The Devil’s Den always carried an aurora of mystery about it. My first experience with it came when I was 10 years old and we were moving from central Ohio to Beattyville, the little Ohio River village on the Kentucky shore opposite the mouth of the Scioto River.
We crossed Grant Bridge in a cattle truck that carried all of the Piatt heirlooms and earthly possessions. My brother, Bootie, and I were in the back, peering out over the tailgate and around the ends of the high sideboards. We were fascinated by a paddlewheeler pushing a string of coal barges under the bridge and on downstream.
“Big river, Sam. Almost a thousand miles long, from Pittsburgh down to Cairo,” said my big brother, who was five years older than me and schooled in such things.
But I hadn’t heard all that he said. My mind was down there in the pilot house, behind the big wheel, wondering what lay around the next bend of the river.
We turned downriver on State Route 10. I was looking out on the hill side of the highway, up at the big rock cliffs. I punched my brother in the ribs and brought his attention to the rock face.
“Ain’t that a big cave up there, just under the face of that rock?” I asked.
“Sure looks like it,” he said, staring up at where I pointed. “Mysterious lookin’, huh?”
For some strange reason, I felt the little hairs on the back of my neck standing up.
Devil’s Den was off limits, of course, for the Beattyville Braves, but before that summer was out we had made at least three forays inside with cattail torches, exploring every nook and cranny and always on the lookout for new passages that might lead to treasure.
It was not an inviting place at all. It was a steep trail that led down under the rock face to the cave – so steep in places that you had to hold on to saplings to catch yourself.
The entrance was small, down under and back behind some large boulders that had fallen from above over the years. You had to get down on all fours, almost crawl on your belly, to get through the opening. Cool, musty-smelling air wafted out to hit you in the face. But you soon reached a point where the passage widened and eventually turned into a “room.”
There was a back passage leading off, but it was overhung by loose rock and presented a very tight squeeze if you hoped to make it on back to what appeared to be another large room.
We never did make it back into that area, for it seemed the rock was always shifting.
By my time most of the public’s interest in exploring Devil’s Den had come and gone. During the turn of the century, when people sought their entertainment where they could find it, people got up parties and came over from Portsmouth in boats to spend a Sunday picnicking in the area, some going into the cave, to escape the summer heat if nothing else.
There was considerable blasting when the highway department four-laned narrow State Route 10 as a part of U.S. 23 in the 1970s, and when some of the base of the cliff broke and fell away it evidently took Devil’s Den with it.
Today you can stand on the Portsmouth waterfront with binoculars and find no trace of a cave up there. Perhaps it was just a big crack in the cliff to begin with?
So March 20 marks the official opening of spring, and it cometh none too soon.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it with this cold weather. The sunshine looks warm but you better put on a warm coat if you’re going out. The forecast for the rest of the week offers no porch-sitting weather.
I long for a mess of pan-fried walleye and perch from Lake Erie. I want to pitch a tent in the Cave Run campground and set around the campfire in shirt sleeves. Difficult to believe that I complained about the heat during last summer’s consecutive days in the 90s.
Reach G. SAM PIATT at email@example.com or (606) 932-3619.