Is it haunted? Perhaps — if you believe in ghosts
By Bill Richardson
The ancient, rickety and some say, haunted, one-lane bridge that crosses the Wabash River, heading east from the sleepy village of St. Francisville, Illinois, into even sleepier southern Knox County, Indiana, goes by many names.
Officially, according to the signs directing a driver to the overpass, it’s known as the St. Francisville Toll Bridge, where vehicles pay anywhere from $1 to $3.75 to cross.
It’s also at times referred to as the Wabash Cannonball Bridge (although the fabled Wabash Cannonball train never once crossed it), the Stangle Bridge (for the family that purchased the bridge in the 1960s and first converted it for vehicular use) and the Purple Head Bridge (for one of the ghosts that, according to local legend, haunts the area).
Separating urban legend from truth is often difficult when discussing the 1,441-foot structure that was constructed starting in 1897 by the Big Four Railroad, which later became the New York Central Railroad. Edge Moore Bridge Works of Wilmington, Delaware, built the trusses, while the King Bridge Company of Cleveland was in charge of the girders. The bridge was later refurbished many times before eventually being abandoned by the railroad.
After going unused for a few decades, the wooden bridge found new life, apparently some time between 1960 and 1970, when it was purchased by a farmer, Frank Stangle, and his family. The family made minimal changes, before opening the “Stangle Bridge” as a toll bridge. As is still the case today, farm trucks were frequent to utilize the structure, and it also provided a shortcut for those from St. Francisville who worked in the Vincennes area and vise versa.
Stangle and his family left original railroad ties in place and running planks for cars were installed. The rails were removed from the deck, but were used for a different purpose — as the guard rail that was added to each side.
The toll bridge served its purpose for many years, but the Stangle family eventually reached an agreement to sell the historic structure to the Village of St. Francisville.
The only problem was, St. Francisville didn’t have the necessary $60,000 to complete the purchase. That didn’t stop a group of good citizens of the village from banding together, holding frequent fish frys, festivals and other fund-raisers to scrape together the money. Eventually, the village was able to make the purchase in 1995.
It was only a matter of time before the state of Illinois became interested in owning the bridge, and in 2009 the Illinois Department of Transportation took the structure over. The IDOT promised funding for the bridge for 20 years, according to published reports. Much of the revenue the bridge produces is used for expensive inspections, which reportedly occur on a bi-annual basis.
While at one time there was a ferry boat to take travelers from one side of the Wabash to the other, the bridge has always been a popular option. In 2011, it was estimated that 800 vehicles crossed the bridge on a daily basis. Today, it’s said that 600 vehicles make the trip each day.
The toll booth, located on the Illinois side of the Wabash, opens each day at 4 a.m. The booth closes at 9 p.m. throughout the week, and at 11 p.m. each Friday and Saturday night. So, depending upon the day, travelers have a few hours during which they can cross back and forth free of charge.
It should be noted that because Indiana is in the Eastern time zone and Illinois is in the Central, bridge crossers will invariably either gain or lose an hour on their trip. If someone crosses from Indiana at 2 p.m., for example, he’ll arrive in St. Francisville at just a few minutes after 1.
The age-old question in regard to the bridge centers around whether or not it’s haunted. That question can only be answered with another question: Do you believe in ghosts?
Many of the ghost stories associated with the bridge involve a floating Purple Head, which appears both during the daytime and nighttime hours.
There are reports of the head being seen both above and below the bridge, and also in the rear-view mirror of vehicles that have stopped there.
Some say that to receive a visit from the ghost one must either blink his headlights three times, or honk his horn.
The identity of Purple Head is up for debate.
A primary theory is that the head belongs to a man who tried to commit suicide by hanging himself from the bridge, but something went wrong.
The story goes that when the man jumped off the bridge, he was decapitated by the rope hanging around his neck and that his body was never found.
It’s said the floating, sobbing, purple head belongs to him, and that he haunts the bridge because of the gruesome nature of his death.
Some blame Purple Head on the fierce Native American battles that used to take place in the area. The ghost, according to the theory, is the collective spirit of the Indians who died defending their land.
Other Purple Head believers say the ghost is a specific Indian. Many white settlers and Native Americans were killed in skirmishes up and down the Wabash during the French and Indian War, including a shaman, who is said not to have received a proper burial.
Efforts to retrieve his body by his tribe were unsuccessful. The shaman did not get a proper burial and his soul did not make it to the next realm. It’s said he’s haunted the land ever since.
On the other hand, Purple Head could be the ghost of James Johnston, who has a small memorial near the bridge. Johnston was a lieutenant colonel from the Pennsylvania Militia who served in the Revolutionary War.
It’s said that Johnston survived the battle that took place nearby and lived out his years in the area.
Some insist that Johnston searches the area for anyone who crosses the bridge at night, daring to disturb his slumber.
Another theory is that Purple Head is the ghost of J.B. Halter, a Catholic priest from St. Francisville, who fell from a Big Four train as it crossed over the bridge in December 1906.
As the story goes, the priest struck his head after falling and lay suffering through the night, moaning for help.
Railroad workers found Halter the next morning and he was taken to the home of some friends, where he subsequently died.
Legend has it that before his death, Halter explained to friends that he’d been to Vincennes, and had enjoyed a couple of drinks. He stepped onto the platform after becoming ill, and a sudden jolt led to his fatal fall.
Most of the 700 or so residents of St. Francisville scoff at the notion that the bridge is haunted at all. However, they say all of the ghost stories serve to bring more traffic to the bridge, which isn’t a bad thing.
In the end, the answer to the question rests in the minds of those who visit the bridge.
Do you believe in ghosts?