A ghostly tale about an Illinois road is likely based on a tragic crash in Utah

The haunting of Munger Road in Illinois involves a bus accident and tiny hand prints of children. But where did the story come from?

Curious City Munger Road
Maggie Sivit / WBEZ
Curious City Munger Road
Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

A ghostly tale about an Illinois road is likely based on a tragic crash in Utah

The haunting of Munger Road in Illinois involves a bus accident and tiny hand prints of children. But where did the story come from?

Halloween is right around the corner, so it’s time to get out your costume, candy and of course, your spookiest and most frightening ghost stories. At Curious City, we get plenty of questions about the most haunted spots in Chicago and around Illinois. So this week we’re investigating one of them: the alleged haunting of Munger Road, which runs north-south through the villages of Wayne and Bartlett, IIlinois.

Jolene Hocker grew up in nearby Glendale Heights and can remember first hearing about the Munger Road ghost story around Halloween, when she was in highschool. She said there’s a section of the road where there’s a railroad crossing. It’s a part of the road that runs through Pratt’s Wayne Woods Forest Preserve.

“It is incredibly dark,” Hocker said.

There aren’t a lot of street lights in this area. And the story Hocker heard as a teen had a few different versions but goes something like this: A school bus full of kids was crossing over the train tracks and it stalled. Before the driver could get the bus off the tracks, a train came along and hit the bus. No one survived the crash.

The legend says the ghosts of the children are still there, Hocker recalled, and claims that if you drive your car onto the tracks, put it in neutral and sprinkle some baby powder on your car bumper, “allegedly, the children are going to push your car off the tracks so that you don’t get hit. And then if you go and investigate the bumper, you’ll see fingerprints from the baby powder,” Hocker said.

It’s a story she shared with her husband, Mark, who was intrigued by the idea of paranormal activity in the small town and asked Curious City to investigate its origins.

So Curious City spoke with local officials and historians and searched through the archives. What we discovered is that the Munger Road urban legend isn’t unique. And this haunting story might actually have originated somewhere else.

One quick thing before we tell you more about the origins of this ghost story: We don’t endorse trying this out for yourself! Parking on train tracks is incredibly dangerous, and we don’t want anyone to get hurt. Instead, join us as we try to figure out if this haunting story has any historical roots.

Munger Road
Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

Is there any truth to the legend of Munger Road?

We started out our search by turning to Paul Durica, historian and director of exhibitions at the Newberry Library, whom we’ve partnered with for previous stories. Durica, who’s a big fan of ghost stories, said when he combed through the archives of The Daily Herald, he couldn’t find any evidence that an incident like the one Jolene Hocker described had ever happened in DuPage County. And he didn’t find any other documentation that would suggest a school bus accident had actually occured on Munger Road.

So we turned to numerous sources in the villages of Bartlett and Wayne, Illinois where this section of Munger Road is located.

The senior librarian at Bartlett Public Library said they didn’t have any historical records that indicated this urban tale was based on a real accident.

And Wayne’s village president, Eileen Phipps, agreed.She said they have no evidence to support the legend of Munger Road.

Growing up in Schaumburg, deputy chief of police Geoffrey Pretkelis heard that Munger Road was haunted, but didn’t know the full story until he started working at Bartlett’s police department about 25 years ago.

“We know that everyone’s curious about the legend of Munger Road, but in my 25-year law enforcement career, there’s been no paranormal activity out there,” he said.

And at least once a year, Bartlett History Museum director Pam Rohleder said she gets questions about the haunting. She’s been with the museum for 25 years, and from the beginning, Rohleder has been fielding calls around Halloween about the legend of Munger Road.

“The first time I heard this story, it did pique my curiosity,” Rohleder said. “There’s many legends out there about different haunted areas or different communities throughout the United States. So you think to yourself, ‘Wow, if Bartlett has something that has a legend to it, we should really check this out and see what we can find.’”

So she did. And she’s been searching for an answer ever since.

Rohleder began her investigation years ago and has interviewed dozens of residents of Bartlett. She started with longtime residents who were born in the 1920s and 1930s, but has also spoken with others who had heard of or were interested in the legend.

Bartlett was once a pretty small town. In 1950, she said, Bartlett only had around 700 residents, so if the urban legend had any truth to it, someone would have heard something about it.

But Rohleder said she hasn’t found anyone who knows anything about a crash or knows someone who was involved in this type of accident.

Along with the interviews Rohleder has searched through newspaper archives and called other local museums as well as the school district to see if they have any records of a crash involving a school bus.

But so far she hasn’t found any evidence the story of Munger Road is based on an actual crash that took place at the railroad crossing.

Despite not having an answer, this unsolved mystery stays in the back of her head and it’s a goal to “find something tangible, like a newspaper story or to find a family descendant or maybe a survivor of the incident, again with tangible documentation, that would make it credible and not a lore anymore,” she said.

Munger Road
Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

The Munger Road legend goes beyond Illinois

One of the reasons Pam Rohleder might not have uncovered any evidence of a school bus accident on Munger Road in Illinois is because the legend isn’t unique to Illinois. In San Antonio, Texas an identical story has been passed around — about a school bus getting hit on the train tracks. Like on Munger Road, the San Antonio lore goes, if you park your car on the tracks, the ghosts of the children who died will push you to safety and tiny fingerprints will appear.

But in San Antonio, it’s Shane Road, not Munger Road, says librarian and archivist at the San Antonio Public Library Matt De Waelsche.

De Waelsche actually lives around the corner from the section of Shane Road where the San Antonio version of the story takes place. And De Waelsche thinks he might have an explanation for how this ghost story has spread across the country.

In 2002, while fulfilling someone’s reference request, De Waelsche found a newspaper article that provided some answers. The front page story had a photo of a school bus full of children that had been hit by a train just south of Salt Lake City, Utah in 1938.

All three of San Antonio’s daily papers had run the story and included the photo. It was an incredibly gruesome story, often told in excruciatingly vivid detail. Bodies of the injured and dead lay along the track for nearly a half mile, according to some accounts, as the freight train slowly came to a halt following the collision. Accounts said that upwards of 26 people died, including students ranging in age from 12-18, as well as the bus driver.

Articles back then said it was the nation’s deadliest auto accident of its day. So It was big news. It made the Chicago Tribune.

“It was a wire story, so it went out all over the country,” De Waelsche said. “I think somebody saw it, and I don’t know how they came to place it at that particular railroad track, maybe because it was an isolated area. But somehow it got conflated with that location here in San Antonio and became an urban legend.”

De Waelsche theorizes that something like this probably happened in the Bartlett and Wayne area, saying that people enjoy telling ghost stories.

For the most part, deputy police chief Pretkelis says the legend has had little impact on the town, except during the few days leading up to Halloween, when the police department does ask officers to do extra patrols in the area.

Some years back a house nearby was vandalized repeatedly because of a perceived connection to the haunting, Pretkelis said.

But his biggest concern is that people stay safe.

“One thing that we want to stress is that we just want to warn people not to drive with their lights off or stop or park on the railroad tracks. Not only is it against the law, but it’s also very dangerous,” Pretkelis said.

More about our question-askers

Mark and Jolene Hocker live with their three children in Bartlett, Illinois, about a mile-and-a-half from the railroad crossing where the Munger Road legend takes place.

Growing up in nearby Glendale Heights, Jolene said she and her friends tested the legend for themselves when they were in high school. “We took our friend’s beater car and parked on the tracks and sprinkled baby powder,” she recalled. “We’re just sitting in the car, and here we go — we get pushed.”

Jolene said that when she and her friends got out of the car, they saw handprints on the bumper, which scared the teenagers out of their wits.

But today, Jolene said she doesn’t believe in the supernatural. So what happened that night at Munger Road? She said it’s likely the car just started rolling down the hill, since it was in neutral. Plus, one of their friends could have been pranking them.

“But it was a weird, eerie feeling being in the middle of the darkness,” Jolene admitted. “There’s this big, open field [that makes it feel like] a lot of things could happen.”

Mark, who considers himself interested in paranormal tales, said he hasn’t had any personal encounters with the ghosts at the railroad crossing yet. But he wouldn’t be too upset even if he had. He said he interprets the legend to mean that the Munger Road ghosts are benevolent spirits.

“The ghost children are just trying to save you from the same fate they had,” he said.

Sophia Lo is Curious City’s multimedia intern. Follow her @sophiamaylo.

Joe DeCeault is a senior audio producer at WBEZ. Follow him @joedeceault.