Gary Hawkins, a computer technician, says he knows how to catch a ghost. He boldly claims he can snatch one by the limbs, make it screech, howl and fight until he decides to let it go. Hawkins gets plenty of practice, too. He resides in one of the most haunted places in America: Alton, Illinois. Hawkins gives people tours of Alton; 25 miles north of downtown St. Louis. Part of this city of 30,000-plus residents has lined the shores of the Mississippi River since 1817. Knowing that Alton is purported to be one of the most haunted places in America, I was determined to see ghosts at every turn. As I would soon learn, though, it’s the stories that reflect the history of an area.
Spooks call this place home, and they have the potential of appearing at any time, to any person, at any location. It is said that limestone, a building material used in many Alton dwellings because of its supply nearby, holds psychic energy. The Illini Indians once dominated this place, along with the nearby convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. All this makes for a great ghostly paradise!
It was a perfect summer evening, no humidity. We ventured around the city with Mr. Hawkins, for what he described as a Gilligan's Island “three-hour tour”. The air was calm with a macabre thickness to it.
A watermark period in Alton's history occurred during the Civil War. A Confederate prison was established during the war; its chilling legacy lives on through the countless ghost sightings – result of a raging smallpox epidemic that went through the prison and lasted a year. It killed six to ten victims a day, including Union soldiers. By the time it was over, more than 1,350 perished (possibly as many as 2,200). These men can still be heard crying for food whenever homes north of the prison are hosting barbeques. Only a small fraction of the prison remains; the section of the wall that leads to a paved parking lot.
Hawkins, our guide and historian, drove us up a hill to a property that overlooks the prison; it offers a grand view of the Mississippi River. When I got out to look, right away, I heard shrieks – two large dogs had gotten loose. Their owner assured me my safety.
The Mitchell Mansion was owned by two brothers who rented out the land to the the prison. They weren't concerned about the plight of the Rebels or the soldiers guarding them, only about their rent money. To this day, sightings are reported of a Confederate ghost standing and looking at the house, dismounted from his horse that’s tied to the hitching post in front of the house.
We headed to Hop Hollow; another venue of macabre history. Miscreant Union soldiers often had the duty of transporting dead Confederates to the nearby cemetery. Rather than doing their job, they often dumped the bodies in the woods of the hollow, spending the rest of their work time drinking and playing cards. For these misdeeds, many people have seen ghosts in this area.
At the cemetery, I got some strange vibes. As pictured, there is only one marked grave. No matter where people walk, they’ll probably be over a dead soldier. Hawkins, who has lived in Alton since 1989, stated that he’s often seen black apparitions and soldiers in tattered clothing wandering around. Not one American or Confederate flag can be found to honor the fallen, even though it’s a government reservation.
For the rest of the evening, we dropped by more houses and learn about other ghostly appearances and the history of the people who lived there before they departed “dearly”. Ghosts weren’t the only topic discussed. Abraham Lincoln spent time in Alton; home of one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. President Lincoln came close to taking part in a duel that was finally cancelled on a nearby island in the middle of the Mississippi River in 1842. Part of the Underground Railroad was in Alton, too, at the Enos Apartments, where a riverboat captain and some slaves currently reside in spirit!
While searching for ghosts, I stayed at the Holiday Inn – free internet access. Their beds are super comfortable (I fell asleep quickly, rare for me when I'm away from home). If I spent a few months in Alton, I would more than likely see my share of spooks. In one sense, though, Alton’s colorful history, which produced all the ghosts, makes the city memorable for me because of a local who has a passion for his city’s history. It’s hauntingly infectious!
Roy’s Travel Tips
To get a colorfully historical and ghostly tour of Alton, go to Haunted Alton. Before searching for ghosts, grab a bite at Gentelin’s on Broadway. I savored the tasty Toasted Ravioli (an area delicacy invented in St. Louis). I took in some great views of the Mississippi River. The Clark Bridge was modeled after Madonna being on her back (you can tell when you see the bridge lit up).
Roy A. Barnes is a frequent contributor to Bootsnall.com. He haunts southeastern Wyoming when he’s not traveling. He also writes poetry and prose which have been published by The Goblin Reader, Skive Magazine, Literary Liftoff, e-clips, The Kids’ Ark, Skatefic.com and Poesia.