Evart’s ethereal lights cut through the darkness

Throughout the years, folks in the community debate the cause of Evart’s glowing tombstones: Is it natural phenomenon or could it be a supernatural beacon from beyond?

For well more than 125 years, generations of people living in Evart experienced a strange phenomenon that takes place in the local cemetery.

As darkness falls on Forest Hill Cemetery, certain tombstones begin to shimmer and glow. The strange lights are simply part of life in Evart.

Visitors have come to the area from as far away as Texas to see if the story is true. One woman visited to see if the glowing tombstones had anything to do with her long dead grandparents. The story has been told on radio stations in Detroit, and people come from far afield to see if the tombstones really glow.

Yes, dear readers, they do.

As evening’s dusk gives way to nighttime’s darkness, certain headstones in the cemetery begin giving off an easily noticeable light.

Many have tried to resolve the mysterious lights in Forest Hill, giving what would seem perfectly logical explanations. Anywhere between three and nine glowing cemetery markers can be seen on any given night. The strongest light seems to shine from three markers in the northwest-most section of the cemetery, with weaker, yet still obvious illumination coming from smaller points running up the slight hill at the southwest.

One theory is that the glowing from cemetery markers is simply the reflection of car lights on U.S. 10, but the height of the Rail to Trails berm and the amount and height of vegetation between the cemetery and the highway do not allow for a direct bounce of light. Also, the light is continuous – passing cars would create a sporadic, or periodic glow.

Another theory is that the cemetery light is a reflection of lights from nearby Evart, but using equipment to check this idea, it was shown that the quality of light reaching the cemetery from distant businesses and city lighting was too diffused to be as readily visible as is the actual glowing.

The reflection theory was also shot down by a simple check of angles and trajectory. A reflection should remain a true reflection as long as the angle of observation between the source and the person seeing the reflection remained constant. This is not the case at Forest Hill.

Another reflections theory holds out that the glowing is a reflection of city light “bouncing” off low cloud cover, but the glowing is apparent on cloudless nights too.

An early idea was that the headstones themselves contained some sort of phosphorous material, or something with absorbed light during the day, and released it after dark. If this were the case, the glow should be visible from close up, not only from a distance. The lights of Forest Hill, however, cannot be seen from close up, in the cemetery itself.

It’s interesting to note that the location of the glowing tombstones seems to shift as the cemetery expands. Reports of the phenomenon, both in the distant past and today, have those headstones exuding a muted light generally placed along the western border of the cemetery.

Is there a supernatural explanation?

While this reporter believes there is certainly a logical, physical explanation for the glowing tombstones, weeks of checking, observation, triangulation, charting of angles and other tests have yet to come up with a reasonable explanation for the phenomenon.

Throughout the years, however, more “mystic” reasons have also been given – some of them based on historic facts involving the rich past of Evart and the surrounding areas.

One tale often repeated earlier last century, but virtually forgotten today, involves the railway crews laboring on the ever-expanding Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad. While investigating the “whole story,” one cannot ignore popular myth, and one story told in bits and pieces in the Evart Review, the now defunct Tustin Times, and the long closed LeRoy Eclipse from early last century fits with a good number of history facts.

As the F&PM railroad tracks moved westward toward Ludington (also called Pere Marquette before adopting its present name), funds for continued construction petered out for a short while, leaving the railroad’s temporary terminus just west of Evart.

It took a while for the financial straits affecting construction (brought about by an economic recession throughout the U.S. in the late 1800s) to be resolved. While work was delayed, construction crews remained in base camps along the rail bed, pulling down minuscule wages for back-breaking work maintaining the length of track already in place.

Many, if not most of these workers were Italian and Irish immigrants. In the immediate Evart area, Italian laborers dominated the railroad employment ledgers. While “stuck” in the Evart area, these Italian workers made use of facilities in the growing village, including the various houses of ill-repute and “watering holes.”

Conservative village fathers tried to control this activity, but during the hard times accompanying the recession, any type of cash flow was more than welcome in the hard-scrabble “frontier” towns.

Nevertheless, editorial comment in the Evart Review from the early 1870s recall the indignation felt by the more proper citizens of this village:

“We would hope the town fathers and marshals will retire to the residence of Miss Clarese Bow, late of Chicago and now of Hemlock Street in this village, to encourage her to stop the nefarious activities she is taking part in at great profit to herself, but at great loss to the soul of this village.”

But the Italian workers paid little mind, having nowhere to go after a hard day’s work, and few “proper” people with whom to socialize. Unfortunately, in the spirit of the time, the Italians were not accepted. In fact, they were so looked down on that a neighboring newspaper, the Hersey-based Osceola County Outline reported, “How strange to hear that Italian workers from the railroad line near Evart were refused entrance to a local bowery, although Negro laborers were drinking there freely.”

The Italians had one camp located south of the tracks, just below the western-most hillock in what is now Forest Hill Cemetery. (This was at a time just previous to the relocation of the village cemetery, from the area now occupied by the Ice Mountain water station to the present site.) Actual railroad construction had temporarily ground to a halt in the Winsorville (or Winsor) – platted area in the general vicinity of Evart’s new airport terminal.

A lot of work was, nevertheless, being carried out in the area of The Depot, which railroad service facilities being built and prepared for the “boom” times expected following the recession.

Italian crews were sometimes taken from their camp to the day’s work site by “crew cars” towed by locomotives, and occasionally by wagons and draft horses hired from the local community. Once out on the job, however, the workmen were often left to their designs, and had to return to camp by foot following a hard day of labor.

On the way back to their camp in what is now Forest Hill Cemetery, the workmen would often stop for a drink. Early reports by the town marshal to the Common Council (later called the City Council) point to one main drinking establishment visited regularly by the Italian crews. Located near what is now the Evart Township Hall was a “tavern” which apparently tried to cater to the taste of the thirsty Italians by offering them a copy of their favorite drink from the “old country” – spirit called Grappe.

The marshal, quoted in the Evart Review, told village fathers this drink was manufactured by “… cooking a mixture of cheap Detroit gin with wild grapes and leaves taken from scrub land, giving the spirit a strange taste, and making a concoction which has devastating effect on the foreign men.” By the time the workers were ready to stagger back to camp, it was already dark and the frontier countryside was mildly threatening to those men more used to Italian cities than the wilds of northern Michigan.

Back at the Italian camp, one of the cooks had the job of helping guide the men back “home.” (The Italian work force employed their own cook who could turn out the food and fare they were used to. F&PM railroad paid this man’s wages, much to the chagrin of local ladies who were used to the income brought in by their cooking for logging and railroad crews.)

At dusk, the cook would walk the short trail leading from the rail bed to the Italian camp lighting signal lights. These lamps were simply old tin cans filled with sand and saturated with kerosene or fuel oil. A torn piece of burlap acted as a wick, and the sand impregnated with fuel would keep the lamps burning along the pathway all night long.

One story related in parts in both the Tustin Times and the Evart Review tells the name of this immigrant cook and his son, both employed by the F&PM railroad. Guido Bandura was, the papers report, the well-loved cook. His son, Marco, worked the line as a “scimmer” – a worker who kept the scrub brush trimmed well away from the tracks (basically a “make work” job until full-scale construction could begin).

One night, while returning from work west of town, Marco came on two of his fellow Italians who had been drinking heavily at the worker’s tavern. The two were seen in a heated argument on the railroad bridge, and were threatening each other with bodily harm – both being armed with knives. The young man tried to calm impassioned spirits, while quietly disarming the two drunken laborers.

Suddenly, one of the men staggered against Marco, catching him off guard and causing him to stumble against the bridge’s makeshift guardrail. Losing his balance, the cook’s son flipped over the railing, falling headfirst into the Muskegon River. He apparently was fatally hurt in the fall since, by witness accounts, he never showed signs of trying to reach the bank. Another worker who saw the young man’s fall, ran all the way to camp to raise the alarm.

He met Guido, Marco’s father, on the path where he was lighting the signal lights. Abandoning his lamp-lighting duties, the hysterical father raced to the river and, spotting his son’s body in the rapidly flowing water (the river was high with the spring melt-off), threw himself in the river to try and save his son. Later, workers from the Italian crew reported Guido never knew how to swim, and in fact, feared having to cross even the most placid creek. His son’s situation, however, drove him to undertake a futile rescue.

Neither of the men were ever seen alive again. At daylight, Marco’s body was discovered twisted in the branches of a fallen tree near where the South Main Street bridge now crosses the Muskegon. Village officials, and friends of the young man from the Italian camp, managed to pull the body to shore. Because of conditions, the drowned worker was buried in a hastily dug grave somewhere near what is now the intersection of South Oak Street and 11th Street.

A circuit priest out of Grand Rapids later performed a graveside ceremony, but there are no reports as to whether this body was ever moved to a proper cemetery.

The body of the father, Guido Bandura, was never recovered, although alarm was raised all along the Muskegon, in various lumber camps as far as Hersey. (One group of loggers at a camp near Cat Creek attempted a daring night rescue of what they believed to be a human body, only to discover, after seriously endangering their own lives, that it was a large coyote, dead and entangled in a floating pile of brush.)

Shortly after the tragic incident, workers from the Italian camp began reporting, the signal lamps along the pathway leading to their camp were being lit, or more correctly were glowing after the passing of an ethereal man walking the trail from the rail bed to the cook shanty.

Italian laborers coming back to camp from their work along the tracks reported seeing the lights directing them back home, but on reaching the path none of the makeshift lamps were actually lit. When numerous workers began reporting a distraught figure crying out the name “Mark” or “Marco,” the entire Italian contingent of workers packed up and shifted their camp near where the Evart wastewater treatment plant office now stands.

F&PM railroad officials tried to house a group of Irish workers, along with a small group of black laborers brought up from Detroit, at the abandoned camp. Within weeks, however, this second group of men left the site reporting a ghost-like apparition who wandered the pathway bending down and lighting lamps which weren’t there – but which left a glow noticeable from quite a way off. Railroad officials disbanded the camp, moving all equipment to a site west of the Muskegon.

Soon afterward, Evart’s city fathers purchased the property and laid out the boundaries of what would become Forest Hill Cemetery.

For generations, reports surfaced about glowing lights along what was once the pathway from the railroad tracks to the Italian camp. As late as 1933, a report in a local newspaper quotes an old railroad man as saying: “… that old Italian jack is still lighting the torches, waiting for his boy to come down the tracks after a day’s work. Some say you can even smell cooking coffee from the cook shack if the wind’s right.”

It is very difficult trying to verify some points of this story through sources other than the newspapers of that time. Coincidental information, however, seems to point to some validity in the old, oft repeated story.

As for Guido Bandura still lighting signal lamps in Forest Hill Cemetery – something does glow at different points within the cemetery.

Whether these points of light be ghostly signals from a loving father to his missing son, or whether they can be explained as some natural phenomena is a matter of interpretation.

Nothing can be proven.

You just have to see it for yourself.