Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Jackson County Snakes and Curses

A view east looking at the Pine Hills from the Muddy Levee Road. Turn right to get to Ladue Road which they closed for the snake migration, or turn left to go north back into Jackson County and toward Rattlesnake Ferry. Photo by Jon Musgrave (Jan. 2013).
Over the last month I've been researching a variety of subjects on a variety of projects with the occasional overlap. One thing led to another, and then another, and somehow I was pulling up stories on the old Rattlesnake Ferry across the Big Muddy River southwest of Murphysboro.

There's a place downstream of that site called Sinners' Harbor that from what I've read, connects to the river pirates of the Grand Tower area. Exactly, how early, or late they operated I've had trouble pinning down, but most stories date it to around 1803. That's about four years after Capt. Young and the Exterminators ran the pirates out of Cave-in-Rock in the summer of 1799.

What's kept me exploring that area is the aforementioned rattlesnakes. I'm not a fan of snakes in general and rattlers in particular. If you have to reference names like Rattlesnake Ferry, Rattlesnake Den, or that road they close twice a year for the snake migrations, I'm probably not going to follow your directions.

Thus I'm probably not going to be the one to explore this cave that the Carbondale Free Press described back in 1925.

Those who have gone back into this cave a few feet report finding further progress blocked by a sealed rock in the passageway, a large square or oblong rock plainly sealed in place by human hands they declare. No one has ever attempted to remove the seal and find out what is back there in the recess - precious metal, hidden wealth or the bones of one long asleep in this natural crypt. The sealed rock has barred entrance to the cave for more than a century, it is declared by old timers in that neighborhood.  

The fact that Rattlesnake den is a short distance away may have made would-be explorers hesitate to go inside the mystery cave. Thousands of rattlesnakes, some very large, winter in Rattlesnake den, and when the first warm days of spring arrive the hideous reptiles may be seen sunning themselves lying across bushes on the Big Muddy, or on rocks, from Swallow Rock to Rattlesnake Ferry.
According to my copy of John Allen's, Jackson County Notes, which I purchased this fall from the General John A. Logan Museum in Murphysboro, Rattlesnake Ferry was the last ferry operating in the county. No explanation though as to why it was so named. I just assume the ferry operators used the snakes in place of the ropes or chains to pull the ferry back and forth across the river.

While looking for the ferry information in that book I came across another interesting tidbit of history that adds to the supernatural folklore of the area. An early Jackson County settler named James D. Murphy died the day after Christmas back in 1840. Harboring ill will to the then-county seat of Brownsville nearby he asked to buried on the brow of a hill across the Big Muddy River from the town. Specifically, he asked to be buried standing, his face toward the village and a bottle of whiskey in one hand "in order that he might take a drink, look toward the town and curse it."

Here's the interesting part that Allen didn't mention, at least in connection with Murphy. Twenty-five months later after his death, a fire destroyed the courthouse and the county seat was moved to what's now the city of Murphysboro. What was once the seat of government - Brownsville - soon became a ghost town.

  • March 7, 1925. "Unexplored Beauty Caves in This County." The Carbondale Daily Free Press (Carbondale, Ill.). 2.
  • John W. Allen. 1945, reprint 2016. Jackson County Notes. Murphysboro, Ill.: Jackson County Historical Society. 5, 26.