Interesting Places to Visit
Cave-In-Rock: The Mystery Of Illinois’ Most Famous Pirate Hideout (Cave-In-Rock, Illinois)
By Phil Dotree — July 18, 2011
It’s sometimes easy to forget that the United States used to be a very dangerous place, especially when our biggest problems are malfunctioning smart phones and lackluster reality shows. It’s worth thinking about the dangers that the first Americans faced; rugged frontiersman had to deal with dysentery, starvation, and even river pirates. Outlaws and thieves once preyed on American pioneers, especially river travelers who were gullible enough to trust a kind stranger.
Cave-In-Rock's cave was spectacularly flooded when we first visited. Here's what it looks like during drier conditions.
There’s no better example of the grim, macabre side of the early U.S. than River Pirate Cave, a small rock formation on the banks of the Ohio River between Kentucky and southern Illinois. The cave is in a small, aptly-named town called Cave-In-Rock, which seems to be out in the middle of nowhere on the south side of Shawnee National Forest.
A road sign outside of the Cave-In-Rock lodge. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The History of Cave-In-Rock
The small, 55-foot wide cave was once a prime stop for travelers in the late 1800s, as it provided easy shelter from the heat and an obvious stopping point for riverboats.
Before that time, Cave-In-Rock was home to thieves and murderers who’d lure travelers into the cave under false pretenses, probably an offer of food, supplies or guidance. The pirates would then kill the travelers, dumping their bodies into the Ohio River and erasing their names from history.
The river pirates gave the cave its best-known name, River Pirate Cave, and there were some big-name outlaws holed up in the rock from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s.
The lodge offers information about Cave-In-Rock as well as facilities. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The Harpe Brothers were some of the most famous temporary residents; they were America’s first true serial killers, with about 40 combined murders between them. The Harpes stayed at the cave while fleeing an order of execution. Their modus operandi often involved stabbing their victims and weighing their bodies with stones before throwing them in a river--however, it’s not clear whether they actually murdered anyone at Cave-In-Rock or how long they stayed in town. In any case, it was one of their last stops together. The elder Harpe brother was tracked down and killed by a posse while the younger brother spent his life on the run before eventually being caught and executed.
Picnic pavilions overlook the Ohio River at Cave-In-Rock. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Samuel Mason was another famous resident who used Cave-In-Rock as the headquarters of his famous Mason Gang, a group of ruthless river pirates and highwaymen. He may have also worked with James Ford, another famous pirate, although there’s no real evidence that they met one another. That didn’t stop Disney from using Samuel Mason and James Ford as villains in a Davey Crockett cartoon, which Cave-In-Rock proudly points out on its town park’s website.
Other outlaws include the Sturdivant Gang, a group of counterfeiters, and various no-name pirates, pickpockets and river rats who gave the town a bad name before it gained respectability as a travel hub in the late 1800s. It’s impossible to list all of the pirates who visited Cave-In-Rock because there’s simply no list – pirates are, by nature, secretive, and many of their names and crimes have been lost to history.
A scenic view of Cave-In-Rock park and the Ohio river. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
That’s part of the point. A major reason for Cave-In-Rock’s reputation as a tourist attraction is the folklore surrounding the cave, not the history. Little is known for sure--there are dozens of stories and plenty of evidence for the grisly crimes of early river pirates, but not a lot of specific information about the victims or criminals.
Every now and then, residents may find something startling, such as gold coins, graffiti or in one case, a body buried under an old house. For the most part, though, everything is left to the imagination of the visitor, and that makes Cave-In-Rock absolutely irresistible. Tourists come to the area to visit the park surrounding the cave and to take a peek into the tiny rock where bandits hid and where pioneers died gruesome deaths. The crimes of the cave become even more gruesome and cold in the imagination, and for many visitors, that’s absolutely fascinating.
A pathway leading down to the murky waters of the Ohio River. Cave-In-Rock is beyond this and to the left. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Visiting The Cave
River Pirate Cave is known by a dozen or so names, owing to the word-of-mouth manner in which the legend of the cave has spread.
There’s a very nice park above River Pirate Cave, with well-kept grass and several picnic shelters for vacationing families. It’s hard to think that this was the same place where pirates led travelers to their doom over a hundred years ago, but there’s certainly an eerie feel to the steep drop-off areas around the picnic tables and the winding stone staircases leading down to the cave area.
The path to Cave-In-Rock's River Pirates Cave entrance, flooded by rising water of the Ohio River. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Cave-In-Rock’s park is beautiful, but other than a few modest fences and the aforementioned picnic tables, it’s been kept in a similar condition to what those unfortunate travelers might have seen in the 1800s. That means that visitors should be especially careful when exploring--one step in the wrong direction and you’ll find yourself dangling off a cliff.
It also means that Cave-In-Rock park has some of the most beautiful views in Illinois. Each of the winding paths in the park lead to a tremendous vantage point for observing the powerful Ohio River, and with ferry boats drift past every few minutes, it creates a startling, breathtaking scene. We were also told by a few locals that there’s great fishing in the area. It’s easy to believe; catfish and bluegill could be seen jumping out of the water near the flooded path that leads to the River Pirate Cave.
The side of the cave at Cave-In-Rock, Illinois, seen here during the great flood of 2011. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The Mouth Of The Cave
There are no signs marking the cave, other than arrows pointing in its general direction, and there are no plaques educating visitors on the geology or the history of the place. That’s part of the River Pirate Cave’s allure: it’s a hole in a rock, with no artificial light, no tour guides, no creature comforts.
An annoyed, wet, Interesting America reporter attempts to make his way into the river pirates cave by wading into the mighty ohio river. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
There is graffiti, however. You’ll find graffiti in any public place that isn’t vigorously guarded, but Cave-In-Rock’s graffiti goes back quite a ways. There are etchings from the 1800s (at least, that’s what the graffiti claims--there’s not really a good way to tell, but the etched names certainly look old enough to be legitimate). There are also crude limericks and signatures from more recent vandals, which distract from the geology of the structure but certainly don’t diminish the cave’s history as a home for outlaws.
The cave extends quite a ways into the park above. For light, there’s a large stone circle, sort of like a giant chimney, which extends from the cave up to the park. It’s covered in a grate to keep tourists from falling in. It’s also a great place to drop things on people and to play pranks on the superstitious who might be worried about the rumors of cave ghosts.
This deep, well-like shaft at Cave-In-Rock state park looks down into the cave itself. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Cave-In-Rock’s park is open to the public and is completely free, as are ferry rides to neighboring Kentucky. The park has a lodge for travelers and offers great opportunities for boating, hiking and swimming. However, visitors are advised to call ahead to the park’s lodge at (618) 289-4545 to make sure that the cave will be accessible, as it is prone to flooding from the Ohio River.
A close-up view of the shaft looking down into the famous Cave-In-Rock cave in southern Illinois. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
It’s certainly worth a stop if you’re around the area--Cave-In-Rock is an odd but endearing town, and the River Pirates Cave is a fascinating place to see, especially for anyone interested in the trials and hardships of early American settlers.
Phil Dotree, a St. Louis native, has written over 2,000 articles on various subjects for many websites and news sites (Yahoo!, Digg.com, Fark, TheFrisky.com, ManOfTheHouse.com) and many companies including Gillette and Proctor and Gamble. These pieces have included opinion articles, website content, press releases, SEO, and much more. He has been featured on the Howard Stern show and CNN.com. John studied English at Southern Illinois University and currently works exclusively as a freelance writer and musician in St. Louis, Missouri.