Phantoms on the Rails
Decatur's Railroads & The Ghosts Who Came with Them

One of the most exciting events in the history of early Decatur was the arrival of the railway train. It arrived on April 21, 1854 and came to a stop at the new Great Western Railroad Depot, which was located at the corner of Broadway and Cerro Gordo Streets. Regular passenger service from Springfield began on May 8.
At the time that the first train arrived, the station was located outside of the city limits but it wasn't long before Decatur began to expand northward along the tracks. The railroad soon brought prosperity to the city, linking it to outside markets and distant cities.


The Wabash (left) and Illinois Central Train Stations in 1903

The Great Western Railroad changed names several times over the years and eventually became part of the Norfolk & Western Railroad. In addition, there were many other rail services to Decatur, although the greatest of these were the Wabash and the Illinois Central.
 
The first Wabash roundhouse was built in Decatur in 1869 and it had eight stalls. The Wabash shops were moved to Decatur in 1884 and operations here expanded rapidly. Decatur became the hub of all of the railroad's operation and in 1925 had a peak employment of 3,500 men, making it the largest employer in the city. Eventually, the railroad died out in the city and the Wabash merged with Norfolk & Western in 1964. A heavy loss in passenger service was cited as the main reason for the merger and most of the service was finally abandoned. At one point, at its peak, the Wabash Railroad operated 25 passenger trains out of Decatur every day.

The second rail service to come to the city was the Illinois Central, which arrived here in October 1854. A Union station was built in 1856 at the southeast corner of the intersection of the Illinois Central and Wabash lines. This building served until 1903, because by then, both companies had built their own stations. The old Union Station included the Central House Hotel, which offered sleeping quarters, offices and a dining room. Abraham Lincoln stayed the night at the hotel while attending the Republican convention here in 1860.

The new Illinois Central Station was built in 1900 and was the loading point for 27 daily passenger trains. Decatur was once the main stop between Chicago and St. Louis but eventually the passenger service died out and the old station was razed in 1951, leaving only memories behind.

The old train stations were once located just north of Eldorado Street in Decatur. Today, this area is a nearly forgotten place, although it was once one of the busiest parts of the city. Now, only the distant rumble of freight cars can be heard here and provide only the remembrance of the things that were.
 
During the day, this was a stopping place for passengers who were riding the trains and passing through the city. During the heyday of the railroad in Decatur, hundreds of people came here every single day, possibly heading for a city as near as Chicago or possibly on the first link to a final destination on the other side of America. Besides the two train stations, the Wabash and the Illinois Central, there were a number of hotels, restaurants and businesses located here, all hoping for the prosperity delivered with each train that arrived in the city. But that was in the daylight hours....

After darkness fell, the area became the Levee District, considered to be one of the most dangerous parts of the city and the hub of Decatur's most illicit activities. The Levee District extended from Water Street on the west to Wabash Street on the north, and ending at the Illinois Central tracks. It took its name from a high bank of earth that surrounded a pond at the Illinois Central Station. The banked wall was called a "levee" and the name somehow stuck for the whole area. The place became a magnet for crime and criminals over the years and was known for its collection of saloons, gambling houses and brothels.

Despite the lurid reputation of the Levee though, it should be noted that there were also a number of fine hotels and restaurants that prospered in this area of the city, both during the height of criminal activity in the district and after.
One such place was Sullivan's saloon, which was the first business in the city to have electric lights in 1883. They were a novelty in Decatur for several months before electricity became more widely available.

The most successful businesses were located just south of the Wabash station on a wedge-shaped lot that is cornered by both Front and Angle Streets. The first was a hotel called the National, which opened in 1886 and faced the Illinois Central Station to the east. To the rear of the hotel, facing the Wabash Station, was a small restaurant that also served as a newsstand and sold drinks and tobacco to rail passengers. A small saloon also connected to the hotel.


The Angle Hotel

In 1906, a large portion of the triangular lot became the property of George W. Kraft, a businessman who owned the Whistle Bottling Works, three gold mines in Colorado and who also helped to start Decatur's first volunteer fire department. The National Hotel was torn down and in 1907, the Kraft Hotel was built in its place. Originally, Kraft had simply planned to add onto the National Hotel but he abandoned this in a favor of a new building. His business would compete with another hotel that had opened at the south end of the triangle lot, the Angle, which had been built a few years before.

The Kraft Hotel was one of the finest in the city. It had 48 rooms, each with a private bath and hot and cold running water. The main entrance faced toward the south end of the Illinois Central Station and the place boasted a dining room and a barber shop for travelers. In 1914, a new section was constructed, providing an additional 51 guest rooms. The expanded hotel also featured a large garage that today houses Decatur Auto Body. The garage still bears the original name on the outside and is the only part of the hotel still standing.

In 1953, the ownership of the hotel passed to Charles E. Witts, who would change the name to Hotel Charles and then to the Motor Hotel in 1960. Witts would expand the business to include a tavern and it was later turned into the Flamingo Club, which offered food, drinks and live entertainment. The hotel closed for good in November 1966 but the building would continue to be used for years to come.

After the Flamingo Club, Stevie's Latin Village opened in the late 1950's and was later replaced by Dante's Italian Village, which is still remembered today for its atmosphere and fine food. Dante's closed down in the middle 1970's and the building sat idle until 1987, when it was destroyed by fire. The site stands empty today save for a few remnants of concrete and a lot of old memories.

It has been many years since passengers have been able to leave Decatur by railroad but freight trains still use the aging tracks everyday. Late at night, in some parts of the city, one can hear the rolling, booming sounds of the cars as they rumble along the tracks or the lonely whistle of the engine as it rides along through the darkness. The railroads are not completely forgotten in Decatur ---- and neither are the railroad's ghosts.

A few years ago, if you had traveled down Front Street, you would have ended your short journey in front of the decaying remains of the old Wabash Station. At the time, it was nothing more than a shell of what it once was. Its tower had been removed, the windows were boarded over and closed up and it seemed that its days were numbered. As of this writing though, what was once a ruined pile of bricks is now a thriving antique business that offers customers a look back toward yesterday in both the items that it sells and in the building where the business is housed. Thanks to a lot of hard work and renovations, those who visit the Wabash Station today are greeted by the place as it once was. The trains no longer stop here but the ticket windows remain, as do the wood floors and waiting benches. Antique enthusiasts have replaced the railroad passengers and the freight and baggage handlers have turned into furniture displays, but when you step inside, you see that it's a place where the past comes alive. And late at night, when everyone has left the building and all of the lights in the old station have been turned out --- there are some who believe that the place is still not empty.

One of Decatur's railroad ghost stories concerns the phantom of a young girl who was reportedly seen inside of the station during the years when it was still in operation, especially in the 1940's. Back in those days, the building was a still a hub of activity and passengers came and went all day long and into the night. It would be during these nighttime shifts that staff members and railroad workers would encounter the eerie woman in white who was seen sitting on a bench in the station.

According to the legend, this young lady had once been married to a man who went off to fight in the Great War in 1918. After many months of fighting, she received a letter from him stating that he was coming home. Eagerly, she went down to the train station on the scheduled date of his arrival to meet the train. She waited all afternoon, watching the passengers disembark from each train, but her husband did not appear. She returned home disappointed, but came back the next day, thinking that perhaps he had been delayed. Another day passed and then another, until finally, an entire week had gone by. Still, there was no sign of him. Then, a telegram arrived the following afternoon. Her husband had been killed in a bus accident in New York, on his way to the train that would have taken him home. Distraught, the young woman swallowed a bottle of pills and committed suicide. She had been unable to cope with the loss of her true love. As the years passed, those who worked, and even passed through, the Wabash Station reported the sight of a lovely young woman, still waiting expectantly on a bench in the station.

Staff members at the old station often spoke of seeing the young woman in a white dress. She often appeared on the waiting benches, looking frantic and worried but never stayed around for long. In some reports, she merely faded away but in others, she vanished more dramatically. "I saw her one minute and then turned away," one former employee told me. "When I looked back again, she was simply gone."

Another employee who had a brush with the lady was a former cleaning woman for the station. She was working alone in the ladies restroom one day. All of the sudden, the door opened and this flowery perfume filled the bathroom. The cleaning lady looked out to see who was in the room with her but there was no one there. She knew the door had never opened again. She was convinced that it was the ghost."

Staff members have also gone on to say that the sightings of the woman in white continued for many years but then seemed to fade in the 1950's. There were no reports of the ghost from the later years of the station's operations.

Another of Decatur's railroad ghost stories involves a mysterious light that is seen bobbing along the tangle of tracks behind the Wabash Station. The light has been spotted countless times throughout the years as it moves back and forth and follows the lines of the railroad tracks for some distance before suddenly blinking out.

There have been a couple of different explanations for why the light appears here. One of them is a folk legend of some endurance. I have heard this story, or at least one similar to it, in various parts of the country. Does it explain the strange light that has been seen behind the railroad station? No one really knows for sure but this particular story about it has been told for many years.

During the heyday of the railroad, each train was outfitted with a number of employees, each with his own tasks to perform in order to keep the train running on schedule. One such rail worker was the brakeman, who rode in the train's caboose. His job was to remain on watch in tunnels, at crossings or at the station, for any signs of trouble. He always carried a lantern with him so that he could signal the engineer with any problems. When the train was stopped for loading, the brakeman would walk alongside the train and look things over.

According to the story, a train came into Decatur one night, possibly in the early part of the 1900's. The train pulled to a stop and the brakeman climbed down from the rear platform of the caboose to begin his usual system of checking the cars with his lantern. He had only gone a short distance when he spotted trouble. He leaned into the space between two freight cars and was caught off guard when the train suddenly lurched forward and knocked him off his feet. Somehow, his head passed into a space between two cars and it slammed closed, severing his head.
 
One of the other workers saw the brakeman's lantern fall and he ran to try and help him. A number of other men ran in the same direction and a small crowd was soon gathered around the man's body. They carried him into the train station but in all of the excitement, no one thought to look for his head.

To this day, the ghost of the brakeman is said to still walk the tracks just past the old railroad station. On certain nights, the bobbing light of a railroad lantern can be seen tracing the line of a long forgotten freight train --- as a phantom brakeman searches in vain for his missing head.

This is one explanation for the strange ghost light and as mentioned, the story of the "phantom brakeman" has been around for many years and stories just like it have been told all over the country. As you will soon find though, this is not the only explanation for the light and why it appears in Decatur. This explanation can be traced to a very real event from the city's history and may explain not just one, but two, hauntings from Decatur's past.

In October 1935, one of the most sensational unsolved murders in our history took place just north of the Wabash Station. On a chilly evening of that year, former Decatur police chief Omer Davenport was brutally slain by unknown assailants. At the time of his death, Davenport was on duty as a special patrolman for the Wabash railroad.
At the time of his death, Davenport was probably one of the most well-liked and respected men in the city. He had distinguished himself in the military and had become the commanding officer of the 130th Infantry of the Illinois National Guard. After serving during World War I, he returned to Decatur and became the chief of police for three years. He was the youngest chief to ever serve, taking over the position at the age of 26. Davenport left the police department in 1927 and became a special patrolman for the railroad --- a job that would eventually get him killed.
 
On the morning of October 8, the Wabash Passenger Train No. 17 arrived in Decatur from Chicago and Davenport was nearby as it pulled to a stop just west of Morgan Street. In the dim light, he saw two black men jump from the train and dodge behind a flagman's shack. Davenport started in their direction to investigate, but before he could get very far, both of them pulled out revolvers and began firing in his direction.

One bullet struck him in the leg and the other in the neck. He fell beside the tracks, bleeding badly, while the two men climbed onto the nearest passing freight train and disappeared.

Other patrol officers began searching the area and after a phone call, the Decatur police force also joined in the hunt. Unfortunately, the description of the two men was sketchy but the police had other clues to work with. The gun that killed Davenport had been stolen the night before from the home of Isaiah Taylor, who also reported that a number of other items had been taken. Some of these items were later found near the scene of Davenport's shooting.

Police detectives searched the area and officers from all over the city and county worked overtime on the case. The night shift worked all of the way through the next day as they scoured the city for leads. The local highways, railroad yards and freight cars were searched and one group of officers walked along the line from the Wabash yard to Elwin in hopes that some lead might be found. Trains were stopped and cars searched. Trucks were stopped on the highways and deputies went to nearby towns to search the railroad depots. The state police aided in the search and broadcast the description of the suspects all over Illinois.

Meanwhile, Omer Davenport had been rushed to the nearby Wabash Employees Hospital, which was located on East Grand Avenue, a short distance from the station. He was still alive when he arrived there but began to fail a short time later. The doctors, who initially felt that he might recover, now began to offer a poor prognosis. The bullet that had struck his throat had worked itself into one of his lungs. It was causing serious complications and if they tried to operate, they were convinced that it would kill him. He died later on that night.


Wabash Employee’s Hospital in 1903

A few days later, the manhunt began to slow down. Detectives traveled as far as St. Louis and Chicago in pursuit of some sort of lead but they found nothing. A reward was offered by the railroad in exchange for information about the killers, but it was never paid. Whoever the two men were, they vanished into history, leaving behind no clues as to their identities.

Omer Davenport was buried with full military honors but there are many who believe that he has never rested in peace. For years after his death, there were those who believed that his ghost haunted the Wabash Employees Hospital where he died. There were many reports of a man fitting his description who was seen walking the hallways and vanishing without explanation.

The hospital closed down in 1972 and was used for a time as a community health improvement center before being abandoned. During its final years of operations, staff members spoke of the ghost of a man who wandered the building as if lost and then faded from sight. Could this have been the lingering spirit of Omer Davenport? The old hospital was demolished in 1996, leaving that question unanswered.

But what about the other haunting connected to the railroad detective?

This brings us back to the mysterious light that appears behind the old Wabash station, almost exactly where Davenport was shot in 1935. In this explanation of the light, it is the ghost of Omer Davenport, not some mythical brakeman, who roams the tracks. Thanks to his untimely death --- and the fact that his killers were never brought to justice --- it is believed that the light is actually the flashlight of the slain patrolman as he wanders the line, hoping to find some clue that to the identities of the men who took his life.
 

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© Copyright 2006 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.