Gary Hawkins 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 gets plenty of practice, as he resides in one of the most haunted places in America: Alton, Illinois. He also puts his time to use giving folks tours of Alton, which is 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 spooks call this place home en masse, and have the potential of appearing to anyone at any time in any place.
It is said that limestone, which is used in many Alton dwellings because of its local supply, holds psychic energy.
The fact that the Illini Indians once dominated this place, along with the nearby convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, which brought to Alton many different personalities over the centuries, mixes the perfect brew for being a ghostly paradise.
It is a perfect summer evening in this Midwestern town as we venture around the city of Alton with Hawkins, for what he deems a Gilligan’s Island-like “three-hour tour”. The air has a bit of a calm but macabre thickness to it.
One of the real watermark periods of Alton was during the Civil War. A prison to retain Confederate soldiers was established here during the war and its chilling legacy lives on through the countless ghost sightings.
A smallpox epidemic raged through the prison in 1863 and continued into the next year. It killed six to 10 victims a day, including Union soldiers, according to Hawkins.
By the time it was over, more than 1,350 perished, with possibly thousands more undocumented, but Hawkins says these men can still be heard crying for food when homes north of the prison are hosting barbecues. Only a small fraction of the prison remains, being a section of the wall that leads to a paved parking lot.
Our guide and “city historian” drives us farther up a hill to a property that overlooks the dreadful prison. It still offers a grand view of the Mississippi River.
I get out of the touring vehicle to see the view, and immediately hear shrieks. To my dismay, I am only being haunted by two large dogs from next door.
This property, known as the Mitchell Mansion, was owned by two brothers who rented out the land the prison was on.
They supposedly didn’t care about the plight of the Rebels nor the soldiers guarding them, only for the money they received in rent payments.
To this day, reported sightings occur of a Confederate soldier standing and looking at the house, dismounted from his horse that’s tied to the hitching post in front of the Mitchell home.
We then head down Hop Hollow. Miscreant Union soldiers often got the duty of transporting dead Confederates to the nearby cemetery as punishment.
Rather than do their job, they often dumped the bodies in the woods of the hollow, spending the rest of their time drinking and playing cards. For these misdeeds, ghosts are often reported in this area.
At the Confederate Cemetery, there is only one marked grave, despite the many buried here. Hawkins, who’s lived in Alton since 1989, states that he’s often seen black apparitions and soldiers in tattered clothing wandering around.
Throughout the evening, we learn about more ghostly appearances and the history of the people who lived there before they departed “dearly”. But ghosts weren’t the only topic of discussion on our tour of Alton.
Abraham Lincoln spent some time in Alton, where one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates took place. Our former president also came close to taking part in a duel with James Shield on nearby Sunflower Island in the middle of the Mississippi River in 1842.
Part of the Underground Railroad was in Alton, too, with tunnels beneath the Enos Apartment Building, where a riverboat captain and some slaves currently reside in spirit.
I strongly suspect that if I spent a few months here, I would see my share of spirits.
However, Alton’s colorful history itself makes the city quite memorable. It’s hauntingly infectious!
If You Go
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 the 13-plus being explored and discussed more in depth.
Haunted Alton Ghost Tours
Alton Visitor Information
Roy A. Barnes is a past contributor to Go World Travel and 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.