01 November 2011

Old Purple Head

     What follows would have been more appropriate yesterday, on Halloween,  But hey, can I help it that Tuesday is my day, that I get “All Saints’ Day” while Fran drew the darker card?  In any event, this column is spawned from last week, from a year ago, and from the legends that surround all of us, wherever we may find ourselves.  Some of these legends are written anew by the likes of us, you and me, while others evolve, almost on their own, over years.  Folk tales without authors.  Some of these we stumble upon, unexpectedly, as we round a corner.

     The past week my wife and I traveled from Washington, D.C. to southern Illinois to visit friends who live on the banks of Lake Egypt.  This is the second time we have made this trip  Like last year we first stop there, in the woods by the lake, and then after a few days we  move on 130 miles north east to Vincennes, Indiana where my wife’s family lives, and where, every year, just before Halloween, they gather for several nights of bonfires in the woods. 

     Last year when we first added our Lake Egypt stop to the  trip I consulted a map and realized that while most people would travel between southern Illinois and Vincennes by going north on Interstate 57 and then west on Interstate 64, that route is, in fact,comprised of  a geographically inefficient  two sides of a triangle.  There is another way to do this, I concluded – a combination of Illinois 45 and Illinois 1 in fact runs a razor straight hypotenuse to the triangle, connecting Lake Egypt and Vincennes in a straight line.

     We are retired.  We have plenty of time. We don’t need interstates when there are state and country roads.   So last year when I typed our destination into the car’s  GPS  I pushed the button for shortest route, not fastest, and our car proceeded to guide us northeast along route 45.

     Route 45 and route 1 are, for the most part, easy going idyllic two lane blacktop.  They meander through small towns, past lots of barbecue restaurants, antique shops and churches, all with little traffic.  But, as I said, easy going is the description for “the most part.”

     Last year we had almost reached Vincennes, indeed, our GPS indicated less than 10 miles to go before we reached my sister-in-law’s house, when the GPS instructed us to turn off of Illinois 1 and into the small (and a bit deserted) town of St. Francisville, Illinois.  I turned to Pat and asked, “Why are we going to St. Francisville?”  (After all, this is her neck of the woods not mine.)  Pat shrugged and shook her head.   The GPS  next  instructed us to make a sharp left turn off of Main Street and on to a seemingly little used side street.  We dutifully obeyed, following the map in our dashboard as we wandered out of town, into the woods.  After another sharp left we pulled up in front of a ramshackle one room building beside the road and next to two signs.  One said “Stop.”  The other said “Pay Toll.”

      I turned again to Pat.  “Are there any toll roads going into Vincennes?”  “I didn’t think so,” she answered just a bit uneasily.

     There was no place to easily turn around so I pulled up to the open window of the shack.  A bored teenage girl sat inside in a rickety office chair, Ipod, buds in her ears, an illustrated novel propped on a wooden table in front of her.  She lazily turned her head, appraising us,  one eye wide, the other slit.  “One dollar,” she mumbled through chewing gum.  I fished in my pocket and handed over a buck.  The path of least resistance.  We all end up on it more often than not.   She deposited my dollar in a dirty cash register sitting on the table and then turned  back to the comic.  Pat and I eyed each other as I pulled slowly away from the shack.

    The blacktop road rapidly gave out to gravel.  Ahead was a sharp corner.  We rounded it and then, before we knew it, we were facing “Old Purple Head.”   The website Haunted USA describes the Purple Head bridge, spanning the Wabash between St. Francisville and Vincennes as follows:
Purple Head Bridge in Vincennes, Indiana is a decrepit train bridge with most of the ties now missing, leaving holes through its span like gaps of rotten teeth. The rusted metal frame however still spans the Wabash, an echo of the might of the former rail traffic that connected a nation.
Another description appears in the on-line article The Ghosts of the Purple Head Bridge in Vincennes, Indiana by Jennifer Eblin:
The Purple Head Bridge in Vincennes, Indiana, is rumored to be one of the most haunted places in the southern half of the state, if not the entire state. There have been dozens of people over the years, maybe even hundreds of people, all of whom claimed to experience some strange and unsettling things.
The Purple Head Bridge is an old railroad bridge located in Vincennes. Some people claim that this is a toll bridge, but based on the images I have seen, it is clearly a railroad bridge. It is hard to imagine anyone driving a vehicle across it, but a large number of people believe it once did that.
     It is certainly true that Old Purple Head was a railroad bridge, but we all know that you can’t believe everything you find on the internet.  I can tell you, based on personal experience, that however ill advised the enterprise may be, Old Purple Head presently does indeed operate as a one-lane toll bridge (albeit with two way traffic).  And you do not have to take my word for it.  Want to drive it?  Well, take my word for it, the real thing is even worse, but hold on tight because  here we go, courtesy of U Tube.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.  (This great video, which tells it all, is courtesy of Ed Brumley, www.edbrumley.com.  Ed truly captured the experience.)

While the drive is scary enough by itself, as noted by Ms. Elbrin the bridge has also spawned a remarkable number of ghost stories, legends that have evolved in the folklore of Southern Illinois and Indiana.
 I have also [Ms. Elbin writes]  heard varying stories on how exactly you are supposed to see the spirits [that inhabit the bridge]. Some people claim that you must drive your car on to the bridge, and wait for strange things to happen. Others state you need only be close to the bridge. Given its decrepit state, and the pieces missing from the bridge, I would highly advise against trying to find a way to get your car on to it.
According to local legends one of the spirits of the Purple Head Bridge is visible only during storms. Supposedly a man once decided to kill himself by hanging himself from one of the trestles during a storm. Something went terribly wrong and he was decapitated in the fall. Today [it is said that] you can see his head floating along the bridge. . . .
     Other local legends maintain that the bridge is haunted by a native American medicine man, murdered there during the French and Indian wars.  Still other locals will tell you that the bridge was used by the Ku Klux Klan for lynchings.  Students at nearby Vincennes University have posted website accounts of ghostly encounters that invariably occur late at night on the bridge.  Others claim that if you stand on the bridge at night you will see a luminescent purple head floating below in the Wabash.  Want more?  Google “Purple Head Bridge” – there are pages of references and stories.

     What’s the suggested take-away here?  Well, one might be that sometimes we write the stories and sometimes the stories evolve around us.  Some places are so strange, so unexpected and maybe even bone-chilling when you first encounter them that they beg for backstories.  You can find those places, sometimes they will find you.  And you can write those stories.  But you better hurry up because if you don’t write them, well. . . eventually they are going to write themselves.

     Last week, one year later, on the 27th of October, Pat and I once again were headed across Southern Illinois bound for Vincennes.  We have a new car this year, and I was hoping for a different GPS outcome.  But when our dashboard display directed us to turn left off of Main Street in St. Francisville at an old wooden sign that said “toll bridge,” we instead pulled a U-turn and drove back to Route 1.  There are limitless stories out there, and there are also plenty of other ways to cross the Wabash.

(A note to readers -- the interview with Iiki Yusan that was a basis for last Tuesday's article is now available on Kurt Sercu's website Ellery Queen -- a Website on Deduction.  Click here and follow Kurt's prompts.)


  1. Dale, I'm glad you survived to tell about it. I mean I'm glad you survived and all, but to tell about it is the really cool part.

  2. Strangely enough, I set a mystery involving a haunted bridge crime scene in small town Indiana. I thought it a damn good mystery, but the one editor (thus far) I submitted it to thought it too romantic!

  3. Dale, are you sure you weren't in S.C.? We have some haunted bridges, but even more than that, the toll taker definitely came from around here. I enjoyed the article, but I have to go write a story about a haunted (or possessed) GPS.

  4. A GPS with a mind of its own; scary.

  5. GPSs are scary. We once had one on a rental car in Costa Rica. We figured it knew what it was doing when it took us off of the paved road and down a muddy track. Two miles later we labored up a hill and slammed on the brakes. We were at the top of a cliff looking down into the gully where the road had been before it washed out. Wish that one was on U Tube!

  6. Here in Kansas we have the mournful ghost on Theorosa's Bridge, and I just heard that the San Francisco Bay Bridge is supposedly haunted!

  7. I live here. It is now a toll bridge. It's $1.50 or something near there.

  8. I drive this bridge daily it's a dollar to get on and we'll maintained and never seen anything and I always come back over it around midnight and have stopped a couple times on the bridge

  9. A friend and I filmed the bridge last year. It has a interesting history! It's called the Cannon Ball bridge, or to the locals as "Stangles Bridge".https://vimeo.com/266612881


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