Gary Hawkins (photo left) is a computer technician who knows how to catch a ghost. Yes, he boldly claims that he knows how to snatch one by the limbs, and make them screech, howl and fight until he decides to let them go. Hawkins sure gets plenty of practice too, because he resides in one of the most haunted places in America: Alton, Illinois. Hawkins also gives folks tours of Alton, which is located roughly 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, my mind was unrealistically set up to see ghosts at every turn, but as I would soon learn, ghosts or no ghosts, it’s the stories about them that reflect the history of this area.
It’s not surprising that the spooks call this place home en masse, and have the potential of appearing to anyone at anytime at any place. It is said that limestone, which is a building material that’s been used in many Alton dwellings because of its supply nearby, holds psychic energy. And the fact that the Illini Indians once dominated this place along with the nearby convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers which brought in many different personalities to Alton over the centuries mixes the perfect brew for being a ghostly paradise!
It was a perfect summer evening without any humidity in this Midwestern town as we ventured around the city of Alton with Mr. Hawkins, for what he deemed a Gilligan’s Island-like “three-hour tour”. The air had a bit of a calm but macabre thickness to it.
One of the real watermark periods of Alton was during the Civil War. A Confederate prison was established here during the war and its chilling legacy lives on today through the countless ghost sightings. This is the result of a raging smallpox epidemic that went through the prison beginning in 1863, and continued on into the next year. It killed six to ten victims a day, including Union soldiers, according to Hawkins. By the time it was over, more than 1350 perished (possibly as much as 2200 total), but 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, that being a section of the wall that leads to a paved parking lot.
Our tour guide and “city historian” Hawkins drove us further on up a hill to a property that overlooked the dreadful prison. Today, it still offers a grand view of the Mississippi River. I got out of the touring vehicle to see the view, and immediately heard shrieks, but to my dismay, I was only being haunted by two large dogs who got loose from the property next door. Their owner assured me I’d be safe. This property is known as the Mitchell Mansion (photo above), owned by two brothers who actually rented out the land the prison was on. They didn’t care about the plight of the Rebels nor the soldiers guarding them, only for the money they received in rent payments. As a result, and to this very day, reported ghostly sightings occur of a Confederate soldier who dismounts from his horse that is tied to the hitching post in front of the Mitchell home stands looking at the house.
We headed down Hop Hollow (photo left), which is another venue of macabre history. Miscreant Union soldiers sometimes got the duty of transporting dead Confederates to the nearby cemetery, but rather than do their job, they often dumped the bodies in the woods of the hollow, spending the rest of their work assignment time drinking and playing cards. Ghosts of these dead men have been seen in this area by many.
At the cemetery itself (photo below), I experienced some strange vibes. As pictured, there is currently only one marked grave and no matter where people walk, they are probably walking over some dead soldier. Hawkins, who’s lived in Alton since 1989, stated that he’s often seen black apparitions and soldiers in tattered clothing wandering around. Not even one American or Confederate flag can be currently found in this venue to honor the fallen, even though it’s a US Government Reservation.
For the rest of the evening, we visited more houses and learned about more ghostly appearances along with the history of the people who lived and visited Alton before they died. For instance, Abraham Lincoln spent some time in here, where one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates took place. Our tragic president came close to taking part in a duel that was finally cancelled on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River in 1842 (nearby). Part of the Underground Railroad was in Alton, too, at the Enos Apartments, where a riverboat captain and some slaves currently reside in spirit!
I would strongly suspect that if I spent even a few months in Alton, Illinois, I would see my share of spooks. But in one sense, Alton’s colorful history, which produced all the ghosts, makes the city quite memorable for me because of one local, Gary Hawkins, who has a real passion for his city’s history. It’s hauntingly infectious!
If You Go:
To find out more about the historical and ghostly tour of Alton, go to Antoinette’s Haunted History Tours (www.hauntedalton.com) Mid-September through Mid-November tours (around the Halloween season) may be harder to come by, so book as soon as you can and have your cameras ready for what Hawkins also deems as a “Lucky 13 tour”, with at least 13 sites visited and at least three of those thirteen-plus being explored and discussed more in depth.
Before going out to seek ghosts, grab a bite to eat at Gentelin’s on Broadway. I savored some awesome-tasting Toasted Ravioli, an area delicacy which was invented in St. Louis. I took in some great views of the Mississippi River and the Clark Bridge (photo left, with author), which was actually modeled after Madonna lying on her back (you can tell when you see the bridge lit up at night!) – this according to Gary Hawkins. This restaurant emanates a rather festive-romantic atmosphere. Gentelin’s is on 122 E. Broadway and their phone number is 618-465-6080.
While seeking out spooks in this haunted Illinois town, I stayed at the Holiday Inn Alton. The beds are super comfortable. I fell asleep quite fast, even though I knew the area is full of spooks. You get free internet access for your laptops as well as a spacious work table. Their address is 3800 Homer Adams Parkway, Alton, Illinois 62002. 618-462-1220 or 800-972-3145. (www.holidayinn.com)
Alton Visitor Information: www.visitalton.com or call 800-ALTON-IL
All by Roy A. Barnes, with the exception of the Gary Hawkins photo, used courtesy of the Alton Regional Convention & Visitor's Bureau.
Roy A. Barnes writes from southeastern Wyoming. During his lifetime, he's worked in the travel agent and airline industries, and has traveled on the North American, Asian, African, and European continents.