The Sudden Freeze of 1836

An unexplained nineteenth-century weather event froze livestock in their tracks and drove some pioneers to take extreme measures to escape a similar fate.

An obscure historical weather event blew through central Illinois in the 1830s known as the “Sudden Freeze.” It appeared without warning on December 20, 1836. The weather had been relatively warm in the proceeding days, and a light rain turned the snow to slush. In the early afternoon, a dark cloud traveling about 25-30 mph descended from the northwest “accompanied by a roaring noise.”

What happened next was described by William H. Perrin in his History of Coles County, Illinois (1879):

As it passed over the country, everything was frozen in its track almost instantly. Water that was running in little gullies or in the streams was suddenly arrested in its career, blown into eddies and small waves by the wind, and frozen before it could subside. Cattle, horses, hogs and wild animals exposed to its fury were soon chilled through and many frozen in their tracks. Where a few moments before they walked in mud and slush, was now frozen, and unless moving about they were frozen fast.

In some instances where individuals were exposed to the fury of this wave and unable to reach shelter, their lives were lost. One man was found afterward standing frozen in the mud, dead, and still holding the rein of his horse in his hand. He had apparently become bewildered and chilled, and freezing fast in the mud and slush, remained standing.

History of Coles County, Illinois, pages 339-340.

There are several stories of pioneers who were unfortunately caught outside and instantly froze to death. According to History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois (1876) by John C. Power, in the western part of Douglas County near the border of Piatt and Moultrie counties, “two brothers by the name of Deeds had gone out to cut a bee tree, and were overtaken by the cold and frozen to death. Their bodies were found ten days later, about three miles from home.”

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The Phantom Lady of Kennedy Hill Road

In January 1981, motorists parked their cars along a narrow rural road in frigid temperatures to catch a glimpse of a scantily-clad phantom.

It was a few weeks before Christmas, 1980. Kim Anderson turned down Kennedy Hill Road and headed for home after attending church early Sunday morning. Snow drifted across the country road and ice glistened on the barren fields. Without warning, she noticed a young woman, around the same age as she, walking down the road toward her driveway. The woman had long, blonde hair, and strangely, wore a pair of light colored shorts.

Kim pulled her car into her driveway and ran into the house. She threw open the curtains on the front room window to see if the woman was going to come up the driveway. She didn’t. Instead, she continued walking toward Byron. Kim didn’t think much of the encounter after that, until she began to hear the rumors.

Between mid-December and early January, dozens of people reported seeing a young woman in various stages of dress walking down Kennedy Hill Road. By January 20, 1981, the sightings had reached a fevered pitch. Wild reports circulated around Ogle County, and motorists parked their cars in the frigid temperatures along the narrow rural road to catch a glimpse of what became known as “The Phantom Lady of Kennedy Hill Road.” Newspaper reports reached as far away as Chicago, and the Rockford Register Star ran five consecutive articles on the sightings.

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Weeping Woman of Seventh Avenue’s Dead End

Legends speak of a ghostly woman who wanders the railroad tracks beyond the Seventh Avenue dead end, searching for her missing children.

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Around the dinner table after a hard day’s work, the residents of Sterling, Illinois have been known to whisper about deaths along the nearby railroad tracks and banks of the Rock River. These deaths have occasionally left behind ghosts, the most famous of which is a weeping woman who wanders the tracks just beyond the Seventh Avenue dead end, searching for her missing children.

The City of Sterling was incorporated in February 1857 and is located across the Rock River from the town of Rock Falls. These twin cities are connected by the First Avenue Bridge. Sterling has long been a center of industry in the area, ever since the Union Pacific Railroad, the oldest railroad network in the United States, came through in 1856. Businesses like Northwestern Steel & Wire, Franz Manufacturing, and National Manufacturing followed at the turn of the century. Consequently, the city was once called the hardware capital of the world.

Over the years, the twin life-sources of Sterling—the railroad and the Rock River—have occasionally become a curse rather than a blessing. Some do not respect the silent power of the river and succumb to its undertow. Others, mainly children, have innocently wandered to their doom while playing on the bluffs along the river.

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Old Union Cemetery’s Ethereal Glow

A forgotten graveyard squirreled away in the cornfields of central Illinois makes for good storytelling, and almost all have their ghostly tales. Old Union is no exception. This cemetery first received attention on Troy Taylor’s website, Prairieghosts.com, and he later included it in Weird Illinois (2005).

Though he failed to disclose its location, Old Union Cemetery is clearly marked on cemetery and plat maps available to the general public through the DeWitt County Genealogical Society.

A history of the cemetery is difficult to find, and several sources appear, at first glance, to be fractional or contradictory. Troy Taylor provided a general overview on his website, but Genealogytrails.com, in an excerpt from an article entitled, “The Disciples of Christ History,” filled in some of the details.

According to the article, Old Union Church was established 10 miles west of Clinton on October 13, 1831 near a large, white oak tree. The stump of the tree, and “the gravestones of the cemetery which grew around the house of worship” are “silent sentinels of faded joys and departed glories,” the article opined.

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Tragedy and Lore of Death Curve

At this rural lane’s unassuming curve, a murderess committed “one of the most dastardly deeds that has ever occurred in Henry County.”

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Less than a mile outside of Cambridge, Illinois sits Timber Ridge Road. As motorists travel west along Timber Ridge, they encounter a sharp curve marked by a Mulberry tree and an old, rustic fence that divides two cornfields. This bucolic scene hides a dark history, a history that few would remember if it were not for the ghost stories.

In 1896, Julia Johnson married a man named Clarence B. Markham, and the young couple settled on a farm in Andover Township outside of Cambridge. In nine years of marriage, Julia Markham gave birth to seven children, an average of one every 15 months. There were four girls and three boys, aged from between five months to eight and a half years.

On the morning of Saturday September 30, 1905, while her husband labored in a neighboring field, Mrs. Markham, to quote the Cambridge Chronicle, “committed one of the most dastardly deeds that has ever occurred in Henry County.”

At around 11 o’clock, Julia sent her two eldest children to a nearby spring to retrieve water. While they were gone, she took an ax and swung it at the heads of her five youngest, killing them instantly. When her eldest returned, she dealt with them the same way.

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Ridge Cemetery and Mysterious Williamsburg Hill

Williamsburg Hill is the highest point in Shelby County, Illinois and is accessible by 1100 E, a road that horseshoes around the tiny community of Cold Spring. Visitors can pick up 1100 E just west of Tower Hill on Route 16, and it will lead them straight to the hill and its cemetery. Due to its unsavory reputation, this is a place many locals avoid.

As far as I can tell, Troy Taylor was the first person to write extensively on the strange legends of Ridge Cemetery and Williamsburg Hill. He included them in a number of books, including Haunted Illinois (2001), Haunted Decatur Revisited (2000), and Beyond the Grave (2001).

As Taylor explained, the hill that Ridge Cemetery occupies once also sheltered a town, one of the many that sprung up and disappeared in nineteenth-century Illinois. Williamsburg, as it was known, was platted in 1839 by two men, Thomas Williams and William Horsman. Many Horsmans can be found buried in Ridge Cemetery to this very day. The village disappeared in the 1880s as the railroad bypassed its inconvenient location.

The legends surrounding Ridge Cemetery involve occult rituals, spook lights, and the ghost of an old man who disappears upon approach. “There is little evidence to suggest these stories are true,” Taylor wrote, “but once such rumors get started, they are hard to stop.”

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Axeman’s Bridge in Crete, Illinois

There is nothing peculiar about the concrete bridge along Old Post Road two miles east of Crete, Illinois. If a motorist were to drive past, over the trickling waters of Plum Creek on a pleasant summer day, not much would alert this passerby to the Axeman’s gruesome story.

In the woods a few yards to the northeast, however, sits a rickety steel bridge, collapsed into the water. It is tagged with graffiti. For years, local teens imagined this was the scene of a gruesome ax murder. The remains of a home hidden in the trees and the closure of the road leading to the steel bridge have only fueled the legend.

Although landmarks set the stage for this story, the exact history of the area is difficult to determine. According to John Drury’s photographic history, This is Will County, Illinois (1955), David Harner was the first white settler of Crete Township, and a large contingent of ethnic Germans followed.

Early in Will County history, the thick timberland along Plum Creek was called Beebe’s Grove. It was named after Minoris Beebe, who arrived in 1834 along with David Harner. According to an old county plat map, a man named William Vocke owned the property around Axeman’s Bridge in 1909. I have been unable to determine when this bridge closed.

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