zirngibl Plot
Chicago Tribune, September 10, 1954
BY THOMAS MORROW
ANDREAS VON ZIRNBIBL, with one arm and the aid of the Supreme court, has held off all who would disturb his rest for 99 years.’
His grave is out there in the sand and gravel yard of the Material Service Corporation, 9331 Ewing av. It is surrounded by a white picket fence, and the marker has this to say:
Andreas von Zirngibl.
Born March 30, 1797.
Died August 21, 1855.
A veteran iof the 1815 battle of Waterloo.
Here rest his ashes.
Now, apparently Zirngibl is content, because he has never said anything or argued with the truck drivers. There is no record that he has even voted in the last 90 years, which shows a certain laxness by both parties of the 10th ward.
Once, Zirngibl was a soldier in Blucher’s army, and, by all accounts, a pretty fair fighting man. He had an off day against Napoleon, tho, even tho his boss was able to take down the heavy end of the purse.
Zirngibl was wounded. Eventually his left arm had to be amputated.
Zirngibl looked around one day, and said:
I guess I will go to the United States.
With Zirngibl, to think was to act, and presently, here he was in the United States in 1854.
He drifted out to Chicago; had some trouble getting work with only one arm. Zirngibl said:
Well, I believe I shall to go 93d st. and Ewing av., where there are some fish in the Calumet river and Lake Michigan and maybe I shall catch some of these fish.
As the traffic was not as bad then, he did not have much trouble getting out there. He took $100, bought 44 acres of land with it, and began to catch fish at a great rate.
Presently, Zirngibl got a misery. So he called his son, and said, pointing, which is said not to be very good manners. “Right there is where I wish to be buried,” and the son said, “O.K., papa.” And that is where he is buried, altho his son waited for Zirngibl to die before he took this action.
There was a deed to the 44 acres, but along came the Chicago fire and this document was burned. No one thought it made much difference, as the land was not worth much.
As the years went by, however, it got to be worth a lot of money, and corporations went to court. The Supreme court handed down a verdict, and the Zirngibl heirs ended up with five acres, right in the middle of which was the grave.
For years the heirs refused to sell. Finally they did.
There was a stipulation, however. This held that Zirngibl’s grave should not be disturbed without consent of the heirs. It also held that no one should build above Zirngibl unless there was consent of their heirs. There was one more legal admonition—a road was to be kept open to thye grave.
Until 1947, descendants of the German warrior used to fetch flowers come Memorial day. It is said, however, that no one has been to see Zirngibl for some time.
It is not likely that he cares much, tho.
Chicago Tribune, May 31, 1999
By Sean Callahan
SPECIAL TO THE TRIBUNE
On the Southeast Side of Chicago, a long·dead soldier’s bones will spend this Memorial Day as they
do every day: sutrounded by stacks of flattened cars and mounds of rusted pipe.
Andreas von Zirngibl, who fought Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, lies beneath a concrete slab in a scrap yard at 9331 S. Ewing Ave. It is a dangerous place to be dead: Last month a wayward crane shattered von Zirngibl’s headstone.
Louie Escobedo, 38, who works for Scrap Processing Inc., was manning the crane that day and accidentally
turned the tombstone into a granite jigsaw puzzle.
The cracked tombstone is only the latest indignity to befall von Zirngibl, who has been dead since 1855. The peculiar and sprawling tale of\ his grave site is one of industrialization, court battles and precious few moments of resting in peace.
Andreas von Zirngibl didn’t plan on spending eternity where cars go to die. He was born in Bavaria on March 30, 1797, according to his tomb·stone and the popular legend that has sprung up about his life. At 18. von Zirngibl joined Marshal Gebhard von Blucher’s Pruss ian forces. He fought in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, helping defeat Napoleon but losing an arm in the process.
In Bavaria, he made a living on the Danube River as a fisherman before immigrating to America in 1853. With his wife and five children, he arrived in Chicago in the summer of 1854, when it was a town of 50.000 people. Later that year. his descendants have said, he bought about 40 acres of marshy land near the mouth of the Calumet River for $160 in gold. He built a shanty on the land and fished Lake Michigan.
On Aug. 21, 1855, von Zirngibl died of a fever. It is said that he made one final request: to be bur·
ied on his homestead. Although his family moved to the North Side shortly after his death, von Zirngibl’s widow and children saw that his grave was kept clean. They fashioned a wooden marker for the site, built a white picket fence around it and made regular visits for dozens of years.
Most of thi s story is told through the claims made by von Zirngibl’s descendants – 40 years after his death – in the case of Zirngibl vs. Calumet and Chicago Canal and Dock Co. In this 1895 Illinois Supreme Court case, the Zirngibls, who had apparently dropped the “von,” argued that the company had usurped their land and their ancestor’s grave site. The family said its deed for property had been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871
A story of big business cheating an immigrant family out of its land teemed with populist appeal,
and the late Mike Royko even included the story in a 1967 column about industrialization in the Chicago Daily News. The problem is that parts of the tale and no one can tell which parts may be fabricated, according to Rod Sellers, a Washington High School social studies teacher and South Side history buff.
“It may have been a scam,” he says. “My reading of it is that he [von ZirngiblJ was probably a squatter.”
Justice David J. Baker, who wrote the court’s opinion, cast a jaundiced eye at the Zirngibls’ claims. For instance, he accused George Zirngibl. a son of Andreas von Zirngibl. of lying on the stand. “We fear that his cupidity has unduly jogged his memory,” he wrote. The judge also noted the tardiness of the Zirngibls’ claim.
“It is remarkable,” Baker wrote, “that during the years that they saw the forty acres change from an almost valueless swamp to a tract of land worth a million of dollars [sic], they made no attempt
to … profit from it.”
Perhaps most damaging to the Zirngibls’ claim of ownership was evidence that scores of other bodies
were bw-ied on the land. One witness, albeit 40 years after the fact, testified that von Zirngibl had actually died in Whiting, Ind., and that his sons took him to the mouth of the Calumet to be buried.
Nonetheless, Baker did recognize the Zirngibls’ dedication to the one-armed soldier’s grave site. In the end, the court ruled that the land belonged to Cal umet and Chicago Canal and Dock, but awarded “to the widow and heirs the grave and the ground within the fence that encloses it, with the right of access to and egress from it.”
The ruling ensured that any future owner of the land would have a property that was part cemetery.
Scrap Processing, owned by Cozzi Iron & Metal Inc., is only the latest in a long line of industrial
operations that have owned the site. For most of this century, concrete mixers, dump trucks and
all sorts of industrial machinery have rumbled past von Zirngibl’s grave.
In 1987 the Southeast Historical Society, with the help of Henry Zirngibl, a descendant of Andreas
von Zirngibl, raised money to repair the rundown grave. The group placed a large concrete slab over the site and added a new granite headstone with an inscription that read, in part:
A veteran of 1816 Battle of Waterloo
even though the battle took place in 1815. Around the gravesite, the Southeast Historical Society
placed four massive concrete blocks.
But they weren’t enough to prevent Escobedo from smashing the tombstone with the magnet dangling from his crane.
“I was on the opposite side of the gravestone,” recalls Escobedo, who says he still feels awful about
the mishap. “It was hard for me to see what I was grabbing. I picked up some scrap pipes and
they hit against some other pipes. The magnet twisted around and it tapped the tombstone.”
Charlie Fritz, Scrap Processing’s yard manager, says the company will pay for a replacement\ marker, which may cost as much as $3,600. The new gravestone should be ready in a few weeks, he says. Bill Shemerdiak, who works for Cozzi Iron & Metals, thinks it’s only right for the company to pay for a new tombstone. “I think it’s out of respect that we’ve got to do that,” he says
Scrap Processing allows tours to visit von Zirngibl’s grave site, and it keeps a stack of hard hats on hand for visitors. Wilson Patterson, who has worked at the scrap yard for nearly 20 years, has dragged family members out to the yard to prove he wasn’t lying about its unique attraction. He views himself as the grave’s caretaker.
“I tell people,” Patterson says, “‘Don’t mess with my friend.'”
LEFT: The marker after a crane operator accidentally broke it.
RIGHT: Andreas von Zirngibl’s resting place, protected by concrete barriers, lies amid stacked metal at Scrap Processing Inc. in 1999.