On April 16, 1917, Germany played on communist sentiment by returning Vladimir Lenin to Russia with explicit instructions to start what later would become known as the Bolshevik Revolution. Germany was also known for tampering with American politics at this time, for example- reaching out to German immigrants residing in the United States and trying to enlist them in acts of espionage.
One area where the Germans may have had some real success was in generating racial tension between African Americans and Whites. On July 2, 1917, the East St. Louis Riots broke out. They began when white factory workers, involved in the production of war materials, went on strike. To maintain production, the company brought in African American migrant workers to fill the vacant positions.
Outraged strikers soon turned to violence. The result was hundreds of deaths and millions of dollars in property damage. In 1917, the American labor movement started to gain popularity. Many Americans feared the labor unions would become the breeding grounds for Communist sentiment. To this day there is nothing seen as more "un-American" than Communism and they couldn't allow this happen. German Americans, loyal to Germany, were encouraged to join labor unions and socialist parties to promote labor unrest with the hope that this too would lead to more racial tension. Germany thought that racial discord on a large enough scale would result in mass violence, thus disrupting wartime production and damage our economy. Once our economy was crippled, we could no longer afford to wage war.
During World War One, anything seen as German was considered un-American. Many German Americans did everything they could to hide their heritage. On April 4, 1918, Robert Prager, a German immigrant miner living in Collinsville was a known member of the Socialist Party. Prager was accused of inciting views that were considered anti-American and was abducted outside his home by a large lynch mob. The mob hung Prager from a tree that was once stood in Collinsville’s St. Johns Cemetery. Only eleven men were ever brought to justice for the lynching of Robert Prager, but they were quickly acquitted. Several members of the mob were known members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Ku Klux Klan was aware of Germany’s attempts to promote social upheaval. They saw the act of using African Americans to fill jobs that were once occupied by whites as anti-American. They soon started to promote their skewed and radical view of American patriotism by lynching African Americans workers.
There are no official records to support my next claim, but if such events happened, I think that local officials, given the sentiment of the period would have been more than happy to have overlooked such atrocities. According to oral history and urban legend, Ku Klux Klan members from Collinsville would lynch their victims by hanging them from a railroad trestle that once passed over Lockman Road. Today only the concrete supports and forgotten crossing sign from this railroad trestle survive, and they are located just a few feet from what is known today as the “Third Gate” of the Seven Gates of Hell. This trestle became known as the “Hanging Bridge,” which is most likely the start of the Seven Gates of Hell urban legend. Over the decades, each successive generation added their stories and versions of history, thus ensuring the legend’s survival.
Like all urban legends, there is a little bit of fact, and history weaved into a lot of myth and superstition. Is this exactly how these events played out? Chances are no, but they are historical facts, and they play into one another. Like all good urban legends, the story is more important than accuracy. Were there mass lynchings at the hanging bridge? Probably not, but it would only take one lynching to get an urban legend started. As each generation added their account of historical events, the story became more skewed and much scarier and fun to tell! Thrill seekers driving under the trestle at night probably told stories of seeing ghostly bodies hanging from the rails. As the subject of the occult became a popular topic during the 1970’s, and 80’s, tales of Satanism were added to the urban legend, and I have no doubt that practitioners of the faith tried to make these satanic tales a reality.
So what does the forgotten and overlooked railroad sign have to do with the Urban Legend of the Seven Gates of Hell? It is the only intact remnant still standing that is part of the original railroad tracks that crossed the Hanging Bridge, which in my opinion is where the urban legend of the Seven Gates of Hell started.