Mostly reserved for the dusty roads of the old West, ghost towns do not often come to mind when you think of the American Midwest. The Heartland, however, is filled with former towns and villages that, for whatever reason, never made it. Some disappeared when railroads connected to more prosperous towns. Some died out when canals were shut down, or when they were bypassed by the interstate highway. While most of these towns faded away without incident, some left behind stories and legends. Join Mysterious Heartland as we explore some of these unusual places.
5. St. Omer
Coles County, Illinois
St. Omer Cemetery and the small, defunct village of the same name probably would have been forgotten a century ago had it not been for one unusual family monument and a misprinted date. St. Omer, named after a 7th Century French saint, was officially founded in 1852, although it had been called Cutler’s Settlement since 1834. According to The History of Coles County, the village was a collection of around six houses, a store, post office, and a blacksmith’s shop, but other sources say 40 to 50 families once lived there. St. Omer disappeared in the 1880s. According to local lore, Caroline Barnes, one of four people buried under the large stone monument in St. Omer Cemetery, was put to death for practicing witchcraft. It is said that no pictures can be taken of her monument, and that it glows on moonless nights. The only evidence for the legend is Caroline’s impossible date of death chiseled in the granite: February 31. The monument also faces north and south, while most headstones are oriented east-west. There is no historical or documentary evidence supporting the notion that Caroline Barnes was accused of witchcraft, but never-the-less, the legend has persisted.
Zaleski State Forest, Ohio
Located along a former rail line through the Zaleski State Forest between the towns of Zaleski and Mineral in southeastern Ohio, the area around the ruins of Moonville has been the setting of ghost stories for over a century, most notably an abandoned railroad tunnel. Known as the “Moonville Tunnel,” three decades have passed since the last train travelled through it. Today, the old rail line is a nature trail called the Moonville Rail-Trail. The Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad first laid this rail line in 1856, and the ghost stories began shortly after the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad bought the M&C in 1887. According to an article in the Chillicothe Gazette dated February 17, 1895, the ghost appeared dressed in a white robe, with a white beard, holding a bright lantern. It appeared “at the point where Engineer Lawhead lost his life,” suggesting that the ghost story originated in a real accident. In fact, several people have lost their lives on the tracks in and around the Moonville Tunnel, including a 10-year-old girl in 1986, just a few months before the tracks ceased to be active. Since the tunnel’s abandonment, it has become a favorite spot for local legend trippers. In addition to the phantom brakeman, eyewitnesses claim to have also seen the ghost of a young woman near the location of a former trestle over Raccoon Creek, just outside the tunnel.
Black Hills, South Dakota
Located at the entrance to the Black Hills National Forest, the Gaslight Restaurant & Saloon and the ruins of Rockerville sit along Main Street (Highway 16), about 12 miles southwest of Rapid City, South Dakota. Rockerville was established in 1876 and died out due to the location of the highway. Today, the Gaslight is its only occupied building. Terry and Ardis McCullen originally opened it in the 1958 in a former mining town dining hall, intending it to be a tourist attraction. Kieth Brink and Steve Zwetzig bought the saloon at auction in 2000, but its most recent owner was a man named Walt “Drake” Peterson. It offered live bluegrass music every week. Several strange tales surround the Gaslight. Patrons and staff have felt unexplained cold spots and the presence of a man near the door, and have witnessed bottles falling from shelves. It is also allegedly haunted by Samuelson Harney, former owner of the Hotel Harney. In 2013, the original saloon was destroyed in a devastating fire, but a brand new structure was erected in its place.
Beaver Creek State Park, Ohio
Located southwest of the tiny community of Fredericktown in eastern Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border, Beaver Creek State Park was established over the ruins of the canal and the nearby town of Sprucevale. Hambleton Mill, a road, and few abandoned landmarks are all that remain of Sprucevale. In 1852, four years after completion of the canal, it suffered a reservoir failure that irreparably shut down the canal, doming the town. According to legend, one of the canal’s builders, Edward G. Gill (some sources say Hans Gil, from Holland), came over from Ireland with his wife and daughter, Gretchen. His wife died in transit and was buried at sea. Shortly before the completion of this particular lock, Gretchen became deathly ill. Her last words were either “I want to join my mother” or “bury me with my mother.” She was temporarily entombed in a vault in the side of the lock. After work on the canal was finished, Edward Gill returned to Ireland, where he buried his daughter. Because her dying wish went unfulfilled, locals believe the ghost of Gretchen haunts the lock to this day.
1. Pere Cheney
Crawford County, Minnesota
Now a ghost town, the village of Pere Cheney in north-central Michigan has a tragic history. Perhaps that is why its cemetery, which contains the graves of around 90 persons, is rumored to be home to a witch’s grave, as well as many supernatural occurrences. Pere Cheney was originally settled in 1874 by lumberjacks, who believed the site of George M. Cheney’s sawmill was an ideal location to set down roots. In 1881, its population was 922. Just a few years later, however, diphtheria swept through the area and many children died. As the community tried to recover, a fire broke out, and in 1893 there was an outbreak of smallpox, scarlet fever, and diphtheria. Diphtheria, a bacterial infection that mainly affects children, struck again in 1906. By 1818, only 18 residents remained in Pere Cheney, and the village was soon completely abandoned. According to legend, people from surrounding communities deliberately set fire to Pere Cheney to prevent the spread of disease. Others say that the epidemics and fires were caused by a witch who cursed the land after her neighbors banished her to the surrounding wilderness. She was later hung from a tree in the cemetery and her body was burned. To this day, some visitors claim to see her ghost in Cheney Cemetery.