By Troy Taylor
Located along the western edge of Illinois, where the waters of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers meet, is the town of Grafton. This small village came into existence thanks to one man, James Mason. He was a settler from Grafton, Massachusetts who lived in Edwardsville and worked as a real estate agent. In 1818, he married the sister of one of the most prominent businessmen in St. Louis, Henry Von Phul, and it would be from this union that Grafton would be born.
Around the time of Mason's marriage, he began joining in conferences with the governor of Illinois and a number of St. Louis businessmen. Their concern was the city of Alton, Illinois. At that time, Alton was actually growing faster than its rival city of St. Louis and these men conspired together on ways to stop this. Mason offered a solution. He would purchase the lands along the river where Grafton is now located and would establish ferries across the Mississippi and the Missouri to St. Louis. He would also establish a road from Grafton to Carrolton, Illinois that would allow easy access from Illinois to St. Louis, bypassing Alton altogether.
Business and the riverboats soon made the small community a thriving one and in 1832, Mason built 4 log cabins, and later a frame house, before passing away in St. Louis in 1834. His widow, who eventually re-married, platted and named the town which was built here, Grafton, in honor of her late husband's birth place. By 1836, Grafton was still growing. New businesses and stores were coming to town; warehouses were constructed for industry; and even a wharf was built to accommodate traffic along the river.
Then, in 1844 came a terrible flood that drove all of the merchants and residents from Grafton's business district. Many of them never returned, but the flood was actually a blessing in disguise because in ushered in the steamboat era in Grafton. Thanks to the overflow of water from the rivers, the Grafton channel was now able to accommodate larger riverboats. These boats brought not only prosperity and commerce to the city, but excitement and violence too.
The steamboat era was the most exciting time in the history of Grafton but it came to an end in the 1930's. The era also took place at the same time the railroad was active in Grafton. The railroad came in the 1880's and at its peak, there were three rail lines that came into town. The last line ended in 1948, bringing an end to commerce and turning the place into a ghost town until the late 1960's, when the Great River Road was extended from Alton.
Although the Ruebel Hotel is undoubtedly the most famous haunted spot in Grafton, there are other ghosts lingering here as well. During the height of the steamboat era, the boat building and repair business also came to Grafton. The town became a center of operations for the Rippley Hardware Co., which built steel motors and dredge boats for use on the Mississippi. A number of barges were also constructed by the Fleak Ship Co., which was also located in Grafton.
The buildings which are now The Loading Dock and the Grafton Boatworks were constructed for the Rippley brothers during the company's heyday as they entered into the boat business in 1892. In 1919, during World War I, the company produced 1,000 lifeboats for use on allied ships and employed as many as 125 men. In the 1920's, the Rippley company was purchased by Mid West Boat Co. and later by Everett Fry, who changed the name to the Grafton Boat works.
Depending on who you took talk to, these buildings are rumored to be haunted today, although the identity of the spirits said to be present is unknown. Some have suggested that they may be the spirits of men who were once employed here years ago, as witnesses claim to have heard the sounds of footsteps hurrying back and forth, along with metallic crashing sounds, as though some sort of boat building is still going on - And perhaps it is, in a world just on the other side of our own.
Among the wooded bluffs was once a place that was avoided by those who lived in Grafton. It was called the "Pest House" and it was a quarantine area to house those who suffered from contagious (and deadly) diseases like smallpox or cholera. The house was a one-room log cabin that was located deep in an area called Baby Hollow. There were hundreds of men, women and children who were buried in the woods here after dying from the diseases they had contracted. It was said that the only way that you could leave Baby Hollow was to recover and walk out of it under your own power - or to be buried in the surrounding forest. The stories say that very few people walked out of the hollow on their own! The Pest House was eventually razed in the early 1900's but the legends of the place lingered for long after.
Stories circulated around Grafton that the ghosts of those who died in Baby Hollow were now haunting the woods near where the old house had been. Accounts told of cries in the night, moaning sounds, weeping and even the occasional apparition. The stories were still being told within the last decade. Baby Hollow is now private property and trespassing is not allowed.
At the north edge of Grafton now stands a juvenile detention facility for the state of Illinois. Many years ago, this was the River House, a place notorious for its role in local history. During the years before and after the Civil War, many bushwhackers, outlaws, thieves and bandits (even, according to legend, Jesse James and his gang) escaped from Missouri and crossed the river to vanish into Illinois. The area around Grafton, with its hills, islands, forests and caves, offered the perfect hiding place for those on the run.
It was at the River House where the killers and thieves were often harbored from the law. It was just one of the 26 saloons that operated in Grafton in those days and the atmosphere was so violent here that it was known by the nickname of the "Bloody Bucket". It was not unusual for bodies of hapless gamblers and innocent victims to be found in the woods around this blood-soaked establishment.
Many luckless travelers darkened the door of the place, having left the riverboats just a few steps away at Camden Landing. One incident took place after a number of steamboat passengers left their vessel to stretch their legs and to have a drink at the River House. One of the passengers was a professional gambler and after a few hands of cards, decided to stay behind at the tavern because the prospects here looked good. When the other customers realized the man was a professional cardsharp, he was escorted outside and was beaten with the butts of several pistols. Such behavior angered the captain of the riverboat, who had been delivering supplies to the tavern. When he began to voice his complaints to the manager of the River House, the manager responded by pulling out a gun and firing it over the captain's head. More gunfire then erupted from the woods around the tavern and from the windows of the River House itself. Needless to say, the captain, his passengers and his crew beat a hasty retreat for the boat. The occupants of the River House continued to fire at the steamship until it was out of sight!
Of course, they probably had no idea how lucky they were to escape from the place with their lives - for many did not! The place had a reputation for the number of unsolved murders that had taken place there. One triple murder took place over the payment for stolen horses. Three men from Grafton were delivering the horses to some Missouri outlaws and decided to argue over the amount of money they were being offered for them. The outlaws made no comment - they simply shot the three men and dumped their bodies into the Illinois River!
Over the years, dozens of other such incidents occurred, including two men that were hung from the rafters in the upstairs sleeping quarters. It was said that when the River House was torn down in 1910, there were blood stains found throughout the place, on the stairs, the walls and splashed on the back door. When the wrecking crew came for the place, they even found a noose still swinging from the rafters on the upper floor.
Not surprisingly, such violence gave birth to stories and legends of ghosts. The River House itself, which was abandoned for several of the last years of its existence, was said to be haunted by the spirits of the past. Those who were brave enough to wander inside of the empty shell of a building claimed to hear voices, strange sounds and footsteps on the deserted upper floors. One man said that he was chased out of the hotel one day by the sounds of stomping feet - feet that belonged to someone that he could not see!
© Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.