Tourist season is in full swing in Illinois, and so we at Mysterious Heartland have prepared a list of some of the most unusual places you can visit in the great outdoors. While these are all nice places to experience nature, you may also encounter something of the supernatural variety. Be warned, however, some of these places hide very real dangers, not the least of which include hazardous terrain. So never visit them alone!
10. Cahokia Mounds
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site consists of dozens of prehistoric mounds constructed by American Indians around the time that Leif Ericson’s longships landed in Vinland. The most prominent feature of these mounds is Monk’s Mound. Monk’s Mound was the largest earthen structure north of central Mexico at the time of its construction. The mounds were a part of a large city, which reached the height of its power between 1000 and 1200 AD. A wooden stockade, which the residents rebuilt several times, surrounded the central structures at the site, although there is no evidence of battles or who their enemy might have been. A nearby structure, known as “woodhenge,” suggests this civilization had knowledge of astronomy. At the time the first French explorers began to penetrate the Illinois territory, the native peoples had no knowledge of who had once occupied the massive site.
9. Pyramid State Park
Perry County, IL
Midwesterners love to hunt and fish, and this is especially true in the forests and lakes of Southern Illinois. Between 1879 and 1968, nearly a 90-year period, fishermen in Perry County spun yarns about a serpent that dwelled in the murky waters of Stump Pond inside Pyramid State Park. The creature was described as having a thick, green body with black fins. It was large enough to rock boats. Some fishermen encountered it more than once, and speculated that there must be a breeding population. Unfortunately, no one ever caught the alleged serpent, and when the lake was partially drained in 1968, locals discovered catfish that weighed over 30 pounds. It is possible that the “Stump Pond Serpent” was a giant catfish, which have been known to grow to the size of a small child. In 2005 Tim Pruitt of Alton caught a 124 pound blue catfish in the Mississippi River. Pyramid State Recreation Area consists of land formerly owned by a coal strip-mining company.
8. Effland Woods
According to legend, an old dirt road once passed through Effland Woods. One day, an accident befell a group of travelers on the road and they all died. In some versions of the story, this was a car accident. People stopped using the road, and it became swallowed up by the woods. Now, visitors to the woods claim to see floating balls of light zipping between the trees. Others have heard whistling and low voices, and felt like they were being watched or followed by something unseen. According to authors Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk, the son of a woman who lived nearby went to hunt raccoons in the woods and returned home early in a state of shock. He was unable to recount what happened, but he refused to go hunting in Effland Woods again.
7. Runyon County Forest Preserve
The Runyon Preserve, otherwise known as Runyon Park, consists of 21 acres of woodland along Fiddyment Creek. It was named after the first white settler of Lockport Township, Armstead Runyon. His family arrived in 1830, and their cemetery is located in the woods near the park. For years, visitors have brought back strange tales of disembodied voices and voices speaking in an indiscernible language. At least one of these is attributed to a witch, calling out to her followers from the grave.
6. Twin Sister’s Woods
Twin Sister’s Woods is located behind Charles Street in Rockford and is part of Twin Sister Hills Park—22.44 acres of recreational land complete with two baseball fields and three sled hills. It is a popular winter destination, but some locals claim this park is home to more sinister guests. The woods, they say, has been the scene of several murders, hangings, and even a drowning. Feelings of dread, disembodied voices, and mysterious figures are just some of the phenomena experienced by visitors. There is a large willow tree near the entrance to the woods. According to the Shadowlands Index of Haunted Places for Illinois, “If you walk by the willow tree it is said that you have a strange desire to go into the woods. There is an old hanging tree with some odd carvings on it. A little girl is said to be seen walking around.” The little girl is the ghost of a child who allegedly drowned in nearby Keith Creek.
5. Robinson Woods
Alexander Robinson (also known as Chee-Chee-Pin-Quay) was the chief of the Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa at the time of the Fort Dearborn Massacre. This land, which is now a forest preserve, was given to his family in gratitude for saving American lives during the massacre. In addition to Alexander and his French wife Catherine Chevalier, several of the Robinson kin are interred here, and a large granite memorial marks the entrance to the burial ground. When the City of Chicago annexed the land during construction of O’Hare Airport, it promised Robinson’s sole living descendent that he could be buried there with the rest of his family. When he died, however, the city broke its promise. Some local folklorists believe this might have been the beginning of the haunting. Ever since the 1960s, visitors have reported hearing sounds like drums and chopping coming from deep in the woods. The scent of freshly cut flowers has also been smelled, even in the dead of winter.
4. Read-Dunning Memorial Park
Like many poor farms and mental hospitals in Illinois, the Cook County Poor Farm (and the asylum built upon it) had a tragic history. This tragedy spawned a diaspora of ghost stories as the modern City of Chicago spread around it and, eventually, over the site itself. The original poor farm, established in 1851, occupied over 150 acres. The Cook County Insane Asylum was built there in 1858 and housed nearly 600 patients by 1885. When much of the complex was finally demolished a century later, the real estate developer who purchased the land was shocked to discover that her construction crews were digging up bodies. Archaeologists conducted an excavation and discovered three cemeteries on the property. The bodies were removed and reburied in a 3-acre park now called Read-Dunning Memorial Park. The Chicago-Read Mental Health Center is also located on land formerly belonging to the poor farm. Residents of the area have told author Ursula Bielski about various ghostly encounters in the stores and other buildings constructed over the original poor farm property, including sightings of a specter of an elderly woman in a hospital gown.
3. Starved Rock State Park
Starved Rock State Park is a natural, scenic woodland park surrounding a large butte overlooking the Illinois River. It contains 18 canyons and 13 miles of trails. American Indians inhabited the site for several thousand years before the French arrived and built a fort at the location. According to legend, Potawatomi Indians trapped a group of Illiniwek on the butte and starved them into submission, giving the rock formation its name. In March 1960, three women were murdered in the park, and their bodies were found in one of the canyons. Eventually, a man named Chester Weger was convicted of the crime. Some visitors to the park have claimed to hear groans and other disembodied voices amidst the rock formations.
Between 1685 and 1702, Henri de Tonti was the most powerful man in central Illinois. He accompanied René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in his exploration of the Illinois country, and La Salle left him to hold Fort Saint Louis when he returned to France. During his time in the Illinois River Valley, he is rumored to have accumulated over $100,000 in gold, which he buried around Starved Rock. He told a priest about the gold just before he died, but it has never been found despite search attempts in the 1750s by the French and the Potawatomie.
2. LaBaugh Woods
LaBuagh Woods sits across the railroad tracks west of a group of large graveyards that includes Bohemian Cemetery. It is a claustrophobic forest and park that is divided by the Des Plaines River. Known for its gang activity, it also has a sinister reputation of a different kind. Since at least the 1960s, rumors of Satanic and occult worship at LaBuagh Woods have circulated in local high schools. According to author Ursula Bielski, “Accompanying these rumors have been documented discoveries of bodies found in the woods, sometimes hanged from trees. The ensuing murder cases have gone unsolved.” Today, many of the trees along its trail are tagged with graffiti.
1. Cave-In-Rock State Park
Cave-in-Rock, located on the Ohio River, is one of the most notorious destinations in Illinois. From the 1790s to the 1870s the area around Cave-in-Rock was plagued by river pirates, horse thieves, counterfeiters, and highwaymen. Some of these pirates made a game of tying captives to the backs of mules and then chasing the mules off the ledge above the cave. Over $1 million worth of stolen loot, gold, cash, and counterfeit bills changed hands there between 1790 and 1830. In 1800, the Mason gang was rumored to have hidden a large stash of gold at Cave-in-Rock, but Samuel Mason was beheaded after he was caught on the Spanish side of the Mississippi River with $7,000 and 20 human scalps. Aside from Mason’s horde, there are supposed to be dozens of stashes of gold and silver all along the cliff face. According to Troy Taylor, travelers passing on the river claim to hear moans and cries echoing from the cave.
Check out these stories and more in Michael Kleen’s Haunting Illinois: A Tourist’s Guide to the Weird and Wild Places of the Prairie State! Haunting Illinois contains 200 mystery sites and 85 individual illustrations. In this book, Michael not only examines the sites, but also the hobbyists and professionals who have devoted their lives to exploring the strange and unusual in our great state. Divided among eight distinct regions and listed by county, each location features a description, directions, and sources drawn from a diverse variety of books and articles. Haunting Illinois challenges you to get off the couch and start exploring our wonderful State of Illinois. Go here to order!
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