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The first thunderstorm in several months hits Alton after dark, and as lightning flashes through the lobby windows onto the tile floors and outdated furniture of the 90-year-old Stratford Hotel, it is hard not to imagine a leering Jack Nicholson just around every corner. Except for an old woman who stands peering into an empty phone booth, the lobby is deserted.
Off the main room, the walls of the hotel bar are covered with faded images of charging buffalo and pioneers struggling with overturned wagons, hand-painted there in 1940 by a guest in exchange for room and board. Alone behind the bar, George Davis polishes glasses.
"Ghosts?" he asks with a bored smile. "I've never seen a ghost in this hotel or anywhere in Alton or anywhere else I've been."
Shaking off her umbrella in the doorway a few minutes later, Cindy Kamp admits she doesn't know whether the hotel is haunted, either, but suggests it should make a great place to start her haunted tour this year. "It's such a spooky kind of place," she says, eyeing the foaming-at-the-mouth buffalo on every wall.
Kamp's tour is just one of several that will prowl through Alton this month in search of spirits. Because the Illinois river town was recently named "possibly the most haunted town in the USA" by Fate magazine, a 40-year-old national publication devoted to paranormal matters, the tour guides all talk excitedly about the expected increase in tourists who come, year after year, in search of ghosts.
But Kamp is a newcomer to the scene and decided a one-night-only twirl through town was her limit. Currently a temp worker in St. Louis, Kamp lived in Alton her entire life, and after hosting tours of the town for the local history museum, she decided a one-time haunted tour would be fun.
"I'm not really a psychic or a ghost specialist or anything," she says after ordering a Coke from George. "I mean, I'm not like Antoinette or some of the others. I just want to do this because I think it will be a blast."
When asked to define a ghost, she hesitates, then shrugs: "It could be anything, really."
Later that night, as she runs the route of the tour in her Lincoln, Cindy says she's heard that entire neighborhoods of Alton are suspected of being haunted. It is still raining as she pulls into 12th Street, where she says more hauntings have been reported than anywhere else in town. These include footsteps, toilets flushing for no reason, Abraham Lincoln walking from house to house, little darting lights and a floating head. "I don't know all of the floating-head story," she concedes, "but, you know, I don't know if I want to know."
There may be a place in town that's even more haunted than 12th Street, though. "It's called the McPike Mansion. It's empty, condemned now, and even though I don't know the owner, I'm planning on driving the tour by it, because so many weird things have happened there. Wanna go?"
The lightning-slashed drive to the McPike House is full of more ghost stories: Red monster eyes seen in rearview mirrors, the Confederate cemetery, Small Pox Island. "I don't know if I really believe in ghosts, but I think I must. I believe this is a spiritual world," Cindy says, "and maybe ghosts running around in white sheets are part of it."
Then, as the Lincoln turns the corner of 20th and Alby, a feeling heavier than the night's weather fills the car. There, washed in the eerie glow of upturned floodlights, is a three-story Victorian structure so broken, so weatherbeaten, so hauntingly beautiful in its ruin, you know without being told what it is.
Cindy shivers in the front seat. "Pretty scary, huh?"
From the eastern edge of the Mississippi River, Alton rises up on the craggy bluffs as though its builders didn't know where to put its contents. Hilly side streets -- with signs that warn drivers "Do Not Descend When Wet" -- shoot up and down the limestone slopes like greased tracks on a geologic roller coaster.
The city's location at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers brought travelers to the area from as far back as 1673, when Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet first passed through, and the vestiges of that rollicking river time -- brick streets, stone houses and prickly iron fences -- contribute to the town's funky atmosphere. Since then, periodic natural disasters, famous murders and the treacheries of the Civil War have melded with the river heritage to create an atmosphere rich for ghost hunting. The city drips with creepy history.
Douglas Arnold, president of the Greater Alton/Twin Rivers Convention & Visitors Bureau, says he's not sure why there's so much recent interest in Alton's ghosts, but he's willing to cash in on it just the same:
"We do have these incredibly wonderful residences that have been standing since the Civil War with all their family histories. And there's almost always some ne'er-do-well or someone who died in the home, and that fosters concerns.
"The history here is immense, and the river brought a lot of colorful people to the region, and those people are part of the ghost stories," Arnold says. "The people who choose to believe in ghosts who are ghost hunters seem to find Alton fascinating."
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