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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
back to Haunted Decatur!
Copyright 2006 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.