Sunday, August 7, 2011

Chapter Four. "Fire in Cairo: Bothering the Ohio, Part II."

O Dear Reader: The adventures I saw. Please continue skimming to hear of my arrival into lands of Pirates, Scoundrels, Crooked Politicians, Highwaymen, Counterfeiters, Serial Killers, Bandits, Outlaws and the worst, most frightening wickedness: State Troopers.

I was knee-deep in a valley of coffee and continued West on Indiana State Route 66, the scenic way into Evansville, Indiana. The sky had started to show signs of darkening in the distance, but no storms made themselves showed. 

Evansville was to be the last large city I would be seeing before finding my eventual goal: the end of the Ohio. Like Louisville, and most other cities along the route, it is nicknamed “River City,” and was originally settled by immigrants in the early 1800s based on its location on a horseshoe bend in the Ohio, making it another great spot for trade and such. It was incorporated in 1819 and by 1890, was the 56th largest city in the US. The population eventually declined, and at present day it rests somewhere in the area of 117,000.

But I’m not here to tell you about Evansville.  I would not be making stops in the town, although I had read of the existence of an infamous Shoe Tree that sounded interesting located near Ellis Park. My schedule kept me loyal to crossing through the city and eventually merging onto Route 62 West, which would derail from the bends of the Ohio and into the state of Illinois. I had smaller fish to fry in a small village in Southern Illinois.
I did manage to accidentally find these giant roadside silos I had read about before beginning the trip. They read: “TEA” “COFFEE” “SUGAR” “MILK.” Alright. Clever.

66 became 62 and I settled into the rhythms of driving through long straight passes of the road, my Soundtrack fully resumed:

The next segment of driving would encompass a longer stretch, as 62 would lead me through Mount Vernon and finally into Illinois, over the Wabash River and onto Illinois’ Route 141 West. I followed 141 to eventually begin a journey through Gallatin County and head back toward the Ohio on Route 1 South. Route 1 would take me to my next river town destination: Cave in Rock.  

I think it was about this point in the trip that I began to talk to myself quite a bit.

Route 1, for the most part is a straight shot road that lasts for miles and miles, and I was trying to make up a little time, having spent most of my drive on bending hills and no shoulder narrow routes that were a little more difficult to speed through.

Yes, you heard that word of foreshadowing here, first: Speed.

Southern Illinois is a strange area with some bizarre American history embedded into it. I followed Route 1, which seemed to lead straight into the areas that had been settled by Europeans in the 18th century. Much like Kentucke once was considered the far Wild West before Westward Expansion began its American lurch, Southern Illinois’ history possesses some elements of chaotic and dark endeavors that created the beginnings of the state. There really are no cities to speak of in Illinois’ South; it is instead dotted by tiny towns officially called villages.

Based on conversations I had with some locals selling vegetables and cold water at a stand in Cave In Rock, I learned Equality (current population noted at 720) was near what was often referred to in the area as The Mansion. Nationally, it is known as the Crenshaw House. Equality sat near the Saline River, which was used for some unknown amount of years by Native Americans to produce large quantities of salt from their “Great Salt Springs.” Eventually, as with everything they used, the original Americans ceded the springs to the US Government in 1803.

I mentioned in Part I of this here professional travelogue that the Ohio River served as a dividing line between slave and free states. Illinois was a free state, and often Kentucke slaves would escape across the river into Illinois. In 1838, John Crenshaw built his Mansion, a salt works factory. Due to the arduous work involved, the Illinois government allowed Crenshaw to legally use slaves for the tasks required to produce enough salt, deeming it necessary.

So, despite Illinois being a free state, Southern Illinois was, oddly enough, not free at all.

Crenshaw, being an entrepreneur and an all-around rotten asshole, not only bred and kept slaves, but also began immersing himself in the kidnapping of free blacks in Illinois, whom he would either use at his salt springs, or sell back to slave states, from Kentucke all the way down to Texas. The Crenshaw Mansion is recognized as a station on what is now known as the Reverse Underground Railroad. It was open to the public for years, but has since been closed by the state. Persistent rumors exist that it is haunted. 

(i didn't take this photo because you can't actually get near it)

So much for Equality.

As I neared Cave in Rock, I stopped for more coffee along Route 1 and stretched, readying myself for the last stretch back to the river.

Turning left back out the road, I continued talking to myself and listening to the Soundtrack. There were nothing but dying billboards, fields and then a State Trooper.

I pulled into the parking lot of an old abandoned gas station and let the Illinois Trooper, armed with hard-brimmed hat and mirrored sunglasses, question my existence.

“Why’re you so far from home?”
“I’m just doing some traveling on vacation, sir.”
“Where’re you headed?”
“Cave in Rock, up the road.”
Furrowed brow underneath the hat. “Why?”
“Because there’s a cave to see?”
“Why’re you trying to get there so fast?”
“I didn’t realize I was speeding, sir.”

And then just a stare, as though I would be lying and was conducting some secret mission to infiltrate Southern Illinois’ cave system with toxin from Kentucke. Yes, the Great Kentucke invasion of Illinois was about to begin and I had been caught. Shit.

“I’ll need see the rental agreement.”
“It’s in my bag in the back seat. I’ll have to get out of the car to get it. Is that OK?”
More hard-brimmed stare.
“Do you have any weapons?”
“Just two hand grenades and a slingshot.”

I understand pulling me over for speeding down a deserted straight-shot state route. But the line of questioning I received, as though I had much more to offer than my foot was pressed heavier on the gas that it should have been, was kind of ridiculous.

You are right, officer. Why am I traveling through your state, spending money at your historic landmarks? I thought that was a good thing. Why else do you have the damned landmarks?

And now the state gets $120 from me. That’s more than I would have spent at Cave in Rock, so Illinois wins.


Cave in Rock is another small village in Illinois, population 350. The village represented my reconnection with the Ohio River, which I would hug the rest of my trip to its end at the Mississippi.

Being slightly upset about the ticket I had just received, I casually cruised straight through the town, missing all of the signs telling me to turn left to the cave that the town was built around. 
Cave in Rock, IL 
       ( my vegetable-selling pals were up on the left at that red pickup truck)

I assumed it was dead ahead, although dead ahead was a ferry leading across the Ohio. Sitting on the ferry, I had time to examine the ticket. 

We were unloaded and I began driving straight, following all of the cars in front of me. Somehow, with reason blinded by annoyance at law enforcement, I assumed I was still in Illinois. How I thought this, I can’t figure out to this day. I had crossed the Ohio. Did I think I was on an island off the coast of exotic Illinois? These mysteries exist always.

I continued driving, listening to music, through green forested road, not realizing I was actually back in the homeland on Route 91, headed South toward Marion, Kentucky, near Shady Grove. I drove for about 15 minutes, countless miles (all covered at exactly the speed limit and not a bit over, sirs), until this thought occurred to me: “Cave in Rock is in Illinois; I’m in Kentucke. Something weird has happened.” No, nothing weird; just an insane disregard for my surroundings. I turned around, headed back to the river, and crossed on the ferry again. The ferryman on the Loni Jo waved at me like I was a regular.

But, I was there to follow the river. A boat ride in my car across seemed to fit right in.

Cave in Rock has a nice, sordid, crooked history, as well.

Although officially incorporated as an Illinois village in 1839, Cave in Rock began as a stronghold for what historians have called an "Ancient Colony of Horse-Thieves, Counterfeiters and Robbers" (Wikipedia said that). The cave at Cave in Rock State Park is a monstrous lair that I could definitely see as a good place to hide. It is a 55-foot wide cavern made of limestone. Its mouth opens straight onto the river. After the Revolutionary War, it became a shelter for Ohio River pirates. Samuel Mason, a former officer in George Washington’s Revolutionary Army, created a tavern, gambling den and brothel within the cave. According to the locals I spoke with, Mason and his gang would invite weary travelers on the Ohio to rest, have some spirits and libations, and buy supplies. If the travelers were an armed and sturdy party, everything was on the up and up. If the travelers were deemed by Mason to be weak and “easy to take,” they never checked out of the cave.

Dark and bloody ground.

I appreciated that you were able to explore the cave alone. It reaches back several hundred feet and it's a slippery walk through a long narrow hallway-like crevice. I spent some time standing in thick mud, looking at the dark rooms that were formed thousands of years ago to be used for "bad things" a couple hundred years ago. Apparently the imbibing of alcohol has not completely ended here:
And I learned that, as seen in that picture, that Donna and Ron were - at one time anyways - "together forever." Both the inside and the outside of the cave are covered in graffiti letting you know all the couples who have EVER visited it.

The village was the site of a lawless society that eventually formed on the banks of the Ohio that saw countless murders and kidnapping. Following the demise of the Mason Gang, the Harpe Brothers, fleeing execution in Kentucky, took refuge there and killed even more people. The story the vegetable salesman told me was the Harpes even killed a small boy just so they could take the bag of flour he was carrying back to his family. The boy was discovered in a nearby creek with the Harpes’ trademark: his chest was cut open and then sewn back together to hold in the rocks they had filled his body with to sink him.

There are also several stories of Kentucky civic leader John Ford, who operated the ferry in the early 1800s, moonlighting as a river pirate based out of Cave in Rock, leading a gang of murderers called “Ford’s Ferry Men.”
View from my farmer friends' vegetable tent

The farmer sitting on the side of the road telling me about the cave finished by telling to check out the 1968 book “Satan’s Ferrymen: A True Tale of the Old Frontier” by W. D. Snively, Jr., and Louanna Furbee. “Yep, this place was created by some pretty mean people,” the farmer said.

His friend, who had a large bandage wrapped around the left side of his head and seemed to be missing part of an ear, sitting quiet next to him in the hot sun, nodded. 

“People are evil," He said, wiping sweat from his missing ear. "Even back then.” 

To be continued…
Next: Superman! And: The most dangerous place!

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