Devil's Hole

by Bill Monson

It was a Halloween kind of place. We called it Devil's Hole, but it was really just an abandoned clay pit filled with water at the bottom of the big hill where Main Street turns sharply under the Santa Fe tracks east of Galesburg.

There were other pits scattered through the second-growth timber -- all abandoned by my boyhood, all dark and deep with water that did not beckon, even on the hottest summer day. A couple still had tall, brick smokestacks nearby to mark the march of brickworks toward East Galesburg. It was strange to tramp through woods and suddenly come on them -- blackwater lakes with a circular brick tombstone pointing toward the sky.

In one chimney, I surprised a nesting wild turkey, and in panic, it flew at me. I stumbled back, protective arms in front of my face, tripped in my fright, and went down hard. The turkey swooped above me in a rage of wings to disappear into the trees.

Strange playgrounds, but my fellow Blaine Avenue Bulldogs and I visited these gloomy sites at least twice a summer, often combining an afternoon of exploring with a cooling skinny-dip off the dam at the south end of Lake Rice. We never swam in the pits themselves; we'd been warned they were deep and full of debris that might trap an unwary paddler like most of us were. Once, we followed a rusting, abandoned spur track which rambled south through woods and fields clear across Grand Avenue to meet the Peoria branch of the C. B. & Q. Other times, we shot our BB guns at cans or paper targets, always hoping for another try at that wild turkey. Sometimes we satisfied ourselves with flinging fragments of brick into the small lakes -- trying to see how many times we could make them skip -- or lofted heavy chunks as high as we could to fall with a deep, gulping splash out in the black water.

Periodically, a Santa Fe freight would go by -- a westbound laboring hard up the grade to Galesburg or an eastbound coasting down toward Dahinda and the Spoon. In my memory, they're always pulled by powerful steam engines, drivers flashing in the sun as they passed above us on the causeway which carried the Santa Fe over the broken hills and hollows. Occasionally, we'd be near one of the underpasses which penetrated the causeway every mile or so. We'd race into the underpass to tremble in delicious fear as the locomotive and cars thundered by overhead. Sometimes drops of water or lubricating oil would drip down, and we'd laugh if anyone got ''anointed.''

Devil's Hole was no laughing matter, however. Despite the house which sat beside it and the busy road which ran past it through the underpass, it was a forbidding spot -- bordered on two sides by woods, on a third by the road and railroad, and on the final side by a graveyard.

It was the latter which gave the pit its name. Erosion was eating into the bluff upon which the graveyard sat above the pit -- and one by one, the coffins and caskets were exposed, undermined and toppled into the pit. A barbed wire fence ran around the hole to keep people away; but on the bluff, it had long ago been undermined and now waited for the unwary under the dark water of the pool.

We could approach the hole through the old graveyard, but it was very dangerous. Even if we clung to the saplings which had grown up along the brink, we never knew when our weight might collapse the ground and send us plummeting down into that hungry hole with its barbed wire claws. Once, as we took turns crawling out to look down, we heard clods of earth splashing below us into the water and scrambled back as a sapling leaned out slowly then fell leisurely away into space. The splash seemed to take forever to reach our ears. When we stopped shaking, we walked around to see where the tree landed. Only the tip-top leaves showed above the black water; and we shuddered, goose bumps rising despite the heat of an Illinois afternoon.

We heard tales of foolhardy teens who had challenged the graveyard on Halloween and were never heard of again -- but to my knowledge, they were only folk myths calculated to keep marauding kids like the Blaine Avenue Bulldogs away.

During the October afternoons of our youth, we talked often of challenging Devil's Hole ourselves - but we never did. Maybe it was the fall of that sapling -- or maybe it was how Devil's Hole occasionally emerged from the mists of our boyhood dreams -- dark, foreboding, waiting.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online October 24, 2001

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