By David Witter
More than a century ago, towns like Metropolis, the “home” of Superman, Elizabethtown and Cave-In-Rock were thriving agricultural hubs, buoyed by riverboats and barges, as well as fluorite from the nearby mines. So much so that Cave-In-Rock had the dubious distinction as the capital of Illinois’ crime long before the gangsters arrived in Chicago, with river pirates and mass-murderers operating along the Illinois-Kentucky border.
But the demise of the riverboats and lower grain prices left parts of the region like much of the rest of the rural Midwest—depressed. There are nearby areas of great natural beauty, including Garden of the Gods and the ancient Cypress trees of the Cache River State Recreational Area. But driving along portions of the Ohio River Scenic Byway, you pass tattered houses with yards full of stripped cars and rusted washing machines, as well as shuttered businesses with signs that seem to have been fading for decades. Metropolis and “Superman” hope to change that.
Metropolis was incorporated in 1839, soon after Chicago. At that time the founders thought its central location would make it, and not Chicago, the “mother of all cities” in the Midwest. History took a different course, and it wasn’t until 1972 that they fully embraced the Superman connection.
“In 1972, with the backing of DC Comics, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a resolution that designated Metropolis, Illinois as the ‘official hometown’ of Superman,” Jim Hambrick, owner of the Metropolis Super Museum and Gift Store says.
The town’s greatest attraction is the giant Superman statue located in the center of town.
“The statue started out as a series of cutouts made out of plywood,” Hambrick says. “In 1987, a smaller statue went up, but after six years of a lot of visitors and some unfortunate vandalism, a bronze statue [which is painted red, white and blue every year] was cast. Its dedication drew tens of thousands of people, and in 1993 I moved the traveling Super Museum to its permanent location in Metropolis.”
Today the statue, museum, and other Superman-related exhibits draw people from not only the US, but all over the world.
“It has become a ‘destination stop’ for people who are traveling from say, Nashville to Chicago who will go out of their way to spend a day or half a day here,” Stephanie Rhodes, spokesperson for the Metropolis Visitors Bureau says. “But if you watch the web traffic, almost forty percent of it is international, so we also have people from all over the world visiting as well.”
Traveling east along the Ohio River, another destination is Elizabethtown. Although it boasts a stretch of bars and restaurants, its main attraction is the Rose Hotel, billed as Illinois’ oldest. Built circa 1830, the hotel is a white brick structure that resembles a plantation home overlooking the river, and is now operated as a bed and breakfast.
The farthest point east along the trail is Cave-In-Rock, now Cave-in-Rock State Park. From 1800 until the early twentieth century, pirates, moonshiners and even mass murderers lurked inside the natural caves that line the riverfront. Preying on sailors traveling on flatboats, they were often lured on shore by the promise of whiskey and women. Once inside, the visitors were clubbed and tossed into the river while their cargo was stolen. Some of Cave-in-Rock’s more infamous residents included the Mason Gang, The Sturdivant Gang, Logan Belt and Big and Little Harpe. Either brothers or cousins, the Harpes may have been the first serial killers in America, with an estimated forty victims between them.
Many of these stories are based on oral tales and the unsubstantiated records of the time, but they have nevertheless been portrayed in films like “How the West Was Won,” Disney’s “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates,” and as part of the “Rivers of America” exhibit at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. But it is the steely arms of perhaps the world’s most famous cartoon character which are lifting the region. According to Hambrick, the town gets an average of 1,200-1,500 visitors a day during the summer months. On the weekend of June 11-14, the town will hold its Thirty-Seventh Annual Superman celebration, which will attract as many as 65,000 Superman fanatics. The locals are hoping that these numbers will continue to grow, which will help the area to compete with other destinations for tourists from Chicago and other nearby cities.
“The Superman symbol is one of the most recognized visuals in the world,” Hambrick says. “He is a draw as, along with baseball and hotdogs, Superman represents truth, justice and the American way.”