For tens of thousands of years, humans used caves for shelter, but familiar dwellings for our ancestors have become objects of curiosity for contemporary man. Dank, dark, and mysterious, with strange animals, rock formations, passages, and sounds, caves offer the possibility of a new world right under our feet. Not surprisingly, many caves are believed to be haunted. Mysterious Heartland has found several caves in the Midwest with such tales. Which one will prove to be the most haunted of them all?
10. Devil’s Cave
North Aurora, Illinois
Waubonsee Indians occupied the land around North Aurora when the first white settlers arrived. According to local legend, one member of the tribe began to steal, so he was banished. He took up living in a nearby cave and covered himself with a fungus that glowed, giving off “foxfire.” His people began to believe the cave was occupied by a demon, so they lit a fire and fanned smoke into the entrance. To their surprise, the banished man ran out of the cave and leapt to his death into in the Fox River. A slightly more gruesome version of this legend was reported in the Kane County Chronicle. This version involved both the Waubonsee and the white settlers. For the most part, the tribe and the settlers got along, but one member of the tribe was not happy and began to play pranks on the settlers. They found out, and he was banished from the village. Over time, some of the settlers were found murdered and scalped. During the search for the perpetrator, they noticed a light coming from a nearby cave in the woods. A joint band of Waubonsee and white settlers lit brush on fire at the entrance to the cave to smoke out whatever was in there. The banished man ran out of the cave, caught fire, and leapt to his death into in the Fox River.
9. Robber’s Cave
Another cave rumored to have once sheltered the outlaw Jesse James, Robber’s Cave is located in Van Dorn Park, at the end of High Street off Van Dorn Street in Lincoln, Nebraska, just north of the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Salt Creek carved Robber’s Cave out of the sandstone Pahuk Bluff over the course of centuries, but in 1869, Lincoln Brewery enlarged the existing cave and stored beer barrels there. The brewery only lasted a few years. The Scarborough family bought the cave in 1906 and opened it for tours, however, they closed it in 1973 out of concern over vandalism. A local developer named Tom White opened it again in the 1980s, but finally sealed the entrance in 2000. With such a sordid history of occupation and abandonment, it is no surprise that the cave has attracted some unusual stories. In the early 1900s, locals whispered that a box of treasure had been found inside. In one room, a passage appears to have been bricked over, and many said they could hear the ghosts of Robber’s Cave moaning from wherever lay beyond it. In 2015, a local brewery owner planned to purchase the cave and build a microbrew and restaurant at the location.
Hardin County, Illinois
Cave-in-Rock, located on the Ohio River, is one of the most notorious treasure-hunting 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. Over $1 million worth of stolen loot, gold, cash, and counterfeit bills changed hands there between 1790 and 1830 alone. 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 author Troy Taylor, travelers passing on the river claim to hear moans and cries echoing from the cave.
7. Tinker’s Cave
Wayne National Forest, Ohio
Tinker’s Cave is a large rock shelter a few hours southeast of Columbus, Ohio. For more than a century, visitors have spoken of a legendary outlaw named Shep (Shepard) Tinker who used it as a way station in his career as a horse thief. Shep, the legend goes, was not born a criminal, although he did love to tell stories. One night, after a bout of drinking, he claimed to have stolen a neighbor’s horse and taken it on all sorts of adventures. Unfortunately, his neighbor believed the story and Shep was convicted of the theft. When he was finally able to prove his innocence, he vowed that “since the law had labeled him a horse thief, that was the life he would lead.” He went on to become one of the most notorious horse thieves in Ohio. His reign of theft lasted through the Civil War, and it was rumored that he even provided horses to Confederate General John Morgan and his raiders. He disappeared shortly after the war and his grave was never found. Since that time, visitors to the cave have reported hearing the neighing of horses and the thunder of their hooves. Even the ghost of Shep Tinker himself has been said to make an appearance!
6. Burton Cave
Adams County, Illinois
Ever since its discovery by H.L. Tandy in 1832, Burton Cave has been plagued by rumors of strange and alarming apparitions. During a picnic in the 1880s, visitors noticed a light emanating from the cave and went to investigate. They claimed that a man wearing a black robe dashed from the entrance, and when the startled picnickers peered inside, they saw a woman, dead, covered in a white robe. Candles surrounded her body. When the local sheriff arrived, however, the strange scene had vanished. After that, locals often told tales of ghosts inhabiting the cave. Burton Cave is now part of a scenic nature preserve, and its deepest area is sealed off to protect the endangered species of bats that live there.
5. Wabasha Street Caves
St. Paul, Minnesota
Technically man-made, the Wabasha Street Caves were carved out of a sandstone bluff near the east bank of the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1840s and were used for growing mushrooms and storing food throughout the 19th Century. It was once the largest producer of mushrooms in the United States. In the 20th Century, the caves were used for entertainment. During Prohibition, entrepreneurs opened a restaurant and nightclub at that location called the Wabasha Street Speakeasy, which saw an eclectic clientele. According to legend, gangsters like John Dillinger and Ma Barker frequented the joint, although there is scant evidence to support this claim. Never-the-less, visitors report encountering the ghosts of former gangsters deep in the caverns. Strange lights bob down the darkened corridors, and big band music has been heard echoing from someplace always out of reach. The music usually begins playing while guests and employees are in the bathroom, but when they come out to investigate, they are unable to find the source. Today, the Wabasha Street Caves are a unique event venue offering historic tours and swing dancing.
4. Cave of the Death Song
Richland Center, Wisconsin
Ho-Chunk Indians tell a legend about a cave in the bluffs where the Pine River meets the Wisconsin River, south of present day Richland Center in southwestern Wisconsin. According to Linda S. Godfrey, journalist and author of Haunted Wisconsin: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Badger State, a group of Ho-Chunk Indians discovered the cave entrance after following moccasin prints of two missing children. The search party heard what they described as a “Death Song of an Indian” and followed it in. The men disappeared into the darkness. When Chief Great Eagle returned with one hundred braves, they formed a human chain, but many of them disappeared as well. Sometime later, an old man appeared who not only had a talent for healing, but he could also enter the cave without injury. Inside, he discovered the remains of the missing Ho-Chunk braves. Many years later, white settlers built Richland City near the site of the Indian camp. In the 1890s, a local man named Paul Seifert discovered a cave filled with bones, flint tools, and arrowheads. On one excursion, a reporter and he entered the cave, but were chased out by groans, cries, and a strange blue light. He sealed the entrance with dynamite, and in the intervening years Richland City gradually became a ghost town. To this day, no one has found the exact location of this mysterious cave.
3. Meramec Caverns
Located in the Ozark Mountains near Stanton, Missouri, Meramec Caverns is a 4.6-mile limestone cave network first used by Osage Indians but later re-discovered by a Frenchman named Philipp Renault in 1722. During the mid-18th Century, the cave was used for extracting saltpeter (potassium nitrate), which was used in the manufacture of gunpowder. Confederate guerillas destroyed the manufactory during the Civil War. According to legend, in the 1870s Frank and Jesse James used Meramec Caverns as a hideout, once eluding capture by squirrelling out a hidden exit after a local sheriff thought he had the outlaws trapped. Later, locals used the front entrance for dances and social events. In the 1930s, Lester Benton Dill discovered an extensive network of tunnels that ran deep into the surrounding countryside. This fueled his plans to open Meramec Caverns as a local tourist destination. Though discouraged from discussing paranormal activity inside the cave, many employees have heard the ghost stories. Some have seen the apparition of an Indian squaw, as well as a shadowy figure many believe to be the ghost of Lester Dill himself.
2. Devil’s Bake-Oven
Grand Tower, Illinois
A cave along the banks of the Mississippi River called the Devil’s Bake-Oven is home to one of the area’s oldest and most famous legends. According to this legend, a young woman named Esmerelda fell in love with a riverboat captain, but her father disapproved of the courtship. One day, word came that her lover had been killed in a boiler explosion. Grief stricken, Esmerelda leapt to her death into the rushing waters of the Mississippi. To this day, visitors have reported seeing a white specter in and around Devil’s Bake-Oven. Shrieks, sobbing, and moans have often accompanied this apparition. Local historian Charles Burdick believes the legend may be based in fact. Evidence, such as an old foundation hidden near the river and a few surviving photographs of a white manor house, helps lend credence to the story.
1. Mark Twain Cave
One of the most famous caves in Missouri, Mark Twain Cave is located south of the Mississippi River off Route 79, southeast of Hannibal. Jack Simms and his brothers William and Roderick discovered the cave while panther hunting in or around 1819, but some prehistoric tools have been found there, suggesting that American Indians discovered it first. The history of the cave lends itself to legends. In the late 1840s, a surgeon named Joseph Nash McDowell purchased it and used its cool interior to experiment on body preservation techniques. There are rumors that he stole or purchased corpses from local cemeteries to assist in his experiments. Author Mark Twain used to explore the cave as a child, and was familiar with its lore. He recounted, “In my time the person who owned it [Dr. McDowell] turned it into a mausoleum for his daughter, age fourteen. The body of this poor child was put in a copper cylinder filled with alcohol, and this suspended in one of the dismal avenues of the cave.” Eventually, local citizens found out about this macabre experiment and forced him to remove his daughter’s body. Mark Twain later wrote a fictionalized version of the cave into his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and it was named after him to capitalize on the notoriety. The outlaw Jesse James was another notorious visitor to the cave, and he once carved his name into the limestone wall. Since opening for tours, several guides have claimed to see the apparition of a young woman, believed to belong to Dr. McDowell’s unfortunate daughter.