Vishnu Springs: Is the old place haunted

Katrina Best

The weird thing about Vishnu Springs is how it came to be so peaceful and so unsettling at the same time. A thriving resort community in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Vishnu Springs is Western Illinois’ only ghost town.Local historians downplay stories of spirits or paranormal activity, but several Web sites claim peculiar things have been seen and heard in the secluded site nestled along the Lamoine River, northwest of Colchester.

All agree, however, that vandals have done their part to destroy much of what once existed at Vishnu Springs. These days uninvited visitors will be arrested if they step on the property, which is owned by Western Illinois University.

In fact, more than 50 people have been arrested since the beginning of this year. A caretaker watches over the property, which still includes a three-story hotel, an old grain tower, foundations and the spring that gave the town its name.

As for ghostly tales, some have reported seeing a woman in black. When you approach her, she mysteriously disappears.

Perhaps the most gruesome event associated with the springs occurred in 1903, when the town had a horse-drawn carousel for children. One day, the owner of the attraction was taking a group of children for a ride, watching them carefully.

No one is quite certain what happened next. Apparently, he was watching the children so intently he did not notice his own shirt had become ensnared in the carousel gears. The children’s cries of glee turned to screams of horror when the man was pulled into the contraption and crushed to death.

Between 1910 and 1930, little is known about the spring. Some say it was a hideout for gangster Al Capone and other criminals. There are even legends that the men may have hidden money in caves in the area (these caves are also rumored to have been used for making bootleg liquor during that time).

Accoding to John Hallwas, retired Western English professor and local historian, Vishnu Springs traces its beginnings to the mid-1800s when McDonough County rancher Ebenezer Hicks acquired the land. A man named Dr. John Aiken leased the land with the intention of developing a therapeutic resort that would take advantage of a natural mineral spring located there.

Aiken did not succeed, and the property was taken over by Hicks’ son, Darius, who built the three-story Capitol Hotel as well as a goldfish pond, called Lake Vishnu, a skating rink, racetrack, flower gardens, croquet courts and the merry-go-round.

He also sold lots around the hotel, hoping to develop a small resort community. Eventually, the town included several houses, two stores, a livery stable and a post office.

Hallwas said the resort’s remote location ultimately doomed its chances of success, and it was virtually abandoned by the 1920s.

As for developer Darius Hicks, local expert Marla Vizdal explained how he led an interesting life.

He was married three times, each time being a little more unusual than the first. He divorced his first wife, the second died in childbirth and the third was his stepdaughter from the previous marriage, who was quite a bit younger than him.

A woman by the name of Nellie Darrah became the caretaker for the children, and she too became romantically involved with Hicks. When she became pregnant, however, she tried to convince Hicks to marry her. When Hicks refused, she subsequently had an abortion, which did not go well and caused her to become hospitalized. When Hicks learned this, he committed suicide.

In 1935, Ira Post bought the land. Post hoped to open Vishnu back up to the public. However, Post died in 1951, and the property was closed completely in 1954.

In April 1968, two gentlemen came to Vishnu with a dream. They hoped to open a restaurant and offered overnight stays for 50 cents. Even though the men had good intent, the town went under and Vishnu Springs was closed again.

Betty Post, a member of the Post family, decided to open Vishnu in the early 1970s to Western students. During this time, the students held different music festivals to pay rent, had gardens and raised livestock. This only lasted about 10 years. Some say it ended because Betty Post only rented half of the hotel while the upper part was used for storage. One day when Post went to a flea market, she ended up seeing furniture that was supposed to be stored away in the hotel.

More recently, the Post family donated Vishnu Springs to Western. A non-profit group, Friends of Vishnu, is trying to restore the old Vishnu Springs and hopes to open it to the public again as a nature preserve.

Is the old place haunted? Who knows, but in the late afternoon, when the shadows lengthen and the wind picks up, you hear what might be the sound of leaves rustling – or it might just be something else. contributed to this article.