You not only need be curious but also a bit brave to intentionally visit a place that has a reputation of being haunted. I’m not superstitious, but I do believe that matter is neither created nor destroyed, which would leave things open after we leave this earth as a corporeal being. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, here are a few places to visit for good stories and a history lesson.
Established in 1843, Chances may be the oldest place you visit for food and spirits. The tavern, originally known as the Union House, is located in Rochester along the route of the old Janesville plank road and adjacent to the Fox River. The building served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Refugees made their way up the Fox River, where they disembarked and entered the Union House through a tunnel. They would spend the night before continuing their journey north to Canada.
Today, you can see the stone addition to the original log structure. Stone faces look down on you from the corners of the building. Inside, a bar at the front of the building, dining spaces, and the kitchen extend away from the road. Pictures on the walls show scenes from earlier days, including the laying of planks for the road.
Chances’ ghostly patrons are on the friendly, prankster side. Reported hauntings include water faucets turning on, a lady standing at the top of the staircase, and a Civil War soldier at the bar. The evening we visited, the hostess told us of a recent incident where the clock on the wall was found across the room.
Ask some questions, hear new stories, and venture to the dance hall on the second floor—if you dare!
Walnut Grove Cemetery
This cemetery has more mythic than actual hauntings associated with it. It straddles the top of the moraine directly south of town, and is accessed by a dead-end road. The grave markers, which date back to the 1800s; wrought-iron fencing; shagbark hickories; and cedars combine to create quite an atmosphere. Paranormal stories include someone who was hanged, a head that rolls down the hill, a glowing gravestone, and other noises and movements.
Visiting in the middle of the day, I found the cemetery a tranquil and interesting site that commands respect. Unfortunately, other visitors have not treated the site well; stones have been broken and markers pushed over. Probably in response to the desecration of the site, daytime hours have been set for the cemetery. Combine this visit with a hike on the nearby Ice Age Trail.
This hotel is well known for its paranormal activity. Activity tends to be associated with room 717 and the Crystal Ballroom. One of the spirits is believed to be Walter Schroeder, the architect for the building (Retlaw is Walter spelled backward).
In addition to the ghost of Mr. Schroeder, sightings have included a couple, a ballerina dancing, odd glowing lights, and a chandelier moving on its own accord in the Ballroom. Tragic incidents, including a man who hanged himself and a ballerina that jumped from a seventh floor window, contribute to the tales and possible spirits haunting the building.
This 1920s, seven-story brick building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Tunnels beneath the hotel were reportedly used by patrons during Prohibition. Stories link these activities to gangsters and John Dillinger. The tunnels became unsafe and were sealed in the 1980s.
The building was reincarnated as a hotel after serving as a psychiatric facility and a nursing home. A peak through the windows reveals large crystal chandeliers and an elegant bar. The hotel hosts community functions, such as weddings and conferences, and celebrity guests include Alice Cooper, Tom Cruise, Eleanor Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.
The hotel closed at the end of 2015 because of financial difficulties, but it looks like it has once again found new life. The most recent owners are transitioning the property to a luxury boutique hotel. Work is in progress, and I was told the property will open in early 2018. We can look forward to Hotel Retlaw opening, having a drink at the bar, and listening to old and new stories about the ghostly residents.
Wonder Bar Steakhouse
Wonder Bar Steakhouse speaks to the dark and seedy side of Madison’s past. The Bar’s history goes back to 1929, when Roger “The Terrible” Touhy was running the north side Chicago Mafia. Seeking ways to expand business outside of Chicago, he built Wonder Bar and set up his brother Eddie as manager. Eddie’s Wonder Bar became a popular local watering hole with excellent food and provided a hangout for gangsters, including Dillinger, Capone, and Baby Face Nelson.
The Touhy brothers built this unique brick structure, reminiscent of a castle complete with rounded turrets on either side. The building offered wide, unobstructed views of anyone arriving, particularly police, federal agents, or rival gangs. The basement included a tunnel that ran towards Lake Monona that could be used for smuggling booze or as an escape route, and it’s said that the turrets had removable sections that could be used if a gunfight broke out.
A portrait of a young red-headed woman hangs over the downstairs fireplace. It’s said that she haunts the building. And there are tales of a man wearing a 1930s fedora and a young girl who has been both seen and heard. On our visit, we sat at the bar where you see the original back bar from the 1930s. The staff assured us that hauntings continue and offered their own stories. One staff member had the experience of arriving early to set up for dinner and having the table candles across the way spontaneously light themselves. Another employee talked about turning off the lights only to have them come on again. And no one likes to go into the basement alone.
The name has changed a few times, but has gone back to its roots as the original Wonder Bar Steakhouse, serving the great food and drinks that made it famous. I recommend showing up to have a drink during Gangster Hours, Monday through Thursday, 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Talk with the staff, who are willing to share their personal experiences. And don’t forget to try the great food!
Liz Wessel is the owner of Green Concierge Travel, which has information for honeymoons and other ecotravel at greenconciergetravel.com .
205 W. Main Street
Rochester, WI 53167
1 N. Main Street
Fond du Lac, WI 54935
Walnut Grove Cemetery
Glenbeulah, WI 53023
Wonder Bar Steakhouse
222 E. Olin Avenue
Madison, WI 53713