One of the finest hotels to ever open in Alton was first constructed in 1836 but in those days, as it is today, it was not a hotel. The building first gained notoriety as the Alton Marine & Fire Insurance Co., which was owned by B.I. Gilman and Ebenezer Marsh. The company was incorporated by a special act of the Illinois legislature and after gaining the support of the local citizens, they soon demanded a place for the deposit of funds and a resource for business loans. In 1836, the building provided the beginnings of the First National Bank & Trust Company. The building later became widely known as the Franklin House hotel around 1840 and gained such a reputation for travelers along the river that it was said that many of the wealthy passengers would leave the riverboats that docked in Alton and would choose to spend the night and dine at the Franklin House.
The hotel was added on to several times over the years and some of the present buildings at the location where it still stands along State Street were once part of the old hotel, which changed its name after 1860. That change came about after a visit to the hotel by Abraham Lincoln in 1858. When he came to Alton in October of that year, he was taking part in the last of the debates with Stephen Douglas. While he was staying in the city, Lincoln stayed at the Franklin House with his wife, Mary. They were joined there by their son, Robert, and Senator Lyman Trumbull, who dined with the Lincolns at the hotel. The room where Lincoln stayed that night, on the second floor overlooking State Street, is still preserved today and is one of the only privately owned and authentic Lincoln sites in the state. After Lincoln was elected to the presidency in 1860, the owners of the hotel decided to take advantage of the notoriety of their famous guest and the name of the business was changed to the Lincoln Hotel. It kept this name for many years, until finally falling on hard times and closing down. It was during the years when the place was known as the Lincoln Hotel that the ghost story had its beginnings.
According to the legend, there was a traveling salesman who was journeying along the Mississippi River taking orders for his product. Because he was often away for extended periods of time, he usually brought his family along with him during his travels, which consisted of his wife and his daughter, who was then about seven years-old. During the day, when her father was away, there was very little for the young girl to do and so she played on the staircase and in the lobby of the hotel, talking and laughing with the hotel staff. When the weather was nice, she would play at the edge of the street in front of the building, watching the freight wagons come and go as they hauled grain and produce along the Old Plank Road to the river. One day though, tragedy struck when the little girl was chasing a ball that she was playing with and it rolled out into the street and in front of a passing wagon. The heavy wheels passed right over her and she was instantly killed.
Apparently, her sudden death sent her spirit right back to the place where she loved to play – into the Lincoln Hotel. As the years passed, staff members, owners and guests of the hotel would often tell of unnerving encounters with a ghostly little girl. They would hear the tinkle of her laughter and the sound of a dress rustling as she passed by them. They would feel the touch of a small hand on theirs or a tug on their clothing as though a small child wanted their attention. On many occasions, they would catch a glimpse of a small child in a white dress or items would vanish or be found moved from one place to another without explanation. The girl came to be most often experienced on the stairs leading to the third floor or on the second floor of the building. Sightings on the second floor were most common before the place was renovated several years ago and at that time, she was often spotted running down the hallway. That hallway was later turned into a dining room and the ghost began appearing in various other parts of the building, not limiting herself to one place (or even one building) in particular.
The legend goes on to say that the room where the family of the little girl stayed while in Alton is located on the top floor of the building. During the years when the hotel was still in operation, many guests refused to stay in this room, claiming that it was too cold or that strange sounds kept them up at night. During the period after the hotel was closed down, and while the building was empty for a time, merchant policemen who patrolled the downtown area would sometimes claim to see a light burning in this room, even though the building was locked and empty. After the building was renovated and opened again, employees would report hearing footsteps roaming around in this upstairs room but would always find it empty when they investigated the sounds. They also claimed that when they would go up to check the room, they would find the door mysteriously locked. After retrieving a key and returning to the upper floor, the door would always be found standing open – as if whoever had been inside had decided to leave. The room was never occupied during those brief minutes and no one could figure out why the door behaved in the way that it did.
Years passed after the hotel closed down and the location was eventually remodeled and renovated, then turned into several stores and a restaurant and tea room. After all of this time though, the haunting continued and employees once again began to tell stories of spirited pranks and glimpses of a little girl in a white dress. In the tea room, silverware would often move around on its own, glasses would inexplicably spill and kitchen items would sometimes mysteriously disappear. A number of guests who came to the place and went upstairs to view the Lincoln bedroom would often ask about the little girl who was playing on the nearby staircase. No one wanted to tell them that there was no little girl present in the building at the time!
Other restaurants and shops have also opened in the building and a few years ago, there was a gift shop that was also reportedly haunted by the little girl. She was frequently seen here and I was told that she had been responsible for at least one person quitting their job. This woman became so terrified when she spotted the ghost that she left work and never returned. She was allegedly so frightened that she refused to come back to the store to return her keys and actually mailed them to the owner. I was able to track the story down and to talk with the woman who had this harrowing encounter. She described her first day of work to me and explained to me that she was told throughout the day by other employees about the ghost. They promised her that one afternoon, it was likely that she would see the specter lurking around a corner or standing on a staircase. “I was a nervous wreck by the time the rest of them left for the day,” she recalled. “And then I was left there by myself.”
Her simple instructions were that she needed to gather all of the day’s paperwork together, turn out the lights and lock the door behind her when she left. It seemed easy and she breathed a sigh of relief as the clock ticked closer to quitting time and she had experienced nothing unearthly in the shop. Just as she was getting ready to close though, she opened a door that led to a staircase to the upper floor and there, sitting on the steps, was a little girl in a white dress. The woman let out a shriek and ran, leaving everything just as it was, lights still burning, scattered paperwork and all. She managed to lock the door as she rushed out but never returned to the store again.
Knowing a great story when I heard it, I then proceeded to tell that chilling and humorous tale to hundreds and hundreds of people who came to the History & Hauntings Tours over the next several years. However, I ended up telling the story one time too many. One night after spinning this yarn, a woman came up to me and asked if I remembered her? She explained that she had once been the owner of the shop from the story and she wanted to let me know that at least part of the story was missing. She told me that what I and the unlucky employee had not known was that on the day the “ghost sighting” occurred, the owner’s granddaughter was in the building visiting – and sitting on the stairs. It had been a little girl of flesh and blood that the employee had seen that day and not a ghost!
That story has since become known as ‘the ghost story that wasn’t” but the former owner assured me that the place was indeed haunted. I have no reason to disbelieve her either, as the stories of the Franklin House still continue to be told today.
Until early 2003, a portion of the Franklin House building was occupied by a small Italian restaurant. The door from State Street opened into a seating area for diners, and later into a bar area, and the upstairs rooms were used for private dinners. In the back portion of the space was an area that was once used for freight unloading for the former hotel and large arched doorways, that had long since been bricked over, could still be seen here. This back section had been turned into a small deli and food store and opened into the kitchen. It was a wonderful little place with good food and great aromas but sadly, closed down in the spring of 2003.
Before they left though, the staff members and owner had plenty of ghostly happenings to share. In fact, when I met the owner, one of the first things that he said to me was if I was looking for ghosts, “we have them here!” Over the course of the next few months, I was able to record a number of sightings and inexplicable events that occurred in this part of the building, further enhancing the already spooky reputation of the Franklin House.
One of the most common events to be described to me involved the front area where tables were located for dining. On many nights, servers told me of being in the deli area and hearing a small bell ring on the front door that would let them know if anyone came inside. On numerous occasions, the young ladies who worked here would hurry out front to show someone to a table or to take an order. The problem came when they realized that no one was there! They also spoke of the sounds of footsteps on the stairs leading up to the second floor and even more common, the sounds of people up there walking around and moving chairs and furniture back and forth. At times, it would sound as though an entire group of people had come in and were rearranging the upstairs rooms. When anyone would go up to see who was there, the sounds would stop and the entire floor would turn out to be deserted. On one occasion when I was in the restaurant, one of the servers came over and told me about a recent event when several of them were in the restaurant after hours. Once again, they heard the clomping and shuffling upstairs, as though a large group of people were moving around. The second floor again proved to be empty but she commented to me that it sounded as though there had been a large number of people up there dancing. Unbeknownst to her, that portion of the hotel had once been used as a ball room! Was “someone” still up there dancing?
Other strange activity was reported in the restaurant as well, including some documented events that were experienced by some ghost hunters who came to Alton in October 2002 for an event that we held at our bookstore. When the event was over, the group, who hailed from Kentucky and had little knowledge of Alton’s haunts, went to the restaurant for dinner. When they heard from the staff that the place was reported to be haunted, they decided to try out some electronic equipment that is often used in paranormal investigations. The owner directed them to a small restroom that was just off the main room and explained that a staircase there led down to the cellar. As the group started down the stairs, equipment in hand, a sudden surge caused all of the devices to go dead at the same moment! There was no explanation as to why this would occur and the equipment refused to work again inside of the building. It was not until they took them outside before they could get the meters to activate again.
More weird happenings were recalled after some renovations were started to expand the restaurant and to open a new dining room. Almost as soon as the construction work began, ghostly incidents began to be experienced by the staff. Knocking sounds were frequently heard and the already present phantom footsteps began to sound more and more often. Items around the restaurant began to vanish and then reappear in odd locations and one server told me of having a tray filled with dirty dishes knocked out of her hands one night. When she whirled around to confront the person she had bumped into, she found there was nobody there. One afternoon, some of the workers were installing a new overhead light in the dining room when the light suddenly jerked out of their hands and flew almost all of the way across the room. They had no explanation for what had caused this and were so flustered that they left for the day and did not return until the following morning.
Up until the time the establishment closed, the strange activity continued and recently, an antique and gift shop announced plans to open in a portion of the space that was once occupied by the restaurant. At some point, it seems likely that another eatery will open in the original space as well, again resting side by side with the seafood restaurant that is currently located in the main part of the former hotel. One has to wonder what sort of strange happenings will be reported in the future? Will the haunted happenings of the Franklin House fade into distant memory – or continue the legacy that has been created over the last century and a half?
© Copyright 2007 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.