The Ridgeway Ghost of Wisconsin

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In southwest Wisconsin, there's a small town called Ridgeway that about 600 people call home. Well, about 600 living people, that is; there's another resident, the Ridgeway Ghost, occasionally referred to as the Ridgeway Phantom. It's one of the few ghosts throughout the history of the world rumored to have killed the living. It haunts U.S. Route 151 between Dodgeville and Blue Mounds, a roughly twenty-mile stretch of road lined primarily by farmland.

The ghost has gained enough fame that there's one painted on Ridgeway water tower.
The ghost has gained enough fame that there's one painted on Ridgeway water tower.

A Brief History of Ridgeway, Wisconsin

Irish, Welsh, Norwegian, and German settlers came to the area in the mid-1800s and founded the village of Ridgeway. Around the same time, the ghost sightings began. No records were kept of the encounters, but stories were passed down through the generations.

The entire area of southwestern Wisconsin had a population explosion in the 1830s, with about 10,000 immigrants coming every year to work in lead mines, and many tried to make it their new home. As you might imagine, it was a wild place, with a lot of wilderness, strangers, saloons, gambling, and drinking. Fights, knifings, and shootings happened daily, and the law was way understaffed and slow to respond—if they did at all.

On May 1st, 1913, a fire swept through the downtown area of Ridgeway, and high winds quickly spread it. It burned through most of the buildings downtown, including the post office, bank, lumberyard, and even the train depot built in 1883. In 2022 dollars, that's about $3 million in damage. The Ridgeway Fire Department was established sometime in 1913, by the way. According to some, the ghost moved out of town after the fire.

Black and white photo of Ridgeway rail depot
Another train depot was built in September 1913 and is now home to a museum.

Sightings of the Ridgeway Ghost

According to local folklore, the ghost can change its shape at will. Descriptions of it have significantly varied, including the following: a man with a whip, a dog, a sheep, a pig, a horse, a ball of fire, a headless horseman, a young woman, an old woman, and more. Supposedly, no matter the shape, the ghost appears from nothing, attacks a person (often travelers), and then disappears.

Some reports claim that ghostly activity increases every 40 years, starting in the 1850s. One of the first folk tales is that of Dr. Cutler of Dodgeville. He told a story that a ghost appeared on the pole of his wagon. This one is widely reported, and I found an article from The New York Times printed in 1902 that details this story. Dr. Cutler saw the ghost three times in his life, and the third time killed him from fright.

The same article has the tale of John Lewis, who encountered a giant dark figure on his way home from helping a friend butcher animals. John Lewis attacked the strange figure with a knife and was found semi-conscious the following day. He said he'd been plucked up into the air and tossed around, describing something similar to a tornado. John Lewis died a few hours after relaying the incident.

The W-Files website (Wisconsin + X-Files) has an entire page full of stories about the Ridgeway Ghost. Everything from ghostly hands playing poker to giant vanishing pigs that gave a farmer such a fright that he became sick and died. This farmer's story shares similarities to John Lewis's story, as told in the New York Times article from 1902. The W-Files tales all read like they're from local storytellers, and they're pretty entertaining despite being short on verifiable details.

Charles E. Brown, the director of the Wisconsin Folklore Society, wrote a 4-page collection in 1943 of stories about the Ridgeway Ghost. It's worth a read, and like most things in history, there are similarities to the more modern tales told. If you noticed that his name is so agonizingly close to Charlie Brown from the Peanuts comic, congratulations on your sharp eye. I was a bit suspicious and wondered if the entire thing was made up, but given that Charles E. Brown of the Wisconsin Folklore Society wrote quite a lot, it's safe to say that the similarities in names are likely just coincidence.

Origin of the Ridgeway Ghost

I discovered a few stories concerning the origin of the ghost. It's interesting to see how different they are from one another.

Two Teenaged Brothers

At McKillip's Saloon in 1840, two brothers, ages 14 and 15, were murdered. The motivation is unclear. One of the brothers was tossed into a fireplace, where he burned to death. The other brother froze to death as he attempted to run away from town. Somehow, from those deaths arose the Ridgeway Ghost.

The Bar Brawl

Sometime around the 1840s, a bar brawl in the village resulted in the murder of a man. There aren't a lot of details here, but there were plenty of saloons where it's reasonable to assume brawls broke out, and people were killed. Why it turned one of them into an aggressive ghost, though, is anyone's guess.

The New York Times Article

On December 7th, 1902, The New York Times published a story titled "Some Wisconsin Ghosts." It's the same news article I mentioned above regarding Dr. Cutler. The story is available (1-page PDF) on via their "timesmachine." The article is about two different ghosts in Wisconsin, so skip to halfway down the middle column for the Ridgeway Ghost. At the beginning of the Ridgeway Ghost section, "He is supposed to be the wraith of a man killed in the lead mining days before the civil war."

It's Made Up

I found a few stories from locals that said the entire thing might have been made up in the 1850s to scare troublemakers out of town. Like the other origin stories, I couldn't verify this.

The historic Hyde's Mill in Ridgeway, WI, was built in 1850.
The historic Hyde's Mill in Ridgeway, WI, was built in 1850.

Ridgeway is only about 45-minute scenic drive west of Madison, Wisconsin. So, take a detour and set your GPS to Ridgeway the next time you're in the area. Just be careful, or Ridgeway might end up with another incorporeal resident.