The forest roadways of southern Illinois were lonely ones and ofttimes hazardous. This is suggested in the early records of Randolph County by recurring entries like, “For holding an inquest over a body found on Ford’s Ferry Road – 10 dollars.”
That an item of record for the Cave-in-Rock region should appear in the Randolph County record may seem strange, but it should be remembered that Randolph County then included practically all of southern Illinois. The first mention of Ford’s Ferry Road thus appears in the Randolph County records at Chester. When references to this road are assembled, they add up on one fact – it was not a safe one to travel. Ford’s Ferry Road received its name from a ferry located just below the present Ohio dam about three miles above Cave-in-Rock. It was operated by James Ford, who regularly lived in Kentucky. At one time, however, he lived in and was a citizen of Illinois. This is shown by the fact that he served as overseer of the poor for Cave-in-Rock Township. His crossing was the best and most used ferry along that section of the river.
To make travel by way of his crossing more attractive. Ford established a good tavern beside the trail on the Kentucky side a few miles south of the Ohio. Another man, William Potts, built a second one at the north end of the improved section of roadway in Illinois. Potts’ Tavern was located beside a fine spring at the southern slope of a hill still called Potts’ Hill. A farmhouse stands a short distance west from Illinois Highway 1 where the tavern once was located. The first building was a large two-story double log house with a hallway or “dog trot” between. This place became one of the most widely known in all the region. The length of roadway between it and Ford’s Tavern in Kentucky was called Ford’s Ferry Road.
James Ford and William Potts, operating taverns about twenty miles or a day’s travel apart became well acquainted. According to tradition, they even became associated in certain operations like robbing unwary travelers. By their plan, each robbed independently as opportunity afforded, but not wishing to see a prosperous appearing traveler go unrobbed, a kind of mutual help service was established.
According to stories surviving, if a traveler whose appearance indicated that he might be a good prey came to either tavern, the owner made all reasonable efforts to relieve him of his valuables. If, however, opportunity did not arise to do so, a messenger would be dispatched to the other tavern ahead of the visitor with information concerning him. Potts, thus, would notify Ford concerning travelers from the north, and Ford in turn would relay information concerning those coming from the south.
There are indications that others in addition to Ford and Potts profited unduly from these travelers. Anyway, there is a strange coincidence in the fact that a certain respected citizen in the area often advertised a “stray horse” for sale about thirty days after the recorded disappearance of a traveler. The law required that anyone taking up a stray should hold it thirty days, then advertise it for sale to reimburse himself for the feed bill. Possibly stray horses just liked to go to this man’s place, which was some miles from the road.
Today’s traveler on Illinois Highway 1 south of Saline River sees some bits of an abandoned and overgrown trail that once was Ford’s Ferry Road.
“Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois” – John W. Allen