EDITOR'S NOTE: Joe Gisondi and Brian Poulter, journalism professors at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, traveled Illinois 1 this summer and recorded their journey. For our purposes, their journey started in Danville, but the six-part series will cover the length of the road from its origin near Cave in Rock and its end at the south side of Chicago. On the Illinois 1 project, under a grant from Verizon, Poulter used an iPhone 5 and a Nokia Lumia 928 cellphone.
CAVE-IN-ROCK — Chris Berton was more concerned about the blood stains than anything.
Blood, Berton said, is difficult to clean off a deck on this ferry, now churning the three-quarter mile expanse across the Ohio River back toward Illinois.
So Berton tossed the body into the green, sediment-rich waters, where the carcass would either decompose, or, more likely, float along the river until it wedged against an embankment or among some weeds, a possible dinner for a raccoon or turtle.
Fortunately, Berton did not get hurt this morning by the 15-pound Asian silver carp that leaped more than 10 feet over the Loni Jo, the 350-horsepower diesel tug that powers this ferry across the river between Cave-In-Rock, where Illinois 1 ends (or begins, depending on your perspective) and Kentucky State Road 91. Like most silver carp, the fish bounced and tap danced across the deck in rapid-fire gyrations before leaving several red splotches on the crimson deck.
Berton, the boat’s deckhand, has been hit several times by these fish, which can grow to 70 pounds, although state biologists say they encounter very few heavier than 30. But even at that weight, Berton says, they pack a lot of power, making him feel as though he’d been smacked with a Louisville Slugger.
Berton looks like he can take a hit, though. He has wide shoulders and strong forearms, probably strengthened from hooking ropes around the metal cleats to connect the ferry to the tug each time it docks on either side as well as from scrubbing elements such as fish blood and scales from the deck. He walks among the cars he navigated onto the ferry’s three lanes in white New Balance sneakers, saying that arranging cars on board is sort of like playing Tetris, the tile-matching puzzle video game. Chris wears an untucked tan shirt that falls over a slightly growing waist and brown pants, a camouflage-green ball cap, and reflective sunglasses, certainly a necessity when riding over the river for at least eight hours a day.
Several silver carp jump aboard each day, usually when the tug turns around before heading across the river with a new load of cars, trucks and semitrucks. On departure, the tug floats away from shore for a few seconds before Captain Jim Littrell turns on the engine and redirects the boat, pivoting in sort of a three-point turn. The rumbling engine often startles the carp, which begin their wild, airborne dance.
Berton has seen several impressive acrobatics from these fish. He grabs a yellow bucket of water and a brush broom to scrub away the blood before it bakes into the paint. These silver carp, he says, have leaped high enough to fly through open car windows, landing on drivers’ laps. They’ve also jumped out of the water so explosively that they have dented car doors and hoods, and one carp even reached a car on top of a semi’s flat bed. It’s the ones that clandestinely flop inside the engine room that worry Berton the most. “If they sit there long enough,” he said, “they can really stink up the place.”
It’s not clear why silver carp react in this manner, unlike their cousin, the bighead carp, although state biologists like Kevin Irons believe this is a survival instinct. “By doing this, they confuse predators,” says Irons, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ aquatic nuisance species program manager, “and, hopefully, they won’t get eaten.”
Conversely, the larger bighead carp, which frequently grow to 70-plus pounds, say fisheries ex-perts, dive down when threatened.
“It’s just a flight mechanism,” says Paul Rister, a biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife.
These carp were originally brought over to the United States from China to help control algae in catfish ponds, primarily in Arkansas. Over the years, the fish escaped, spawned and moved out across the region’s main waterways. Now, they far outnumber native species in the Illinois, Mis-souri and parts of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers — as much as 70 percent in some areas, says Irons.
These carp can eat 20 percent of the body weight each day, produce 700,000 eggs a year, and within a few months are too large for predator fish. As a result, they are eating so much plankton that other species, like shad and cuttlefish, are getting starved out, Irons said.
“We haven’t lost a species yet,” Irons says, “but the native species are not doing as well. The in-vasive process is not over. I’m sure they’re (bighead and silver carp) still reaching out to other watersheds.”
Rister recently watched 100 to 150 silver carp leap in the air almost instantaneously while he drove his boat through a large school on Lake Barkley, a 58,000-mile reservoir located about 60 miles south of Cave-In-Rock in the Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area. Like Berton, Rister has been hit a few times, which he says is something that “definitely gets your attention.” He says he’s also heard of leaping silver carp breaking one woman’s jaw and bruising the ribs of oth-ers.
Clearly, Brian Poulter and I should carefully scan the water for emerging, flying objects each time we depart these docks on this early August morning, although at six-feet-five, Brian remains both a larger target and a shield. So, I have little to fear, unlike the thousands of people who regu-larly drive boats, fish, and water ski among these large, skittish missiles.
JOSH FANN digs through the rubble of a demolished bank building on a ridge that overlooks the ferry crossing, his blue-and-white Ford Motor Co. ballcap pulled down far over a face that belies his youth. He’s no more than 18, wearing a cut-off gray T-shirt, jeans with a large, torn hole in his right knee, and brown boots. At noon, Josh is worn from bending, picking and stacking unbroken bricks worth reusing by his employer, a local construction company. The back-breaking work and sun are clearly sapping his youthful energy. He’s one of four people on this crew, whose mission is to collect and recycle 6,000 bricks. So far today, they’ve stacked several palettes four to five layers high. But piles of bricks still cover this lot.
Little else is going on at Cave-In-Rock on a Friday afternoon, besides folks filtering into Rose’s Kountry Kitchen around the corner, walking into the newly constructed Area Bank next door, or driving another 200 yards down a declining Illinois 1 to the ferry ramp. The city hall building across the street is empty, as are most of the structures in a town that is tiny both in size at 0.43 square miles and in population with about 318 residents.
Cave-In-Rock is one of a dozen or so small towns sprinkled along the final 20 miles of Illinois 1 as it cuts through the Shawnee National Forest, a 288,000-square acre wilderness wonderland that features a Little Grand Canyon carved from sandstone, extraordinary rock formations chiseled from sedimentary rock, expansive, untouched wilderness, aptly called Garden of the Gods, and more wildlife species (500) than total residents in Gibsonia, Lawler, and Spark Hill which are villages that do not even register on the state maps since they have populations below 225. Harrisburg, with 9,000 residents, is a 45-minute drive northwest of Cave-In-Rock through the national forest, making it the largest regional city.
Residents of towns surrounding Cave-In-Rock, though, prefer traveling across the river and driving 12 miles to Marion, Ky., for their shopping and medical needs. Several nurses take the ferry across the Ohio River in order to work at the Crittenden County Hospital, the closest large medical facility. Without the ferry, locals would have to drive 35 miles north to get across the river on the bridge near Shawneetown or drive 55 miles west to reach Interstate 24, which rolls into Paducah, Ky.
It’s not economically feasible to build bridges for sparsely populated regions, says Casey Wells, the Freight, Rail and Waterways coordinator for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. That’s why Kentucky funds three ferries across the Ohio River into Illinois and one across the Mississippi into Missouri.
The ferry at Cave-In-Rock gets, by far, the most traffic, attracting anywhere from three to nine times more cars each year. For fiscal 2013, about 135,000 cars ferried across the Ohio River from both sides, or about 2,600 a day.
Many people travel to view the town’s namesake, a riverside cave literally carved into a lime-stone rock by wind, water, and, partially, by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12. The cave has a wide entrance visible from the river that opens into a 55-foot wide interior. Sunlight pours in through a long, narrow shaft 20 feet above in the ceiling, which illuminates everything except a few dark recesses. It’s easy to see why this cave attracted so many people through the years.
Two hundred years ago, Cave-In-Rock was a nightmare. River pirates would row out to slow-moving rafts to offer food and shelter in the cave, only to rob and murder them, dumping the bodies into the Ohio River. Isaiah L. Potts, a tavern owner, would regularly rob and murder his patrons. Brothers Micajah and Wiley Harpe, considered America’s first true serial killers, murdered more than 40 people across several places, including Cave-In-Rock. Micajah even bashed the skull of an infant, annoyed by the girl’s incessant crying.
Cave-In-Rock was a stronghold for all kinds of thieves and murderers, which also included Ford’s Ferry Gang and the Sturdivant Gang, who preyed on the kinds of travelers like those on the ferry. Samuel Mason, a leader of a gang of pirates, had more than 20 human scalps when he was arrested in 1803, along with $7,000, or about $150,000 today. Thieves exchanged an estimated $1 million worth of stolen gold, cash, counterfeit bills and goods purloined at Cave-In-Rock between 1790 and 1830.
The scene “Cut-Throat Corner” and “Wilson’s Cave Inn” on Tom Sawyer’s Island at Walt Disney World World’s Magic Kingdom are based on Cave-In-Rock as is a scene about river pirates in the movie “How The West Was Won.”
Today, Cave-In-Rock State Park sits on the bluffs, along with a lodge and campsites open on the weekends. Locals like Mark and Brenda Overturf are more concerned by floods, such as the one in 2011 that rose more than 50 feet and surrounded their home along the river several hundred yards west of the ferry. Neighbors had to deliver groceries and supplies by boat for about two weeks.
“Thank goodness for great neighbors,” Mark says.
They are headed to Kentucky Lake for the afternoon, but many others use the ferry to explore off-road attractions or to cut time from longer trips.
Waldo Alvis is returning home to Pompano Beach, Fla., after a lengthy trip where he’s hauled pipes to oil fields in Houston, and then carried other materials to New Jersey, Georgia, and Ohio. Most recently, he picked up shingles in Detroit. “I get to see places in this job that people can only dream about,” he says.
After 30 years of driving, this may be Alvis’ final trek across the country. He took this trip re-cently after selling his semitruck to a friend, currently sitting in the cabin of a truck emblazoned with the logo for Pompano Logistics.
“I’m just teaching him the tricks of the business,” Alvis says in an accent that’s sometimes difficult to comprehend, which is understandable since he speaks five languages including English, Spanish, French, Italian and his native Portuguese, learned while growing up in Brazil.
Alvis is friendly and engaging, traits that probably served him well as he negotiated contracts to haul materials and conversed with uptight dispatchers. He says he once drove by himself from Florida to Brazil, a trip that seems treacherous and somewhat implausible considering the crime and drug trade through Central and South America. But I’m willing to hear his tales, nonetheless.
Before we reach the Kentucky side, Alvis asks Brian and me to guess his age.
Alvis is about five-feet, six-inches and wiry. He wears a black, orthopedic back support that straps around his waist and over a dark gray T-shirt that covers small, squared shoulders. An olive ball cap that proclaims “You’re in Dew Country” hides close-cropped, black hair.
Neither Brian nor I are close, estimating him to be in his mid-40s.
“Fifty-nine!” Alvis exclaims proudly, flexing a bulging bicep as well as causing the veins in his neck to pop. “I’m in pretty good shape, no?”
Alvis’ eyes are obscured behind dark yellow prescription lenses, but his mouth opens widely into a smile. As the boat prepares to dock, Alvis steps into the semi’s blue cab and waves.
On the return trip to Illinois, Derek McCree stands looking across the river toward the bluffs to the right of town. In his late 20s, Derek holds a stack of newspapers, catnip to any news geek. So we start chatting.
McCree, a journalism major at the University of Kentucky, eventually took a job managing hotels in Lexington, where he worked for a few years until returning home to care for an ailing parent in Marion. In the interim, he’s taken a job covering sports for the weekly Crittenden Press. Derek takes the ferry across the river each week to deliver newspapers to businesses in Cave-In-Rock.
Two days earlier, a bizarre murder took place in Marion that was ripped out of a scene of either ‘X-Men” or “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” The front page blares: “Man stabbed to death,” a far more reserved headline than we’d read had this happened in a larger city. Tabloid editors would have certainly invoked Wolverine or Freddy Krueger, fictional characters that rely on multi-blade claws to fight — the same weapon used by a Marion man to tear into the torso and legs of his step-brother.
“We don’t get a lot of murders in our area,” McCree says. But, he adds, this is the second murder in 13 months on that same street, a shocking trend for a town of about 3,000 residents.
To make the story even freakier, the brother charged with murder recently published a book about werewolves arising in Marion, using claws to rip apart their victims’ flesh.
Tom Brammeld and Michael Jack have met far more kindhearted people during their 90-day, 4,234-mile trek across the Trans-America Trail in order to raise money for Yorkshire Cancer Re-search, located near their hometowns in England. Sure, they’ve had to pedal hard to evade several dogs, including one that bit into a yellow bag by Tom’s seat, but the people have been warm and friendly during the past 3,000 miles. “We’ve been humbled,” Tom says.
A family in Montana, for example, cooked them a six-course dinner and then allowed them to sleep on their couch, while a man in another part of the state gave them $40 and said “Welcome to America.” Someone else paid for their meal in a McDonald’s.
“Had I known, I would have also ordered french fries,” said Michael. “This kind of thing never happens back home.”
Since departing from Astoria, Ore., in June, they have raised nearly $3,000 through JustGiving.com. After pedaling up to seven hours a day, six days a week, they still have about 1,000 miles left until reaching Yorktown, Va. So far, they have ridden through ghost towns, into an aban-doned state penitentiary, over 11,000-peaks on the Continental Divide, and across long, flat stretches across Kansas.
Their assessment of America so far is Rockies: stunning; Kansas: wet; Wyoming: hot; and Cave-In-Rock ferry: far shorter than they had hoped.
After the eight-minute ride, Tom and Michael each put on their helmets, slide onto their bike seats and prepare for Chris Berton to direct them off the ferry and on to two-lane Kentucky State Road 91.
What did they like best? “The people,” says Tom. “I know it’s cliché, but it’s true.”
CLARA YOUNG IS afraid of semitrucks, convinced they’ll sink the ferry. That’s why she’s sitting patiently in a green Windstar van working on a Sudoku puzzle. Clara’s thick, gray hair is pulled up and tied in a pink hair clip, complementing a red blouse. Her blazing blue eyes glance over to the river ramp 40 yards away, where two 70-foot-long big rigs idle beside nearly a dozen cars. It’s a large crowd at 11 a.m.
“I am not going to go across the river with those trucks,” she says matter-of-factly.
A semi with a trailer weighs about 32,000 pounds, more than six times more than most cars. Filled, a semitruck can weigh up to 80,000 pounds, the limit in most states.
The Cave-In-Rock ferry is built to handle these big rigs. Twenty-eight compartments, or water tanks, keep the ferry afloat. Says Chris: “It’s nearly impossible to sink.”
Clara returns to her own puzzle, occasionally answering my questions. Chris called her ornery, saying Clara gets perturbed when semis roll up while she waits for the ferry. Every time, he says, Clara pulls over to the side parking lot that looks over the river until the semis depart.
Today, Clara is driving her two great-grandkids, aged 4 and 6, to their mother’s in Kentucky and to see friends.
As we talk, she recommends a visit to the Crenshaw House, a former slave residence about 25 miles north that had been a stop in the reverse Underground Railroad from which free African-Americans were kidnapped and shipped south across the Ohio River. Her grandmother worked there in the 1920s as did several former slaves. A seven-foot African-American man used to live in the attic, she says, but he would play joyfully with Clara and other kids.
The house was part of the only plantation in Illinois allowed to employ slaves because few white people were willing to perform the back-breaking, brutal labor needed to mine Illinois for salt, a particularly valuable mineral for preserving food in the frontier during the 1830s. These mines might as well have yielded gold because John Crenshaw made so much money that he paid one-seventh of all state taxes at one point.
Despite that, Crenshaw kept kidnapping and selling slaves until an African-American severed Crenshaw’s leg with an ax. After that, he sold most of the remaining slaves.
“You’d enjoy that place,” Clara says. “Some people say it’s haunted. You should check it out.”
Thirty minutes later, Clara drives on to a ferry. Chris has already conducted the cars aboard and thrown the connecting ropes around the cleats. Jim Littrell is ramping up the Loni Jo’s engines in order to maneuver the boat toward Kentucky.
Somewhere near the surface, some Asian carp are startled. Here’s hoping Clara has rolled up her windows.