Saturday, April 5, 2008
The Strange Story of Vishnu Springs
Ghost towns aren’t supposed to be found in the Midwest.
They’re supposed to be forgotten places, perhaps with a few weather-beaten, wooden shacks and crumbling brick storefronts, tucked in a remote corner of somewhere in the American West.
But hidden in the rolling hills of Western Illinois, about six miles north of the hamlet of Tennessee, is a genuine ghost town known as Vishnu Springs. It was established in the 1880s as a health and vacation spa, then largely abandoned since the early 20th century.
And it’s said to be haunted.
According to a paranormal web site, Shadowlands.com, “Vishnu is an old abandoned township located just west of Colchester. There are feelings of being watched, viewed shadow like beings in darkened corners.”
Additionally, other sources report sightings of a woman dress in black wandering the former Capitol Hotel, the largest and most intact structure still standing.
More serious historians, like retired Western Illinois University English Professor John Hallwas, who has written extensively on the history of Western Illinois, dismiss such talk and are concerned that amateur ghost hunters and curiosity seekers won’t respect the town site.
“The factor that leads to the rise of paranormal stories is usually the fact that people don’t know a lot about a location,” Hallwas told the Macomb Eagle in 2007. “If you were to ask someone who had lived in Vishnu Springs back at the turn of the century or the early 20th century about ghosts out there, they would have thought you were crazy.”
A visit to Vishnu Springs offers a few clues as to why some believe the site might host otherworldly spirits. For one thing, it’s a creepy place. The abandoned three-story hotel stands in a protected hollow surrounded by tall trees.
Even during the day, long shadows stretch across the hotel’s façade, casting it in a state of perpetual gloom.
The site is not open to the public but the local McDonough County Historical Society conducts occasional tours. During one last year, which was led by Professor Hallwas, the focus was on history not ghost stories. Yet the truth behind Vishnu Springs illustrates that sometimes the two aren’t that far apart.
“The remoteness of the place was a determining factor in it being here,” Hallwas noted. “The remoteness was part of its appeal, but it was also a factor that caused the community not to survive.”
According to Hallwas, Vishnu Springs traces its roots to the mid-1800s, when a man named Ebenezer Hicks began purchasing property around Tennessee. Hicks eventually owned more than 5,000 acres, including a parcel, called Section 7 of the Tennessee Township, which contained a small natural spring.
Sometime in the 1880s, Dr. John Aiken learned of Tennessee Springs, as it was originally called, and became convinced they had medicinal powers. He leased the property from Hicks and began selling bottles of the spring water as a health tonic for everything from bladder inflammation to diseases “peculiar to women.”
It was also about this time that the name was changed to Vishnu Springs. According to the nonprofit Friends of Vishnu Springs, which maintains a web site (www.vishnusprings.org), there are two explanations for the unusual name.
One version is that Dr. Aiken chose the name to honor the Hindu God Vishnu, who is the preserver of living things. Dr. Aiken thought the name reflected the healing nature of the springs.
However, the other take is that Ebenezer Hicks’ son, Darius, who, in 1886, inherited the springs, named it after reading a book that described the discovery of the ancient, lost city of Angkor in the jungles of Cambodia. Angkor’s water comes from the river Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu in the Hindu religion.
Apparently Dr. Aiken’s health elixir did not make him a wealthy man and he moved on. But Darius Hicks thought there was something special about the spring and, in 1889, began developing a resort-health spa on the site.
In 1889-90, the younger Hicks erected a fine three-story hotel at a cost of $2,500. About the same time, Hicks also married Hattie Rush, a widow from Missouri with three children. Hattie Hicks was apparently not a well woman and it is believed she came to the area to take advantage of the springs medicinal qualities.
In addition to building the hotel, Hicks subdivided the land around the springs, plating a town site consisting of about three blocks containing 30 lots, which he began to sell.
Within a few years, Vishnu Springs had been sufficiently built up that it included the hotel, several stores and homes, a livery stable, a racetrack and a photography studio. In 1895, a post office opened inside the hotel. There was even regular wagon service between Colchester and Vishnu, known as the Vishnu Transfer Line.
But a series of misfortunes helped to push Vishnu Springs into decline. The first occurred in the early 1900s, when a horse-drawn merry-go-round was installed to amuse the children of spa guests. The clothing of the man who operated the ride became ensnared in the device’s mechanism and he was crushed to death. Following the accident, the merry-go-round was never used again.
Additionally, in 1886, Hicks’ wife, Hattie, died from Bright’s disease (a kidney ailment). Hicks quickly remarried—but scandalized the community by wedding his own step-daughter, Maud, who was 26 years his junior. By all accounts, the marriage was a happy one but Maud died in 1903 while giving birth to their third child.
Shortly after, Hicks hired Nellie Darrah to watch his children and take care of his house. Apparently, Hicks and Darrah struck up a personal relationship and it’s believed she became pregnant with his child.
In June 1908, after Hicks told Darrah he would not marry her, she apparently sought to terminate the pregnancy. Later newspaper reports noted there were complications from the “criminal surgical procedure” and she was rushed to a hospital in Keokuk, Iowa.
Hicks received a telephone call that apparently notified him of these events. He told his nine-year-old son, Reon, that the boy could have his pocket watch, and then scribbled a suicide note asking that his children by raised by a cousin and stating that he knew he was about to become involved in a scandal but was innocent of the claims.
As the boy was walking to the barn, he heard a gunshot, rushed back into the house and found Hicks on the ground in a pool of his own blood. He died a short time later and was buried in the family plot in Friendship Cemetery in Tennessee.
“Hicks’ departure doomed the town,” Hallwas said. By the 1920s, the community was abandoned. However, in 1935, Macomb resident Ira Post, who had visited the spa as a child, purchased the site and restored the old hotel.
For the next two decades, Post used the property as a retreat for his family and friends. After his death in 1951, the family kept the springs open for three more years before closing it due to vandalism problems.
During the next several decades there were at least two attempts to revive the community. In the 1960s, the Post family leased the hotel and surrounding property to Alfred White and Albert Simmons, who announced plans to re-open the hotel and offer food and live music. The project, however, never came to fruition.
In the early 1970s, the hotel was rented out as a kind of commune for a group of Western Illinois University students and their friends. The group held music festivals, gardened and raised livestock to pay their expenses but after about a decade the effort was abandoned.
In 2003, Olga Kay Kennedy, a WIU graduate and the granddaughter of Ira Post, donated Vishnu Springs and 140 acres around the hotel to Western University with the understanding that it be developed as a wildlife sanctuary. The university, which has closed the site to all visitors, is currently developing a master plan for the site.
In recent years, the relative mystery surrounding the remote springs coupled with the tales of ghostly sightings has made it an irresistible attraction for local teens and WIU college students, particularly around Halloween time. In fact, on Halloween evening in 2007, police reported arresting more than a dozen individuals trying to gain access to the site.
In the end, it’s hard to say if Vishnu Springs truly is haunted—if you believe in such stuff. However, if it is, the ghosts seem to be fairly polite and quiet—no reports of crazy apparitions, strange lights or rattling chain noises—but that’s what probably what you would expect in a proper Midwestern ghost town.