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Hop Hollow Road
Alton's Most Haunted Roadway

Stories are based on the Book Haunted Alton by Troy Taylor

The spirits of the Civil War in Alton do not confine themselves to this chapter of the book, any more than they confine themselves to the site of the old Alton Penitentiary. As noted already, there are tales of Confederate ghosts who still wander the area that was once Smallpox Island and later on, the reader will also be introduced to an officer who refuses to leave his final resting place. In addition to these haunts, there are also the Civil War spirits whose legend has taken the form of perhaps America’s most popular form of specter – hitchhiking ghosts.

The old entrance to Hop Hollow Road from the
river ferry landing

It was not long after the military took over the Alton Penitentiary in 1862 that a prisoner died and needed to be buried. Following the same methods as the Illinois state officials and guards, soldiers who were assigned to the burial detail loaded the body onto a raft and floated the prisoner upriver to the ferry landing a short distance from the prison. The body was then placed in the back of a wagon and was transported along a wooded trail that was known as Hop Hollow Road. The path wound through the forest, around the bluffs and through Hop Hollow itself. Eventually, it ended near a small clearing in North Alton, on what is now Rozier Street, that had been turned into a cemetery by the original prison officials. The body was then placed in a shallow grave and a numbered stake was placed over it. An undertaker recorded what information existed about the man and he became the next line in the ledger book – until another prisoner died and the process was repeated all over again.

Or at least that was supposed to be how it worked. Legends state that sometimes the burials of the Confederate prisoners did not turn out so well or go according to the  established plan. According to the stories, the corpses of the Confederate prisoners occasionally did not make it all of the way to the burial ground in North Alton. Union soldiers who were assigned to the burial detail were usually the worst of the bunch when it came to discipline and attitude and such a detail was often assigned as a punishment. As has already been established in this chapter, the men who were in charge of guarding the prison were not always the most competent that the military had to offer anyway and those on the burial detail were likely the worst of them. The legends say that these men would often load the bodies onto wagons at the ferry landing as they were supposed to but would never actually make the entire trip up Hop Hollow Road to the burial ground. Rather than exert this much effort, they would stop the wagon along the roadway somewhere and simply drag off the corpses and dump them in the woods. A bottle would be broken out and the soldiers would play cards and drink for the amount of time that it should have taken to transport the dead prisoners and bury them and then would return to the prison.

I admit that I was skeptical when I first heard this story and wondered how much truth there could actually be to it. One thing that I have learned over the years though is that at the heart of every legend lies a kernel of truth, no matter how small. I was to find that the Hop Hollow Road story was no exception to that rule.

One day, about six months after hearing this story for the first time, I had the opportunity to speak with an Alton police officer who had an interest in the unusual. He told me that a few years back, when he had just started with the police department, he had been assigned to answer a call about a body that had been found in the woods near what was once Hop Hollow Road. Today, the largest part of this road no longer exists. A faint trail is all that can be found leading away from the spot known as Blue Pool. It curves into a heavily wooded area (which is private property) and comes to an end at Holland Street. This was once a well-used road and beyond it, the remains of the road become Rozier Street, which passes by the Confederate Cemetery. This police officer was told that a body had been discovered near the crossing of Holland and Rozier and he went there expecting the worst. When he arrived, he found that the teenagers who had discovered the body had drug it out near the road. What they found was a collection of old bones that, according to this account, were found to have been left in the woods some time around the Civil War. Could this have been the remains of one of the prisoners who had been left in the woods and never properly buried?

It certainly gave the legend of the duty-shirking Union soldiers more credibility but did it lend credence to the rest of the story? As it happened, bodies that had been left in the woods were not the only fantastic portions of the story. In fact, it was only the beginning.

The legend went on to say that the ghosts of these improperly buried Confederates refused to rest in peace and that they returned to haunt Hop Hollow Road. Over the years, their apparitions had reportedly been seen along the roadway and as time passed, the tale was expanded to include the fact that these ghosts not only walked the road near where their bodies had been left – but that they signaled passing vehicles in hopes of getting a ride! A ride to where? To the cemetery where their bodies were supposed to have been laid to rest, of course. Those luckless drivers who did pick up one of these passengers along the road were always shocked when the hitchhiker simply vanished without a trace from the seat beside them. At that point, so the story goes, they realized that they had picked up a ghost.

As the reader can imagine, my skepticism nearly reached the breaking point with this portion of the story and I am not embarrassed to say that I openly scoffed at it. There are stories of these “vanishing hitchhikers” in nearly every part of the country (and Alton has at least one other that I know of) and they are usually little more than local lore. That was exactly what I thought of this story for more than a year after I heard it – until I witnessed a very strange incident one night that led me to believe that there might be more to the story that first meets the eye.

The incident occurred one night during one of our History & Hauntings Ghost Tours of Alton. I first got involved in hosting ghost tours in Alton in 1999, about a year after moving to the city. Prior to that, I had hosted the Haunted Decatur Tours in Decatur, Illinois and after moving to Alton, began working with my friend Sonny Irvin in developing a tour that actually combined an accurate history with the documented ghost stories of the region. The tours have since changed into an interactive walking tour of the city’s most haunted sites but in those days, we were still doing a tour aboard a trolley that carried us around to haunted places. I stopped doing this type of tour because it was hard to make it so that the attendees could actually become a part of the tour and not just passengers. I was able to accomplish this with the candlelight walking tour but on this night, all of us became a part of the strangeness that was occurring along Hop Hollow Road.

It was late one evening in October and the trolley had just turned off of Holland and onto Rozier. At this point in the route, the trees began to press a little closer on each side and we passed through a darkened area that was probably as close to what Hop Hollow Road looked like in the past as we were going to see. It was very dark out that night and it had been raining on and off and I was just about to start telling the story about the Confederate bodies that had been left in the woods when two young women in the back of the trolley suddenly began to scream. They screamed so loud and so long that it sent everyone on the tour into a panic. Others had become unnerved by the screaming and to be honest, I was more than a little startled myself. Sonny, who was driving the trolley at the time, actually pulled the vehicle over to the side of the road to try and help calm everyone down.

When things quieted a little, I hurried back to the seats where the two women were and asked them what was wrong. I was not expecting anything otherworldly to have occurred but could not understand why they had been screaming. One of them had recovered enough to explain to me what she had seen. She told me that a few moments after the trolley turned down the wooded road, she and her friend had looked out of the window and had seen the figures of two men step out of the trees. They raised their arms, waving them back and forth – and then abruptly vanished!

I wasn’t sure what to make of their story and actually considered the idea that they might be trying to pull my leg, so to speak. They were visibly upset though and after questioning them, learned that they had come for the tour from Kansas City and had never been to Alton before. They had never heard about any ghostly soldiers along this roadway and would not have known how to hoax a story about them if they had wanted to.

 I soon became convinced that they had seen “something” but what it might have been, I cannot say for sure. I’ll leave that up to you, the reader, to decide but I will leave you with this – if you do happen to be driving along the street off Hop Hollow Road some night and you happen to see someone near the edge of the woods, waving his arms and looking for a ride….

I don’t recommend that you pick him up!

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© Copyright 2007 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.