A faint chill settles over the Great Plains. The days begin to shorten as the dark of night wrestles for dominance over the light of day. The lively buzz of insects and constant chatter of woodland life begins to slowly grind to a halt, leaving in their stead the desolate stillness of mid-autumn.
As the second full month of fall looms, and with Halloween rapidly approaching, one can’t help but note how perfectly the Midwestern weather seems to meld with the ghostly aspects of the pagan holiday.
This annual change is particularly noticeable in Lincoln’s largest natural attraction, Wilderness Park. Incidentally, the park and the area surrounding it is a nexus for reports of paranormal activity, and much of the city’s early history.
A walking bridge formerly paved by railroad, this location is rumored to be a gateway to the underworld. In 1894, it was the site of a horrific incident in which a train heading northbound on the tracks fell off the side of the bridge, resulting in a fire and 11 deaths.
The incident was found to be the result of sabotage, with railroad spikes having been removed from the track prior to the derailment.
A man named George Washington Davis was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder in connection to the incident, but was put on parole by the governor, who had “grave doubts” about the sentencing, according to the Lincoln Journal Star. The incident is the worst instance of mass-murder in the state’s history.
Since that tragic day, there have been various stories of unusual activity in the area, especially around dusk and into the night.
The most common reports are of whispering noises from the trees. Heavy footsteps are heard coming from behind when near the bridge, which has now been paved over into a walking path overlooking the Jamaica North Trail, forever sealing away the evidence of the doomed tracks beneath.
Nebraska State Penitentiary
Just two miles south of Hell’s front doorstep is the portal to another hellish realm. Established in 1870, the penitentiary is one of Lincoln’s oldest institutions, established just 14 years after the city was founded.
In 1912, a prison break was staged by three inmates who escaped after killing the warden and two other attendants. Earlier that year, another deputy warden was stabbed to death by an inmate.
In total, 23 prisoners have been executed at the penitentiary dating back to 1903. Eight of these were by hanging, the rest by electrocution.
It’s reported that ghostly figures can sometimes be seen attempting to escape from the prison, and there have also been mysterious sightings of a long-since demolished guard post.
The last stop on our tour, Robber’s Cave is less than a mile north of Lincoln’s infamous jailhouse, and the city’s only underground attraction. A system of interconnected tunnels, some natural and some man-made sections older than Lincoln itself, Robber’s Cave has been a popular haunt for all sorts of people, from Native American tribes to college fraternities to the Ku Klux Klan.
The caves have been in use for almost two centuries, and the limestone walls serve as a tapestry for a living artwork of carvings by the many who have passed through over the years.
There have been reports of everything from blood-curdling screams, laughter and voices to chanting and the beating of drums from deep within the cave, especially in an area deep within the tunnels known as Robber’s Roost.
There are unconfirmed rumors of a section walled-off by concrete leading to escape tunnels from the state penitentiary, where many prisoners might have perished in the abyssal depths of the caves as they sought their freedom.
The spirit of the frontier still inhabits the rolling plains of Nebraska, and nowhere is it more alive than in the historic Southwestern edge of the city. In places where criminals gathered among the trees, in caves and behind concrete walls, and where heinous activity ran amok, the lawful and the lawless converged at this vital hub of early Nebraska history.
As the Halloween season draws to a close and we recall the ghosts of the past, perhaps they can tell us something of our future. What happens today might one day become the history and ghost stories told by those who come after us.