Hell’s Hollow, Decatur Illinois

On the far southwest side of  town lies a patch of  ground that has a dark and bloody history…although to look at it, you wouldn’t think so.   Several years ago, the city cleared out the area to keep the teenage population from having late night parties in the spot, so it looks pretty harmless now.   However, it wasn’t always that way.    For many years the place known as Hell’s Hollow had large trees and roads that twisted and turned, leading into Greenwood cemetery, the town’s oldest graveyard….and those twists and turns held many mysteries.

Troy Taylor, author of many books on the paranormal (and a native of Decatur) has done an incredible amount of research on the history of the Hollow, which he shared in his book “Haunted Decatur: The History of Decatur’s Spirits, Scandals, and Sins”. According to his book, the legends of this place go all the way back to early settler times when a horrible winter in the mid 1800’s forced people to resort to a Donner party type scenario. There were also tales of kidnappings and murders that took place, and as time went on, tales of gangs and mob connections.

During the early part of the twentieth century, there were many shacks and shanties that the coal miners in the area resided in. The place became known as “Coal Town”. It was in the mid 1930’s that Hell’s Hollow would become widely known as the base of operations for a “gang” that supposedly was responsible for grave robbing and other petty crimes. In 1936, a newspaperman by the name of Robey Parks wrote a series of articles that appeared in the Chicago Herald & Examiner. The name of the title series was the Hounds of Hells Hollow.

According to Parks, this gang was responsible for the eight unsolved murders that the police were investigating at the time. The stories were completely blown out of proportion, and were made even worse when the magazine “Front Page Detective” got a hold of them. Troy Taylor does an excellent job of breaking down each murder and each case, so I won’t do that here..but I will say that thanks to the inept reporting of Parks and the sensationalism of the story…those murders were never solved.

Years passed, and Coaltown was torn down to make way for housing projects that were built there. The rest of the area became overgrown with trees and brush, nearly covering the winding twisted road that went through to the cemetery. It was a perfect place to have a late night party or rendevous…which many took advantage of…including yours truly!

Some friends of mine and I were driving through there one night…it wasn’t private property, just abandoned basically by the city. As we were laughing and going fast through the twists and turns (that was always the fun part..watching the headlights flash off of the trees as the road twisted in front of you..and all of a sudden there was someone standing there. The driver of the car suddenly came to a screeching halt…and there we were, staring at a large tree. Of course we started laughing and teasing each other for being so scared…and then we looked just beyond the tree.

Globes of light were going in and out of the shadows…at first we thought they were flashlights and that we were going to get in trouble (not for trespassing..for being out after the city’s curfew for minors). But they didn’t have the bright light of a flashlight..they were almost ethereal in quality. None of us could move…we were all completely transfixed, watching them. After a short time (probably five or ten minutes) they moved on and we didn’t see them anymore…but we were SO ready to get out of there!

The Hollow continued to be a place for people to hang out and party until the vandalism and destruction were making more problems for the city than the area was worth. The road was closed, the trees and brush were cleared out…and all that remains today is the patch of land next to the cemetery.

I know now that the transluscent spheres that we saw that night were more than likely caused by swamp gas…but at the time I was 100% convinced I had seen a ghost. And to be honest..I’m not altogether sure I didn’t! The area certainly had many unexplained deaths…and maybe the victims of the murders that remain unsolved today are still trapped where they met their fate.


4 thoughts on “Hell’s Hollow, Decatur Illinois

  1. I lived at 580 Powers Lane from the age of four to seventeen, when i left Decatur in 1984. It was because i did not often have friends that i used to spend my boyhood afternoons in what you call ‘Hell’s Hollow’ but what i always called ‘The Woods’– and many evenings and even sometimes nights. Or was it because i used to spend so much time there that i did not often have friends?

    But i assure you, i personally never saw anything there that ever frightened me. There is no other place on this earth where i feel more at peace.


  2. I was thinking about this post a little more. To be sure, the road between the Indian burial mound and the wooded hill behind my childhood home was not ripped out until some few years after i had left Decatur in 1984. I mention this because your post makes note of parties in the woods. Actually, i recall only one party ever being held there. It was a summer night, and i heard the sound of teenages drinking on Edward Street, just off Edwards Street where it splits away from the Greenwood development and runs between the old civil war cemetery. I guess there were a couple cars, and there was some music. But they had taken flight by the time i reached them. That is the only party i know of that ever happened there.

    Except for the first year when my family moved in. A woman with ripped dress came barefoot out of the woods, delirious. Soon afterwards i was told to go to my room. I imagine the police arrived later on. The last i saw of her (she was blonde) was her sitting on my father’s couch crying and drinking a glass of water. Of course it was a rape. But that is the one and only rape i have ever heard of happening there when my family lived next to the woods.

    In truth, they were safe, i think. And i bet if you actually went to wherever police reports are kept, you will find that they were safe at least until 1984. A pity that they became dangerous afterwards, as the fact that Edwards Street was Dead-Ended just before the seeming burial mound behind Unity Church.

    Kids used to ride their bikes behind the church, to judge from the trails. But it was rare that i saw anyone actually there. Just voices leaving.


  3. Also, it is not ‘the far southwest side of town.’ It is difficult to understand, but the piece of land in question is nearly at the very center of Decatur. I used to regularly make the shortcut through the woods to downtown, and according to Google Maps that walk (without shortcut) is 5 minutes to Central Park.

    See, the woods are like a finger reaching out from the sewage treatment plant next to the Sangamon River and stretching right up to Decatur Street itself.


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