Once upon a time in far, far southeastern Illinois there lived slaves, outlaws, miners, explorers, soldiers and river travelers. If you meander along the Ohio River from Shawneetown to Cairo, you will discover that not all of them lived happily ever after.
The Ohio River Scenic Byway traces the path of such early Illinoisans as the banker who wouldn’t gamble on Chicago and a notorious slave master who allegedly captured free blacks and sold them to the South. The designated highways also cut through the natural beauty of the Shawnee National Forest and the remnants of once glorious river towns.
Such a trip along Illinois’ portion of the byway in the fall makes for a nice blend of scenery and history a little more than 200 miles from Springfield. Most of the byway is on two-lane state routes, but you can wander country roads for added fun.
The best place to begin is Old Shawneetown in Gallatin County. A once thriving river town and early passage point for Lewis and Clark, the village has seen better times. Only one tavern remains but you can view remnants of the town’s heyday, including a state-owned but shuttered Greek Revival bank built in 1840 and closed in 1942.
You also can see the site of the bank’s precursor, established by John Marshall in 1816 as the first bank in the Illinois territory. Marshall ran the bank from his home for a time and its directors turned down a $5,000 loan request from those seeking to develop Chicago, saying it was too risky of a venture.
Take State Route 13 to Shawneetown, where many families relocated after the Ohio kept flooding. If there on a weekday when court is not in session, visit the WPA murals in the Gallatin County courthouse. The three sizeable murals depicting the county’s history are part of the scenic byway’s art trail along with bronze sculptures and WPA murals in other towns.
Part of that history centers on the salt industry, which fueled the region’s early economy and led to an unusual arrangement in non-slave-state Illinois. Special language in Illinois’ first constitution allowed salt mine leaser John Crenshaw to keep slaves to work the mine along the Saline River near the now ironically named town of Equality.
Some say he had 700 slaves working for him and often captured free blacks and runaways to sell to southern states. Crenshaw became so wealthy that at one point his taxes constituted one-seventh of the revenue for the entire state. Stories abound of his harsh treatment of the slaves, including iron shackles in his house’s cramped third floor.
His home, known as the Old Slave House, sits on a hill south of Equality and can be spotted from State Route 1. The state took over ownership but has yet to renovate and open it for tours, which had been given under private owners.
To learn more about such notable spots, stop at the Ohio River Visitors’ Center in Equality, open April through October. From Equality you can head south to the Garden of the Gods to check out the fall colors and explore rock formations such as Camel Rock, Anvil Rock and Devil’s Smokestack.
For more geology and scenic views, stop at Cave-in-Rock State Park, which hugs the Ohio River. You can explore the one-time hangout of outlaw river pirates and eat at the state park restaurant or spend the night in cabins or camping.
In Elizabethtown, check out the view of the Ohio from the porch of the Rose Hotel, built in 1812 to serve river travelers. The hotel is now owned by the state and underwent renovation from 1998-2000, with five rooms available to rent. Another historic bed and breakfast inn, the River Rose Inn, sits across the street.
Drop down to Rosiclare if you want to visit the American Fluorite Museum, learn how Hardin County was once the largest fluorspar-producing area in the country and pay homage to the state mineral. The museum is open Thursday through Sunday from May to October.
Golconda boasts a modern marina for boating and fishing, the Lock & Dam 51 homes, which are former lockmaster houses for rent on a bluff overlooking the river, and Buel House, an 1837 log home linked to the Cherokee Trail of Tears. From Golconda, you also can detour to Dixon Springs State Park and Lake Glendale Recreation Area for more Shawnee National Forest adventures.
Children will want to have their photo taken with the Superman statue on the courthouse square in Metropolis. Nearby Fort Massac State Park has a replica of an 1802 fort (currently closed to tourists), part of an 8.8-mile bike trail from Metropolis to Brookport and a statue of explorer George Rogers Clark overlooking the Ohio. He led a regiment into Illinois during the Revolutionary War.
The Mound City National Cemetery pays tribute to both Union and Confederate soldiers buried there beneath rows of marble headstones and is open every day from sunrise to sunset.
In Cairo most of the stately mansions and commercial establishments of the once-vital river town have fallen into disrepair. The town is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a tribute to bygone days of steamboats, railroads and Civil War troop movement.
South of Cairo is Fort Defiance Park, a post commanded by General U.S. Grant. Looking over the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and the official end of the scenic byway, visitors can appreciate the region’s natural beauty while remembering those whose lives along the river were never a fairy tale.
Mary Bohlen is a Springfield-based freelance writer and editor and former chair of the Communication Department at the University of Illinois Springfield. She alternates writing a monthly column on Midwestern travel for IT with Mary C. Galligan of Chicago.