By the middle of the 19th century, Chicago had gone from being a doomed military outpost on the fringes of the American frontier to a swiftly expanding city. The daily arrivals of immigrants to the city added to the population boom. Seeing that the people needed a place to gather and enjoy the outdoors, the Lincoln Park commissioners established Lincoln Park. A public park for the citizens to gather and have picnics. To add to the beauty of the new park, the commissioners accepted a gift of two swans from the city of New York in 1868. These swans were the first animals in what would become Lincoln Park Zoo.
Thirty years earlier when Illinois incorporated Chicago in 1837, the city set apart a large piece of land for use as a burial ground. For sixteen years, 1843-1859, the land served as Chicago City Cemetery. This included family plots, a Potter’s field for the poor, as well as Jewish and Catholic cemeteries. Thousands of people’s mortal remains were buried in what would eventually become Lincoln Park. The cemetery also included hundreds of people who died from an outbreak of Cholera.
Over time more and more cholera victims were being buried in the cemetery and the people of Chicago feared an even greater outbreak of the deadly disease. They were concerned the decomposing bodies would taint the city’s only drinking water supply, Lake Michigan. Something had to be done before more people died.
The city officials heard the concern of the people and decided to move the bodies as far away from the lake as possible. Unfortunately, they had two things working against them. One, they only had a ten man crew to move thousands of bodies, an insurmountable task for such a small group of laborers. Secondly, when the great Chicago fire of 1871 nearly burned the city to the ground, the fire destroyed the grave markers in the old cemetery. The only one left was the Couch family memorial, a tomb you can still see today.
As the city struggled to rebuild, attention once again turned to the cemetery. With the destruction of the grave markers no one could venture a guess where all the bodies were buried. So, city officials decided to ignore the problem and began to rebuild the area over the graves of thousands of bodies. They were convinced no one would ever know that those bodies were never moved.
Today, the neighborhood of Lincoln Park and Lincoln Park Zoo, is a favorite of both Chicagoans and people from the suburbs. The zoo is well known worldwide for its collection of animals, it’s conservatory with hundreds of plants and flowers, and breathtaking views of the city. Nevertheless, visitors to the zoo are unaware that the zoo was built upon the graves of hundreds of people. Furthermore, they are unaware that the zoo is one of the most haunted places in the city.
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Over the years, there have been several reports of people encountering ghosts throughout the zoo. Both staff and guests have witnessed apparitions dressed in attire from the 19th century wandering around. Several eyewitnesses have watched as these apparitions suddenly appear and then fade away.
One of these ghosts, a woman in a period dress, is seen near the lion house by the main entrance. People who have witnessed the mysterious woman have commented that she appears to be completely oblivious of her surroundings. She has also been seen in the women’s restroom in the lion house. Many female visitors have fled the restroom upon seeing the reflection of the ghost in the mirror.
At night, after all the crowds go home and the animals settle down, the dead take over the zoo. Lights in empty buildings are known to flicker on and off and doors inexplicably slam when no one is around.
It would also seem that the ghosts are not shy in making their presence known. EVPs with mysterious voices have been recorded, along with pictures of strange fogs, unexplained lights and even full bodied apparitions. As a haunted location, Lincoln Park Zoo does not disappoint the paranormal enthusiast.
It’s commonly accepted the ghosts encountered at the zoo are the long dead souls of the people still buried under the park. However, there just may be another explanation for the hauntings. In 1894, a sightseeing bridge was constructed 40 feet over a lagoon. During its history, it’s believed that 50-100 people ended their lives by jumping from the bridge. The suicides became such a nuisance, the bridge was closed in 1919. It is possible some of these ghosts are the souls of the people who committed the desperate act of leaping to their deaths a century ago.
Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo is open daily and takes in tens of thousands of visitors each year. At night tours are given exploring the paranormal history of the zoo, as well as Lincoln Park’s past as a cemetery. Lincoln Park Zoo is a favorite of every Chicagoan, living and dead.
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