Cave-N-Rock Illinois pirates, moonshine, Mark Twain, Helen Hayes and beyond…
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.
Mark Twain and other famous writers traveled the byways of the Ohio and were known to have visited the Cave and Shawneetown the founding city of the Illinois territory also on the river.
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.
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.
During prohibition the Cave along with most of Southern Illinois was under the control of gangsters that controlled the flow of alcohol along the river ways and the Cave was a distribution point to alcohol into St Louis and up river beyond.
The 1980s saw a decline of the towns along the river with fewer visitors but a few famous including Helen Hayes aboard the Delta Queen.
Today it is a scenic park as witnessed by the video below in a very isolated part of the country serviced by small roads and ferry service.
Chris Edwards Napa California Journal 5-31-18