Happy Trails

books by Kathleen Wallsarchives of American Roads and Global Highways
 and Global Highways
subscribe to American Roads and Global Highways American Roads and Global Highways writers, contributors, photographers contact American Roads and Global Highways Advertise on American Roads and Global Highways

Untitled.  Oil painting of
Cave-in-Rock  by J. Bernhard Alberts,
made in 1916, from
The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock.
About half-way between Paducah and Evansville, on the southeastern tip of Illinois is Cave-In-Rock. A free ferry runs between there and Kentucky. We've taken it many times and never had a long wait. 

Both sides of the river have excellent secondary road connections to interstates and Cave-In-Rock is also a quant village, with an adjacent state park. The park has a golf course, lodge, campground, and restaurant that sit on Pirates' Bluff, walking distance to the cave.

The Kentucky side of the river is the location of the state's largest Amish community, with opportunities to purchase cabinetry, furniture, baked goods, and seasonal items from individual Amish families.

First, the ferry. I already said the best part. Free. Second best part, fairly quick, or even immediate, depending upon the luck of arrival. The ferry just shuttles back and forth.  Hours are 6:00 to 9:30, seven days a week.  It is a large ferry, three cars wide, and takes about 15 minutes to cross. The Kentucky Ferryboat website is listed below if you want to be sure the ferry is running.  The ferry trip itself is a wonderful experience and way to get the feel of the Ohio River, and is an easy way to see Pirates' Bluff from a distance.   


The car ferry at Cave-In-Rock
The view from the bluff above Cave-In-Rock has to be pretty much the same as it was in 1800. The state park protects the areas above the bluff and it is still a woodland area.  It does have paved trails, picnic areas, and rest rooms, but if you turn your back to that you are still looking out across a wooded view of the Ohio River. The view from the cave and bluff is worth the stop alone.

M. de Lery, a French explorer, was the first European to map the cave, naming it Caverne dans le Roc. That translates to English as Cave-In-Rock. After the Revolutionary War, traffic past the cave increased quickly. In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries the Ohio River would have been that interstate we avoided by taking the ferry.  Pioneers were using the river to reach the frontier, which still included much of the area on both sides of the river. Families and all their personal possessions floated by Cave-In-Rock on their way to a better life.  It was a landmark even at that time that tempted many of the families to temporarily stop.  That also meant valuables were on the flatboats passing by, and that made Cave-In-Rock a perfect location for river pirates.  The bluff offers a long view of the river and its traffic, well before anyone on a boat could see the cave.  The bluff was beautiful and also attractive, enticing boatmen near.  ThThe cave was sometimes disguised as an Inn or tavern, and that was sure to tempt a stop by most boatmen. Some pirates even used sirens at the cave entrance to attract unwary males.

Pirates' Bluff from the ferry.  Structures on bluff are picnic shelters in park.
Cave is hidden from view
The standard plan for river pirates was to place some of their gang on shore where they would hail a passing boat feigning distress and ask for transportation to the next settlement.  The crew might lose its cargo (and lives) if it pulled ashore, or the pirates could go along for the ride and cause it to sink near the rest of their gang.       

There are lots of river pirate stories. Some are true history and some are local legend; it is often hard to tell one from the other. There a dozens of river pirate stories centered on the cave; The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock by Otto A. Robert does a great job of telling some of the best stories (it is 364 pages available via free access on the internet, see link below).  TheThe book has a chapter on the early history of the cave in terms of Native Americans, early explorers and pioneers, and then tells the stories of some very interesting river pirates, including Samuel Mason and the Harpe Brothers.

Inside Cave-In-Rock.
Samuel Mason, in 1797, was an early pirate.  Using the alias of Jim Wilson, he erected a large sign near the entrance of the cave that read, "Wilson's Liquor Vault and House for Entertainment." What boatman would not stop for that! Once inside, the river pirates would size them up. Either the boatmen would be robbed at the cave, or if more time was needed, one of the pirates would offer to pilot the boat through a bad eight mile stretch just down river. The pilot would swamp the boat at an island down river where the rest of the gang waited. Soon the cargo was back on its way to New Orleans, but under control of the pirates. So much cargo was lost that the Pittsburg merchants put a price on Mason's head.  His head eventually showed up in Pittsburg so the reward could be collected.  The rest of the body was burned back in Illinois.

Distinctive view to the outside of Cave-In-Rock.
The Harpe Brothers (Big Harpe and Little Harpe) were perhaps the most notorious criminals in Tennessee and Kentucky history. They made their living from crime, mainly as highwaymen who murdered unlucky travelers. For a while they were river pirates at Cave-In-Rock. They had a reputation of being some of the worst of the murderous, mean frontier criminals.  Once they found two lovers atop the bluff and pushed both of them off.  Another time a boatman was taken to the top of the bluff, tied to a blindfolded horse, and the horse was made to run off the cliff.  Both died. The Harpe Brothers were so mean that the river pirate community ran them off.  That has to be very mean.

Cave-In-Rock has authentic river pirate history and still appears to be an ideal lair for murderous river pirates and others seeking to evade the law.

It is an ideal movie location to feature river pirates and has seen service for just that use.  How the West Was Won, a 1962 Western movie classic has a segment that features the cave.  An emigrant family traveling down the Ohio River runs stops at a trading post run by a band of river pirates that operate out of the cave.  Walter Brennan plays Col. Jeb Hawkins, the leader of the river pirates.  Movie trailers are available on-line (links below) and clearly show the distinctive cave entrance from inside. If you are old enough, you'll remember Walt Disney's Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. What better place to film a pioneer river pirate movie that Cave-In-Rock? In this movie Davy and his friend George Russell go down river to sell some fur pelts in New Orleans.  They encounter "treacherous river pirates, dangerous rapids, and excitement at every turn."  On the way they "discover that the river pirates are masquerading as Native Americans as they loot passing freighters from a riverside cave.  They find their way into the lair, and in the ensuing battle several kegs of gunpowder are exploded, sealing the cave. The victorious heroes escape unscathed with the subdued villains in tow."  CavCave-In-Rock was the cave used in that scene, and, of course, it really was not sealed, as Walter Brennan was pirating out of it six years later. Movie trailers are also available for this film (see links below).

The ferry from near the entrance of the cave.
History's Mysteries on the History Channel did an episode on river pirates in 1998 that was filmed at Cave-In-Rock, which included reenactments and expert commentary showing the dangers that settlers encountered while travelling down the Ohio River during the early nineteenth century.  It included profiles of Big and Little Harpe, who are believed to have murdered nearly 40 travelers.

The great advantage of this side trip is that all of this is only a mile or so from the ferry landing. It is a great place to spend an hour or a day.

It is perfect for a picnic lunch. The cave is not deep and scary.  The entrance is about 55 feet across, the inside is about 40 feet across, and the cave is only about 160 feet deep. The ceiling is high and at the back is a small opening at the top that lets in sunlight. So it is not a super dark cave. The cave is about half-way up the bluff from the river, but a well-maintained path leads to it. Where else are you going to get river pirates on a road trip, except maybe Disney World?  Even Disney's television pirates were not imaginary. They were based on Cave-In-Rock. This is American history at its most interesting, even if the liquor vault and entertainment house are no longer there.  

Authors: Tom Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. His wife, Pat, is a consulting forester. Both have a keen interest in roadside history.

 For more information:

The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock by Otto A. Robert (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1924): https://archive.org/details/outlawsofcaveinr00roth

Two movie trailers for How the West Was Won:

New York Times, two trailers, first is seconds 49 – 53 and second is seconds40 -45:


Turner Classic Movies, original trailer, seconds 5 -7 and 117-123:



Movie trailer and clips for Davy Crockett and the River Pirates:




Cave-In-Rock State Park:



Cave-In-Rock State Park Lodge and Restaurant:



Kentucky side of the river:



Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Ferry Website:


Editorial note header image is View of Cave-In-Rock circa 1832 by Karl Bodmer from "Maximilian, Prince of Wied's Travels in the Interior of North America, During the Years 1832–1834."

  American Roads

Promote Your Page Too
  Like us on Facebook Send us an email to
let us know what

you like (or don't like)  about American Roads.
Pin us

Ads fund American Roads so please consider them for your needed purchases.

If you enjoy the articles we offer, donations are always welcome.