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photo/ Kimberly Sheasley
photo/ Kimberly Sheasley

Alton, Ill., is only a 20-minute drive down the river road from Principia College and is filled with rich history dating back to the 1837 when the city was founded.

For instance, the seventh and final debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas for U.S. Senate was held in Alton in the now appropriately named Lincoln-Douglas Square. Though Lincoln lost the race for Senate, this debate pushed Lincoln into the spotlight after his anti-slavery comments.

Alton is also home to the tallest man in the world. Robert Wadlow, known as the Alton Giant, was 8 feet, 11 inches tall. He was born and raised in Alton and a monument for him is located across the street from the Alton Museum of History and Art.

Though these are some fun facts about Alton, it is also known as one of the most haunted cities in America to most of the country. Civil War involvement, frequent crime and murder have tainted the history of an otherwise quaint small town.

The Underground Railroad was prominent in Alton, and several city sites were involved. Pro-slavery mobs were common in Alton due to the proximity to Missouri. In 1837, journalist Elijah Lovejoy was assassinated during the destruction of his warehouse and abolitionist press materials. The Lovejoy monument is the tallest in Illinois and can be found on Monument Avenue, just east of the Clark Bridge.

The Enos Sanatorium, one of the best-known stations for the Underground Railroad, signaled slaves by light as to whether the areas were safe or not. Heavy traffic to this station resulted in tragedy for slaves that were caught. In 1911, the building was converted into a tuberculosis sanitarium and several years later into apartment complexes. The Enos Apartments are located on Third Street.

The first Illinois State Penitentiary was built in 1837 and then converted to the Alton Military Prison in 1861 after overcrowding became an issue in St. Louis prisons. The penitentiary is believed to be a main source of paranormal activity in Alton. Almost 12,000 Confederate prisoners came through this prison and the mortality rate was above that of an average Union prison.

The conditions were unusually poor due to overcrowding, which led to many inmates succumbing to disease. The quarantine hospital located on an island on the Mississippi was the final resting place for many of those prisoners. After construction of the Alton Dam, this island went under water along with the buried corpses.

The prison, constructed primarily from limestone, was torn down following the end of the Civil War. Its remnants were used for most of the building foundations in Alton. Paranormal enthusiasts say that limestone carries the most “psychic residue” compared to other stones, thus making the city haunted.

Many believe that the most haunted house in the Midwest is the McPike Mansion, which is located at 2018 Alby St. Built for Henry McPike in 1869 using the prison limestone, this architecturally beautiful mansion included 16 rooms and 11 marble fireplaces. Custom finishes are now deteriorating due to decades of vandalism. Currently undergoing the process of restoration, the mansion is open to visitors with a  reservation. The cellar and graveyard are the top visiting attractions.

Along with these attractions, there are several more in Alton that have a deep, dark history. “Historic” tours are given often and offer a great amount of information about the city and its past. Of course, the option of creating a personal tour with some friends and exploring the town at your own risk is worth considering.

Other sites to see: Lewis and Clark Community College (the chapel), Old Rock House, Upper Alton Presbyterian Church, Watson House, First Unitarian Church, Mineral Springs, Milton School, The Franklin House.

Image courtesy of Julia Suber