Illinois’ Decade of Lost Legends

Over the past ten to fifteen years, Illinois has lost nearly a dozen historic (and allegedly haunted) places to development and disaster. Some, like Alonzi’s Villa in Brookfield, the Lindbergh School on Shoe Factory Road in Hoffman Estates, and Sacred Heart Chapel at Barat College in Lake Forest, were destroyed to make way for real estate development. Others, like Sunset Haven outside Carbondale, were destroyed to erase the building (and its notorious reputation) from public memory.

The Lindbergh School on Shoe Factory Road in Hoffman Estates was genuinely a historic landmark known for its unique architecture and its significance to local history, regardless of its ghost stories. For years, preservationists tried desperately to save the building from the chopping block. Unfortunately, in 2007, bulldozers knocked it down to make way for yet another subdivision, just before the housing bubble burst and real estate values plummeted.

Sunset Haven, located on the periphery of Carbondale, Illinois and owned by Southern Illinois University, was a longtime destination for legend tripping in southern Illinois. It was originally the Jackson County Poor Farm almshouse became known as Sunset Haven during the 1940s when it was converted into a nursing home. The nursing home closed in 1957 and Southern Illinois University purchased the property to expand its agricultural program. Around October 26, 2013, a crew from SIU demolished Sunset Haven, leaving nothing but a cement foundation.

White Hall at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois was demolished in 2015. Chanute Air Force Base opened in July 1917. After its closure in 1993, much of the base was divided into residential and commercial properties, but most of the core buildings remain abandoned. Inevitably, local kids exploring the abandoned parts of the base began to bring home unusual stories, particularly regarding White Hall. The building was ruled an environmental hazard and too costly to renovate.

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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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Ramsey Cemetery’s Harrowing Casbah

Southern Illinois has a far more diverse topography than the rest of the state. Situated at the gateway to Little Egypt, Ramsey Cemetery in Effingham County is no exception. Its claim to fame is the nearby “caves” or rock shelters. Formed by thousands of years of erosion, generations of local residents have carved their names and proclamations of love into the sandstone walls.

Back in 2002, the Shadowlands Index of Haunted Places labeled it “Kazbar Cemetery.” The entry described it as an “old cemetery that has haunted caves.” Eschewing details, it added, “a were wolf and a man in a black coat with red eyes is said to be seen there. Many weird things have happened there.” Kazbar, or Casbah, seems to be a local place name.

Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk uncovered more information for The Illinois Road Guide to Haunted Locations (2007).

One story they uncovered was the tale of a young man who allegedly committed suicide in Ramsey Cemetery. According to Lewis and Fisk, a small chapel existed on the cemetery grounds for the benefit of mourners from the 1920s until the 1960s when it was torn down due to vandalism.

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