There’s no mistaking it now; the season change is upon us. The last gasps of faded summer are being swept away like fallen yellow leaves by brisk autumnal winds.
It’s a time to settle in and react to ourselves with darkness as each day provides a little less sunlight, a little less warmth. The onset of winter is still a ways away, but now we have to come to terms with its inevitable return.
Ominous days indeed, especially for the people of the past — those with no furnace, who’d never heard of a grocery store, the ones whose survival to spring wasn’t assured. They’re the ones who embraced tales of supernatural fright, told stories so immediately scary they forced anxiety over larder stock and long-term firewood supply to the back of the mind.
For most of us, overwintering concerns have shifted over the centuries, and now lean more toward issues such as seasonal affective disorder and cabin fever. But our taste for ghost stories each October is as strong as ever.
Over the years, some of the stories that originate here in Chicago’s suburbs have become famous. There’s Resurrection Marythe dean of Chicago area ghosts, who was killed in a car accident in the 1930s and has been wandering along Archer Avenue ever since.
A little south, between Tinley Park and Midlothian, the abandoned Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery has been called “most haunted cemetery in America,” because of apparitions that are said to appear there after dark. One of the area’s oldest known burial grounds, most of the haunting these days is done by thrill-seeking young people.
Down an old trail heading east, the “oldest standing brewery in Illinois” is tied to ghosts and other scaremongers going back to the days when it was supposedly one of the speakeasy haunts of evil gangster Al Capone.
Many towns have their own ghost stories, like Axeman’s Bridge in Cretean old, abandoned bridge — that doesn’t physically exist anymore — in the woods where an ax murderer kills people and continues (from beyond the grave) to ax those foolhardy enough to venture near at night.
But the town where I live doesn’t have it’s own ghost story yet, so in the spirit of Halloween, I made one up. In an age when there’s plenty of murder and scary stuff in the news already, it’s more of a tall tale. Just as with our ancestors, in the face of grim realities, there’s value in turning to ghosts of our own making.
The old man never missed Homewood’s railroad festival. In fact, some people said he rode into town on the Illinois Central back when the steam engines used to coat the town in soot.
He wore a weird old railroad hat with thin blue and white stripes and blue jean overalls, and people called him Boxcar Charlie. Lots of kids didn’t know what to make of him. But he looked friendly enough, and somehow we got to talking.
I said it’s funny that Homewood’s logo is a water tower. Every town has one of those.
“That’s a special water tower,” Charlie told me. “It’s not because of its shape (I always thought it looked like it was wearing a funny hat) or its age, though both of those things matter. It’s because of what was inside.”
“What, the water?” I asked. “My parents didn’t like it so much, but I thought it was fine. This new water tastes a little funny to me. It’s from Lake Michigan.”
“Something in that water made that tower go orange every Halloween,” he continued. “It would glow a bit, like a beacon. The village people never figured out why, but it stopped when they drained all the old stuff out and filled it up with the new stuff. But by then, people had taken a liking to that tower, and it became the pride of Homewood.
“If they’d known why it lit up like that, something else, like a tree, may have been the symbol of Homewood. It’s all because of a pirate.”
I scoffed, but I like stories so I stayed for more.
“His name was Hale Barlowe and he wasn’t such a bad guy, just had trouble following the rules is all. He liked doing things his own way, and if that involved relieving a trader of some wealth every once in a while to keep his men fed and his ship on the seas, well then so be it.
“Hale had a base in what they now call Key West, and eventually Captain Perry caught up to him. Hale fought to the last, though, and they tried to burn him out of his ship. He didn’t come out, figured it was better to die then and there than to get caught, so he burned up with his ship.
“That kind of death makes the spirit linger on, and Hale, or at least the idea of him, inhabited the water around Trumbo Point for over 100 years.
“Come ’bout 1930 or so, a bunch of rail tankers pulled up to the Point and start sucking up seawater. They wanted to fill up some giant fish tanks up northand you wouldn’t know it, they sucked up ol’ Hale.
“He took a ride with all those hundreds of thousands of gallons up the Illinois Central headed for the new Shedd Aquarium, of course he didn’t know it then. He just knew he was stuck and sloshing around more than he liked, so when the train came to a stop to refill its boiler, he figured out a way to escape though a cracked valve, hoping to make his way back to the sea.
“There was no sea anywhere near Homewood, so he eventually found himself in a well, and then in Homewood’s water tower, where he lived for over 50 years. Every year on the anniversary of his unfortunate demise, he’d glow bright with the flames that had consumed his mortal body, so bright that it shone through steel.
“When they drained that tower to switch to the Chicago water, they drained ol’ Hale Barlowe too. Nobody knows where he went, but I hope he likes it wherever he is now.”
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I asked Charlie how he knew about Hale.
“If you’ve been around a while, you hear things,” he said. “I used to get around a bit myself, lived by the sea for a time. Now I’m stuck in a railroad town, but those machines remind me of those big-masted ships as they steam into the station. “I like ’em, and one day I may just jump on one for another ride.”
I laughed, thanked him for the story, and went to find some friends for a game of softball.
Boxcar Charlie wasn’t at the railroad festival the following year, or the next year, and I figured he died — he’d looked really old. I think of him sometimes when the sunset glows orange, and all these years later, every Halloween I glance up at Homewood’s water tower and hope for something to happen. It’s lit up now, but from the outside.
I think of it as a tribute of sorts, even if nobody else remembers Boxcar Charlie or knows about Hale Barlowe.
I do, and that’s enough.
Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.