There is no question that a countless number of communities throughout southern Illinois take tremendous pride in preserving and celebrating the past. You may not know it, but there is a niche of travelers who plan trips around historical sites and attractions – it is called Heritage Tourism. There are folks out there who want to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present.
One of the coolest pieces of history in southeast Illinois can be found in rural Lawrence County, near St. Francisville. The Wabash Cannonball Bridge spans the Wabash River, connecting Illinois to Vincennes, Indiana. Construction started on this bridge in 1897, but there wasn’t enough money to finish the structure all at once, so it was constructed in spans. There are 17 spans altogether, built between 1897 and 1924. It was solely used as a railroad bridge for 41 years before the railroad abandoned it in 1965. Five years later a local farmer bought the bridge, opening it as a toll road for vehicles, putting down planks for cars to drive safely. Eventually the state of Illinois purchased the bridge, and they still own it today.
So, what makes this bridge so interesting? A lot of things. Driving across the Wabash Cannonball Bridge is a rare opportunity in North America to experience crossing a bridge that is over 1,400 feet long and is only one lane. That means if you are planning to experience this historical wonder, approach with caution. Turn on your lights and look to make sure that another vehicle isn’t coming from the opposite direction. If you’re heading from Illinois into Indiana, make sure to have some change with you – because it is still operated as a toll bridge. But hey, it’s a small price to pay to experience history, right? There are also a fair amount of people who decide to park and check out the bridge on foot, but please approach with caution if you decide to do that.
With all things historic, there is a bit of lore surrounding the Wabash Cannonball Bridge. Locals say that if you drive out to the bridge near midnight, turn off all the lights, and honk the horn three times, a floating purple head will appear somewhere on the bridge or in the rearview mirror. Other tales say to flash the car’s headlights three times, so see what works for you! The purple head comes from an old story of a Native American Shaman who never received a proper burial, so it allegedly haunts this bridge to this day. So, keep this information in mind if you’re planning a visit!
To check out more pieces of history to visit in our neck of the woods, visit our website at illinsouth.org/Play/History-and-Culture.