A cabin near Herod, Illinois Credit: Ryan Smith

I half expected to hear the groans of one of the anguished apparitions rumored to haunt Cave-in-Rock while spelunking the southern-Illinois landmark recently. Strange sounds are said to occasionally reverberate from the 55-foot-wide maw of the cave perched on the banks of the Ohio River.

On paper, it’s perfect real estate for phantoms to spook, a dim cavern sitting on the edge of a sleepy rural town with a long history—much of it written in blood. Back when it had the laughably literal nickname of River Pirate Cave, Cave-in-Rock was like the Soho House of antebellum-era bad guys: a temporary base for a rotating roster of prominent pirates, thieves, outlaws, and slave catchers. The Harpe Brothers, America’s original serial killers, inhabited the infamous stone chamber while on the lam. So, according to local lore, did the Jesse James gang. In 1797, Samuel Mason, a Revolutionary War vet turned brigand, operated a tavern and gambling parlor within the cave’s bowels. His con game was to use booze, cards, and prostitutes to lure in crews of unsuspecting travelers on the river, then beat and/or murder them by forcing them to jump off the cliff above the cave, after which he’d plunder their boats.

Two years later, a gang of vigilantes dubbed the Exterminators swept the cave clean of criminals. Eventually the thieves’ den eventually found Jesus (or vice versa) when a nearby Baptist congregation held church services there in the mid-1800s. These days the cave is the main attraction of a rather sedate state park, empty but for a few gawking tourists and tiny bats who’ve nested there. The only sounds I heard while exploring? The gentle lapping of the river against the muddy shore and the echo of my own footsteps. There were no ghosts to be found. Not inside the depths of the cave, at least.

Birds of prey circle above Cave-in-Rock.
Birds of prey circle above Cave-in-Rock.Credit: Ryan Smith

The true ghost of Cave-in-Rock is the adjacent town of the same name. A flock of two dozen or so hawks circled the overcast sky, the birds of prey greatly outnumbering the sparse number of visitors I’d seen at the state park. Nearly every dilapidated Main Street storefront I drove past was shuttered—the doors of the Riverfront Opry House were locked shut, a rusted-out playground was vacant and lonely. The only townspeople I spotted were a trio of elderly women sitting quietly in Kountry Kitchen, a dusty diner on the corner. It was if when the Gathering of the Juggalos left Cave-in-Rock for Ohio in 2013 after six anarchic years, the Insane Clown Posse’s fans had kidnapped the rest of the residents.

The residue remains.
The residue remains.Credit: Ryan Smith

I don’t trust a restaurant that slow on a Saturday evening at 5 PM, so at Yelp’s suggestion journeyed ten miles west to try a catfish joint in a wisp of a place called Elizabethtown (not to be confused with nearby Elizabethtown, Kentucky, which inspired the terrible Cameron Crowe romantic comedy). But E’town River Restaurant, a small barge that floats on the Ohio River, was also unceremoniously closed. So, seemingly, was everything else. Broken or deteriorating storefronts dotted the main thoroughfare, among them a vacant building with a fading sign for a lost chapter of something called the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Ironically, the place with the most life was the Rose Hotel—an old tavern turned bed-and-breakfast famous as both the oldest active hotel in the state and one of the most haunted places in Illinois. As local lore has it, the ghost of former owner Sarah Rose can be spotted stalking the inn—guests have heard voices and the sounds of a party, and pennies in groups of three show up randomly throughout the hotel. I didn’t stick around to investigate the claims. 

The next day brought plenty more southern-fried creepiness. While wandering the hill behind the mossy cabin I’d rented on Airbnb, I discovered a series of dried sticks cobbled together in a strange half circle, as if I’d just wandered onto the set of a Blair Witch movie.

A cave I entered on a hike had “KKK” spray-painted inside. Then I decided to explore Banks Cemetery, an obscurity in Shawnee National Forest, just a few scant miles from a cartoonish statue of a Sasquatch locals claim once roamed these woods (here he’s nicknamed the Big Muddy Monster). It wasn’t so much seeing decrepit, uneven graves among a quiet copse of trees that got to me—it was what I spotted 30 yards away. I walked to a clearing near a murky pond and found a horizontal metal bar nailed between two trees with two ropes hanging from a series of hooks, one with what appeared to be a lean bone tied to it. Drilled into the trunk of a tree next to it was a rusty metal winch of some kind. Then: a circle of stones indicating a firepit and a makeshift cross crafted from two pieces of moldy lumber.

Banks Cemetery
Banks CemeteryCredit: Ryan Smith

Shit. Was this the secret site of a KKK rally or a satanic ritual? Was I stuck in some elaborate real-life Scooby-Doo episode where the townspeople scheme to pull the wool over the eyes of the city-dwelling outsiders? It didn’t help my wild imagination that I drove past more wildlife than people in the area in and around Shawnee National Forest—wandering deer, possums, skunks, foxes. Where was everyone?

Truth is, I wasn’t in a horror movie come to life. Not really. It was a trick of perception. For the last decade I’ve lived in the bustling city of Chicago, in dense, centralized neighborhoods that continue to gentrify and grow ever shinier. Newer. Younger. Louder. But while Chicago’s economic prospects continue to grow, on the opposite end of the state things are getting ever more bleak. These rural towns on Illinois’s southern edge haven’t disappeared suddenly. They’re slowly, bitterly, fading away. 

The Devil's Smokestack, in Shawnee National Forest's Garden of the Gods
The Devil’s Smokestack, in Shawnee National Forest’s Garden of the GodsCredit: Ryan Smith

An estimated 297 people live in the town of Cave-in-Rock, according to the U.S. Census, less than half the number of residents in 1970. The population that remains is aging and poor: more than 40 percent are older than 45, and nearly 30 percent live in poverty. The unemployment rate hovers near 8 percent, but that doesn’t tell the whole story, because the labor participation rate keeps dropping. A 2015 report from the Social Impact Research Center lists 42 Illinois counties on its poverty watch list. Cave-in-Rock and Hardin County, home of Elizabethtown, are at the top of the list—meaning that people here face declining income, employment, and high school graduation rates. Life expectancy is 73.1 years for males and 79.2 for females, about four to six years less than the lifespan of the average Chicago suburbanite.

Meanwhile, the region’s blue-collar jobs keep vanishing—some as part of decades-long trends due to globalization and outsourcing, some due to more recent changes in governmental policy. The state has lost approximately 300,000 factory workers since 2000, which disproportionately affects downstate workers. This is also coal-mining country, and America’s so-called “war on coal” continues in the form of strict new environmental regulations, while cheap natural gas encourages utilities to switch. As a result, Illinois has lost about 1,300 jobs in coal over the last two years, bringing the total number to 2,800—a fraction of the 50,000 employed here during the industry’s peak in the 1930s. Meanwhile, the cash-strapped, dysfunctional state keeps hacking millions annually from the budget of Southern Illinois University—a regional economic hub that according to a 2011 study generated about $859.1 million in economic activity in the southern 23 counties of Illinois.

The view from inside Cave-in-Rock
The view from inside Cave-in-RockCredit: Ryan Smith

That’s no doubt one reason why so many voters in southern Illinois turned to Trump last November. Racism would seem to have played a significant role—I saw as many Confederate flags flying as Trump flags while there. But in Hardin County, 40 percent of the white, rural, largely working-class constituents voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In 2016, 77 percent of the county’s population went for the billionaire candidate who pandered endlessly to this demographic with his vision of “Making America Great Again.” Trump said that if elected president, he’d reverse the economic decline that has been strangling regions like southern Illinois for decades. “Your government betrayed you and I’m going to make it right,” he told a Pennsylvania crowd before Election Day. “Your jobs will come back under a Trump administration. We’re putting your miners back to work.”

Trump’s made symbolic gestures toward restoring some American manufacturing and blue-collar jobs in his first few weeks as president. But I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t a 21st-century version of Samuel Mason—the “creative entrepreneur” of Cave-in-Rock. In Trump’s case, he’s lured the voters of southern Illinois in with honeyed words and cheap slogans, but promises to continue the Republican Party’s corrosive agenda of sapping these places until all that’s left is a withered corpse.