Alton: One of America’s most haunted small towns. All of us have heard someone say that at least once.
When my wife, Donna, and I decided to plant our roots here, that moniker piqued our interest for a few reasons.
We prefer small towns over large cities. Small town residents, whether they like it or not, are uniquely bound together in a sort of communal quilt. We like that people come together in small towns.
We also like that you can’t really describe a small town, or a quilt, other than the sum of its parts. Just as the strength of the quilt comes from the stitches between quilt patches, the strength of the community often rests in the connections that bind a community together.
For Alton, we sensed those connections were strong and were shaped by a shared history — some good, and some bad — but a shared history nonetheless. And nowhere is history more prevalent than in the region’s hauntings.
While there is healthy disagreement about the very existence of hauntings, there must be agreement the 56 haunted tours listed on the Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau’s website for this month provide an amazing opportunity to share our history. For these hundreds, if not thousands, of paranormal tourists, Alton’s history will come alive this October.
How are we certain of this?
Earlier this year, we relocated our business, It’s Raining Zen, inside the historic Mineral Springs Mall.
Mineral Springs has long been recognized as a nucleus of paranormal activity and has, in one form or another, been a fixture on each of the half dozen haunted tours operating in and around Alton.
Six days a week, my wife and I have the opportunity to tell folks about Mineral Springs’ history, partially due to the paranormal encounters we have experienced in the building. The photographs, videos and recordings we capture throughout the building are convincing, but pairing those with the knowledge that resident historian Wayne Hensley, owner of Mineral Springs’ In Zone Barber Shop, has shared with us simply brings a century of history to life.
Like anyone else, after a long day, we want to return to the comforts of home. However, we are aware of the importance of sharing Alton’s history, and the related history of Mineral Springs, because it helps strengthen our community’s prominence, and Mineral Springs’ relevance, in the region’s history.
On a recent Saturday night, we led a small group of out-of-town paranormal enthusiasts through Mineral Springs after the building closed. Incredible evidence was captured that night, including photographs of faces and orbs, unexplainable noises and peripheral movements, a tennis ball moving without human interaction, and off-the-chart electric readings (in rooms without power).
That group experienced life-altering phenomena in Mineral Springs. For them, it was a positive experience that gave them comfort and explanation, perhaps, for some of life’s unexplainable mysteries. More important, that group felt a real connection with Alton’s history.
Other Mineral Springs investigations yield similar connections with history.
About two months ago, our friend and colleague, Coyote Chris Sutton, led an investigation with local paranormal enthusiasts. A nationally recognized shaman and investigator, Sutton’s group also experienced orbs, electricity spikes and captured many unexplainable images. For these locals, they already had a connection with Alton’s history, but the experience strengthened their bond with the community.
Last weekend, more than 100 people participated in two Alton Hauntings’ tours. Regardless of where they call home, each of town’s historic buildings kindled a spark in these folks that energized their present-day experience and connection to history.
When they descended on Mineral Springs, lively historical discussions developed, goose bumps appeared, children giggled and adults gasped when they couldn’t explain the photographs and videos we showed them, and many told stories about Pearl, Cassandra, the Jasmine Lady and others — all of whom are said to haunt Mineral Springs. The point is, for dozens of people — some local, some from far away, some who believe in the paranormal, and others who don’t — history came alive.
For Mineral Springs owner Dan Hornsey, who dropped by as one of the groups made its way through the building, hosting tours is an opportunity to share Alton’s history.
“I grew up here, so Mineral Springs has always been more than an address on Broadway,” Hornsey said after the tour.
“The building, and what occurred here, as well as what happened throughout Alton is a part of our history,” Hornsey said. “Visiting Mineral Springs on a haunted tour, or any other kind of tour, opens up Alton’s history and ensures the community’s history isn’t lost to time.”
Hornsey’s thoughts about our community’s connection with history really resonated with me. Stories about Alton’s ghosts are less about the haunting and far more about the energy, enthusiasm and connection those who experience the hauntings feel. That shared experience. Our shared history.
Undoubtedly, Internet searches about the Enos Sanatorium and the First Unitarian Church follow every haunted tour. Those searches, in turn, lead to the Underground Railroad, our infamous prison and the disposition of its limestone walls, or perhaps 19th century smallpox quarantine practices, or the lack thereof. And before folks realize it, the Piasa Bird becomes something more than a painting on the way to Grafton.
Whether you believe in the paranormal isn’t important. What matters is acknowledging the connections the paranormal has to our history. This history is what binds us all together like patches a quilt.
As nights get a little longer, wind whistles through freshly barren trees, and a chill comes over the region, consider exploring the history of Alton. If you get cold or scared, particularly in Mineral Springs Mall, we promise to wrap you in the warmth and safety of our quilt. And, who knows, your experiences may become a new patch on that quilt for future generations to talk about … long after you slip our earthly bonds!