The history Cave-in-Rock, an imposing natural phenomenon, is filled with colorful and provocative tales. Yet the wild stories connected to this geological wonder lack verifiable, historical documentation. Nonetheless, popular local lore surrounding Cave-in-Rock’s pioneer days still includes fanciful tales of river piracy and ambush attacks upon early, unsuspecting Ohio River travelers. In fact, piracy and other crimes attributed to Cave-in-Rock outlaws were, indeed, known to occur on both the Ohio and Mississippi rivers between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But there is no historical evidence Cave-in-Rock ever actually sheltered criminals beyond what might be considered brief stopovers.
The first European explorer to encounter the cave was M. de Lery of France, who in 1729 called it caverne dans Le Roc. It was a conspicuous curiosity frequently mentioned by later travelers in diaries and journals. Following the Revolutionary War, this immense recess came to represent a waypoint and natural shelter for people traveling along the Ohio River. Although Cave-in-Rock itself might never have been a home for outlaws during this period, anyone floating along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the late 1700s and early 1800s would have faced risky and uncertain passage for hundreds of miles. Criminals in the sparsely populated frontier were known to prey upon people floating their goods toward New Orleans and other river destinations.
One of the most ambitious of these ruthless malefactors was Samuel Mason. Once an officer in George Washington’s Revolutionary Army, Mason was known to dispatch his cohorts out onto the river to befriend unwary and bewildered travelers with offers of help and guidance. As part of the ruse, these henchmen would disable victim’s boats or force them ashore, where the hapless pilgrims would be robbed, or worse. Victims did not always live to tell their story.
By the early 1800s, following the demise of the Mason Gang, the even more notorious Harpe Brothers, a pair of killers fleeing execution in Kentucky, also preyed upon victims in the Cave-in-Rock region. Again, no historical documentation exists linking this conspicuous landmark with the Harpe Brothers. Yet popular lore continues to link the crimes committed by Mason, the Harpe Brothers and all river outlaws of the day with the famous Cave-in-Rock. It’s a reputation that led to a Hollywood movie being filmed at the site. The cave served as a backdrop for a scene in the1962 movie “How The West Was Won.” In the scene, ruthless bandits used the cave to lure unsuspecting travelers to an untimely end.
Although river piracy and other crimes remained a risk for boaters floating past Cave-In-Rock and anywhere in pioneer America, by the mid-1830s the quickening westward expansion of civilization and the steady growth in the local population and commerce had destroyed or driven out the “river rats.” Beginning in the mid-1800s, the cave not only served as temporary shelter for pioneers on their way west, steam-powered riverboats were known to dock below the cave as a tourist attraction for passengers. Throughout the 19th century, this remarkable geological feature was an important landmark, prominently displayed on maps from the period.
In 1929, the State of Illinois acquired 64.5 acres for a park that since has increased to 204 acres. The well-wooded, 60-foot-high hills and the rugged bluffs along the river – commanding expansive views of the famous waterway – became Cave-In-Rock State Park.
In the words of Illinois historian John W. Allen, “Today only the natural beauty of the historic spot remains, clothed in mystery. In the hollow silence of the cave that echoes the peaceful cooing of doves, a visitor can let a vivid imagination run riot.”