On the last day of my April 2016 adventure to Nebraska, Christi and I crossed the Missouri River to visit Fairview Cemetery in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The views from Fairview are quite impressive.
So why am I devoting an entire blog post to two people who aren’t even buried at Fairview? The legend of the Black Angel has tantalized Iowa residents for years and is well worth sharing. Iowa actually has TWO Black Angels, one right next to Fairview Cemetery and a different one in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City (which I haven’t had a chance to visit yet).
On the way up to Fairview, we saw a monument commemorating the 1858 visit of Abraham Lincoln (before he became President) to Council Bluffs. His main goal was to see some property that a friend was offering as collateral toward a loan he hoped to obtain from Lincoln.
But with his reputation already strong as a powerful figure and orator, Lincoln’s old friends and new ones who wanted to spend time with him turned his visit into more than just a few days. While he was there, he met Grenville M. Dodge and his wife, Annie, at a reception. Dodge would later join the Union Army and reach the rank of Major General.
A native of Massachusetts, Grenville Dodge was born in 1831. In 1851, he graduated from Norwich University with a degree in civil engineering. For the next decade, he was involved in surveying for railroads, including the Union Pacific. Dodge served with distinction during the Civil War and was also heavily involved in military intelligence. After the war, he became the Union Pacific’s chief engineer and a leading figure in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.
But it was was his wife, Ruth Anne “Annie” Dodge, that figures more prominently in my story. Dodge’s first job was surveying for the Illinois Central Railroad in Peru, Ill. It was during this time in Peru that he met Annie. Although she played piano, and enjoyed opera and poetry, Annie could ride a horse and shoot a gun as well as Dodge.
On May 28, 1854, the couple married. The Dodges moved to Nebraska Territory, where they tried homesteading on his Elkhorn River claim. Indian attacks on settlers caused them to move to Omaha by the fall. Daughter Lettie was born there in 1855. In 1856, the family moved to Council Bluffs. Their second daughter, Ella, was born there in 1858. Third daughter Anne was born in 1866.
After the war, the Dodges built a new home at 605 Third Street in Council Bluffs. Between 1860 and 1870, their wealth increased from $12,000 to $350,000.
The Dodges spent much of the later 1870s through the 1890s in Manhattan, New York as Grenville’s engineering expertise took him around the world. They retired to Council Bluffs in 1907 and Dodge worked on his memoirs. Grenville Dodge died of cancer in January 1916 and was buried in Walnut Hill Cemetery in Council Bluffs.
Annie died in September that same year and was buried beside her beloved Grenville at Walnut Hill. Daughters Ella and Anne contacted famed sculptor Daniel Chester French to create a memorial statue to honor their mother. French is best known for his statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial. He created many memorial sculptures in his lifetime that grace cemeteries today, including Atlanta’s Westview Cemetery.
French completed the statue in 1918 and it was dedicated in 1920, just outside of Fairview Cemetery.
Why did the Dodge sisters have the statue placed just outside Fairview and not at Walnut Hill where their parents are buried? I don’t know the answer to that.
The bronze statue aged over time and took on a dark black cast. As a result, French’s statue became known as the Black Angel.
The inspiration for the Black Angel came from Annie herself. Before she died, Annie had a dream. While standing on a rocky shoreline, she saw an old boat come out of the mist. In the prow of the boat, a beautiful woman whom Annie guessed was an angel stood holding a small bowl overflowing with water.
“Drink,” the angel said. “I bring you both a promise and a blessing.”
Annie chose not to. She later told her daughter, Anne, “I felt unworthy, and it seemed to me it would be presumption on my part to partake of anything so wonderfully pure, so heavenly, so spiritual.”
The angel appeared to Annie in a dream a second time. Again, she chose not to drink. When the angel came to her a third time, she accepted the offer. After drinking from the bowl, Mrs. Dodge felt that she had been “transformed into a new and glorious spiritual being.”
“I drank of that wonderful water of life and it gave me immortality,” she said to Anne.
Annie died shortly after her third dream of the angel.
According to an Omaha World-Herald article, nobody knows for sure when or why the memorial became shrouded in legend. As early as 1975, a World-Herald reader complained that a recent article had misrepresented the statue as a grim characterization of the Angel of Death.
Some have said the Angel comes to life after sundown and, borne by her powerful wings, flies around the graves. Others claim she shoots jets of fire from her eyes when the clock strikes midnight. Others recount the curse of her stare — look into her eyes at midnight, they say, and prepare for an early demise.
Kori Nelson, executive director of the Historic General Dodge House and a Council Bluffs native, knows all about the legends. She’s heard the vague warnings against meeting the angel’s gaze or touching her outstretched hand.
“It’s just a statue with a fountain. I mean, that’s really all it is,” she said. “I think it’s our job to put out the story of what actually is true.”
Over the years, the statue became a target for vandalism and graffiti. The bronze developed a dark patina (thus the Black Angel name). Water stopped flowing from the bowl in 1960.
In 1984, restoration efforts began. Since then, security measures have been installed to discourage vandals. Motion-activated cameras photograph late-night visitors. I read that an audio system warns against trespassing. There was no water flowing when we were there.
I don’t view Annie’s Angel as a dark force at all. I like to think of her as perhaps carrying the essence of Annie, bringing a ray of light and hope to the world she left behind. I’m glad I was able to see her.
Next week, I’ll be back at Fairview and sharing stories of the people (actually) buried there.