Before trains and trucks, boats floated cargo down the Ohio River in the early days of the United States. Pirates and thieves often attacked the river boats and one of the most notorious locations was the Cave-In-Rock along the Illinois side of the river. The massive cave was created a millennia ago by water carving out the rock. It was the perfect shelter in southern Illinois for bandits waiting for ships to pass by on the current of the Ohio River.
There have been many tales and legends told about the cave over the past few centuries. Exactly how accurate they are is up for debate. There is a record of treachery and despicable people that used to cave. In the late 1700s, counterfeiters Philip Alston and John Duff used the cave for a meeting place. They became friends with Samuel Mason, a Revolutionary War militia captain who used the cave as his base of operations. He and his gang of outlaws robbed the boats going down the river. Many of the inexpensive boats were discarded in New Orleans and boatmen would hike the trail back upstream. Mason’s gang would rob them both coming and going. Micajah and Wiley Harpe, known as “Big” and “Little” Harpe, were part of Mason’s gang. The brothers were violent and ruthless men and killed several people in the region. They
are considered by some to be the first serial killers in the United States. Eventually the Harpe brothers and Samual Mason were captured and beheaded and their heads placed along the river to warn any other pirates and outlaws.
The Ford’s Ferry Gang made use of the cave after the removal of the Mason Gang. James Ford was a local businessman who owned a tavern nearby and operated a ferry across the Ohio River. He was the head of a gang that hijacked boats and robbed travelers for decades in the southern Illinois and Kentucky region. Local legend has it that the notorious outlaws Frank and Jesse James hid out in the cave, but I am wondering if it is more legend than fact.
In 1929, Illinois purchased the cave and surrounding land making it into a state park. Today visitors can explore the cave and wonder about all the events that have taken place inside it over the centuries. Walt Disney Productions used the site for the 1956 Davy Crockett adventure, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. In 1962, the John Ford Western epic film How the West Was Won featured the cave.
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