Location: Maple Lake is located in Pulaski Woods East, off 95th Street and Wolf Road in Palos, Illinois. The Maple Lake Overlook is located off 95th Street and parking is available off Wolf Road.
[MysteriousHeartland.com] Every spring and summer, visitors by the hundreds of thousands descend on the southwestern corner of Cook County. They come to the Palos and Sag Valley Divisions of the Park District to ride horses, hike, and bicycle on the trails, or to drop a fishing line into one of the dozen lakes and sloughs. Many grab a quick bite at the Ashbury Coffee House before heading south down Archer Avenue to 95th Street. There they enter Pulaski Woods under a canopy of maple trees and continue east until they reach Maple Lake, a man-made body of water roughly half a mile in width. With its wide, curving shores and tranquil waters, it is a deceptively peaceful place.
Over the years, Maple Lake has acquired a reputation for the unusual. A handful of visitors—those who stuck around after sundown—have reported seeing strange lights hovering over the lake. These lights, although they are the subject of speculation by every chronicler of Chicagoland folklore, are just the tip of the iceberg. Maple Lake has a grim history into which few have delved. I have been able to confirm at least six deaths in and around the lake, most of which involved drowning, but two were homicides. During the 1960s and ‘70s, brawls near the lake forced the closure of the forest preserve, and several attacks have occurred in the nearby woods.
According to at least one author, tragedy scarred the land on which the lake would one day rest. Though the author, Troy Taylor, failed to disclose the source of his information, he claimed that the origin of the Maple Lake ghost light could be found in an accident that took the lives of three men and a dog 56 years before the creation of the lake. “The land where Maple Lake now rests was once owned by an Irish immigrant named James Molony,” he began. Like many others, Molony came to the United States from Ireland in the 1850s to escape the potato famine and to make a new life for himself. Taylor claimed that Molony set up shop as a supplier to the thousands of workers who were clearing the way for the Illinois and Michigan Canal. There is a problem with the chronology of his story, however. Construction of the canal began in 1836 and was completed in 1848, years before Molony supposedly arrived. Regardless, as the story went, Molony managed to save enough money to purchase an 80 acre tract of nearby land.
The first place he chose to build his new home was a low area that would one day become the lake bottom. On an October afternoon in 1858, after a morning of celebration at a local christening, Molony and several of his friends went to inspect the well he had dug. One after another, three of the men were lowered into the well and were overcome with gasses that escaped from the swampy soil. Finally, Molony and his remaining companions lowered a stray dog down into the well to see if there was any hope of saving their friends. The dog, unfortunately, also died. “After the horrific loss of his three friends, Molony had the well filled in and he built his house on one of the hills across the basin,” Taylor concluded. “He wanted nothing more to do with this cursed piece of ground.”
Whatever the land’s early history, the Park District purchased it in the early 1920s and built a dam to control the region’s water resources. The low area east of the intersection of 95th Street and Wolf Road filled with water and the resulting kidney-shaped lake was named “Maple Lake” after the abundance of sugar maple trees on the surrounding hills. Although there have been deaths there in the 85 years since the lake’s creation, paranormal researcher Dale Kaczmarek’s claim that “Police and forest rangers have found a number of bodies, mostly young woman” is a bit of an exaggeration. In fact, I was able to find only one recorded instance of a female found dead in or around Maple Lake. The rest were male.
The first recorded instance of a drowning in Maple Lake occurred on June 15, 1930. Stanley Suja, age 20, and three of his friends were swimming in the lake when, for an undisclosed reason, Stanley met his fate in the tranquil waters. Four years later, again in June, a 27 year old named William Geisler drowned while his wife of four days watched from the shoreline. The two had evidently just finished eating and William was seized by a cramp. His bride managed to get him to shore and someone summoned the paramedics. They tried to revive him for an hour, but to no avail. A month later, Paul Pahnke disappeared while swimming in the lake. Police found his body the next morning.
Contrary to reports in several books on Chicago ghostlore, Maple Lake was not closed to swimming in 1939, but was in fact closed in the summer of 1936. In June of that year the Daily Tribune reported, “Polluted water, dangerous to the health of swimmers, has caused the closing of Maple Lake at Wolf road and 95th Street, for bathing purposes.” The lake apparently contained high amounts of bacteria due to “lack of adequate feeder springs” that caused typhoid fever, dysentery, and various infections.7 The ban did not stop everyone from venturing into the lake, however, and on July 6, 1974 a 20 year old man named Ronald Westley disappeared while taking a nighttime swim. Forest Preserve police discovered his body the next day.
The water in Maple Lake hasn’t been the only danger to visitors. Several horrific crimes have been committed in the surrounding woods, a number of them almost unspeakable. The 1950s were supposed to have been a time of safety, clean lawns, and green bean casserole, but as we have already seen with the murder of the Grimes sisters, that wasn’t always the case. In 1955 Maple Lake was the scene of several sex attacks involving three girls ages 11, four, and six. Police originally arrested a young man of 18 years of age named Krause, who one of the victims identified as the perpetrator. At the same time, a Joliet man was arrested in Waukesha, Wisconsin for tying an 11 year old girl to a tree and raping her. After several days, the Joliet man confessed to the crimes near Maple Lake. “It now seems possible that the girl who identified Krause was mistaken,” the captain of the Bedford Park Sheriff’s Department told the Daily Tribune. The case rested on a pair of buckled shoes, which the girls identified the attacker as having worn and which Krause denied ever owning. The man who confessed to the crimes, however, was wearing buckled shoes when he was arrested in Wisconsin. It was a case of mistaken identity, but justice was finally served.
Three years later, in a bizarre and gruesome incident that ended in a shallow grave in the shade of the sugar maples, a young mother alleged that her husband had fathered a baby boy with another woman, brought the child home, and asked her to take care of him. On one morning in March, the husband found the baby dead. The family waited two days before they took the body of the five month old to Maple Lake and buried him in the woods. Police searched for both the grave and the woman’s husband, but neither was immediately located. The Daily Tribune failed to follow up on the story, so it is unknown whether the husband or the remains of the baby were ever found.
Decades passed before there were any more incidences involving deaths around Maple Lake, but homicide struck twice during the 1990s. Early in April 1991, the body of a teenage girl was found floating in the lake. She “appeared to have been beaten about the face,” a detective for the Cook County Forest Preserve District told the Chicago Tribune. Less than a day later, police arrested the girl’s boyfriend of two years and charged him with her murder. In the fall of 1999, passersby discovered the body of a man in the bushes near the lake. An autopsy determined that he had been killed from a blow to the head. The victim was never identified.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, Chicago forest preserves developed a bad reputation for crime, drugs, even rumors of black magic, and the woods around Maple Lake were not immune. In the summers of 1967, 1969, and 1977, riots broke out between gangs of youths in the picnic areas of Maple Lake and the Palos Hills Division of the Park District. “Fights Break up Picnics in Suburban Parks,” the headlines screamed. “Thousands of Memorial day picnickers were driven from south suburban forest preserves yesterday by roving bands of young toughs.”
Although the police claimed that the fighting was not racially motivated, over 100 teens and young adults, both black and white, fought each other near the lake on Memorial Day in 1967. Their weapons included baseball bats, rocks, beer bottles, and even tree branches. It took 200 sheriff’s deputies, Chicago police, and forest rangers to restore order. “They scattered pretty quickly when they saw the dog,” a deputy told the Tribune after he broke up a large group of rioters. Police arrested 29 individuals, ranging in age from 18 to 22. Two years later, the gangs were back, this time attacking African Americans picnicking in Maple Lake Woods. One of the injured told the police that “six white youths walked up to his car, blocked it, and swung at it with bats and a crowbar.” Despite the large number of perpetrators, police were only able to arrest five, two of them as they attempted to flee the scene in their car. In a similar brawl in 1977, a man was shot in the back of the head and severely wounded. That incident involved around 80 rioters and led to the closing of six picnic groves around the lake. Police threw up their hands in frustration. Willow Springs Police Chief Michael Corbitt told the Chicago Tribune that the Palos Division of the Park District was a “Total disaster.” “Families cannot go into these woods,” he lamented. “They’re not secure. The facilities are in disarray. Kids using drugs have taken them over, and nothing is done about it.” Thankfully, the situation has improved in the decades since the riots. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to Maple Lake every year, and the overwhelming majority enjoy themselves in safety.
If these disturbing events weren’t enough to tarnish the reputation of the lake, stories of strange lights have circulated for decades. “An inexplicable red glow has been seen oozing around the shoreline, between the trees and above the sand,” Tribune reporter Howard Reich wrote in a feature story on Halloween 1980. “The cosmic light rays have defied explanation, since no other similar light source exists for miles around.” This “oozing” glow was later described as small and was said to hover in the one particular location in the middle of the lake. The explanation for this light varies from the ghost of a fisherman holding a lantern aloft while he searches for his missing head, to some kind of natural phenomenon.
According to most contemporary accounts, the spook light is most often visible from the Maple Lake Overlook along 95th Street between 10:30pm and 12am, and Dale Kaczmarek reported that it has been seen there since at least the 1950s. Onlookers report that the red light shines brightly for a few precious moments before it disappears. “Average sightings last from a few seconds to about a minute or two with long periods of inactivity,” Kaczmarek explained. Richard Crowe had a different experience, however. In Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural, he claimed that in 1986 a friend and he witnessed the mysterious light for a much longer period of time. “As we got to the overlook,” he wrote, “the red light was there in the distance, bright and burning away. We sat fixated on the sight for a half-hour that night…”
Scientists classify spook lights like the one seen at Maple Lake as Nocturnal Lights. More specifically, it is a subtype called a Ghost Light. “These are lights, generally spherical, almost always moving just above ground, sometimes disappearing upon approach and reappearing nearby,” William Corliss explained in his book Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena. Ghost Lights are tied to a particular location and have localized names. They are distinct from Will-O’-the-Wisps and Natural Flames because they do not move over long distances and are not obviously caused by escaping gasses. Often times, Ghost Lights are caused by the reflection of train or automobile headlights, but every author of Chicago ghostlore agrees that it is unlikely the Maple Lake light has a human or mechanical origin.
As of yet, all of the accounts of the Maple Lake spook light have come from eyewitnesses who happened to be in the right place at the right time. On most pleasant evenings, handfuls of people risk being ticketed by the park rangers to catch a glimpse of this mysterious light, but to my knowledge no one has yet to capture it on film, digital or otherwise. It would be interesting to find out whether the light appears in the absence of a human observer. If it is indeed a natural phenomenon, then it should manifest itself whether there is someone to see it or not. If, on the other hand, the light exists only in the mind of its viewers, then no mechanical instrument will ever capture or measure it. As for its origins, the jury is still out, but the history of Maple Lake certainly has enough fodder to keep the imaginations of storytellers stirring for years to come.
National Park Service, “Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor,” http://www.nps.gov/ilmi/.
Troy Taylor, Haunted Illinois: The Travel Guide to the History & Hauntings of the Prairie State (Alton: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2004), 264-265.
Dale Kaczmarek, Windy City Ghosts: An Essential Guide to the Haunted History of Chicago (Oak Lawn: Ghost Research Society Press, 2005), 100.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 16 June 1930.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 29 June 1934.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 26 July 1934.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 14 June 1936.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 7 July 1974.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 23 September 1955.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 25 September 1955.
Daily Tribune (Chicago) 2 May 1958.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 4 April 1991; Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 5 April 1991.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 21 September 1999.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 31 May 1967.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 31 May 1969.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 31 May 1977.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 19 August 1979.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 31 October 1980.
Dale Kaczmarek, Illuminating the Darkness: The Mystery of Spook Lights (Oak Lawn: Ghost Research Society Press, 2003), 32.
Richard T. Crowe, Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural (Oak Park: Carolando Press, 2000, 2001), 237.
William R. Corliss, Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena: Eyewitness Accounts of Nature’s Greatest Mysteries (New York: Arlington House, 1986), 68.
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