Tucked away in a remote corner of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom is an often overlooked set piece inspired by both American history and Disney entertainment. Along the edge of Tom Sawyer Island and visible only from the deck of the Liberty Square Riverboat is Wilson's Cave Inn, a combination tavern, gambling den and underground hideout for river pirates and other nefarious types.
Imagineers based Wilson's Cave Inn on a place called Cave-In-Rock that is situated on the shores of the Ohio River in southern Illinois. An imposing 55 foot wide limestone cave, it was first discovered by European explorers in the late 1720s. Following the Revolutionary War, it became a haven for criminals and pirates who preyed on travelers along the Ohio River. One individual gained especial notoriety for occupying the cave in the last few years of the eighteenth century. Jim Wilson stocked the cave with provisions and then opened up a business called Wilson's Liquor Vault and House of Entertainment. He would lure unsuspecting travelers to the cave with promises of food, shelter and gambling. Members of his gang would then typically kill the travelers and plunder the cargos of their riverboats. Samuel Mason, a former officer in the Revolutionary Army, engaged in similar criminal enterprises following Wilson's occupancy. He took over the tavern and changed its name to Cave-In-Rock. Disney Imagineers blended the two hideout names into Wilson's Cave Inn for their theme park incarnation.
The activities of those river outlaws inspired the 1955 episode of the Disneyland television program Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. The writers incorporated the historical figures of Sam Mason and the Harpe brothers into the storyline. The Harpes were notorious serial killers who had used Cave-In-Rock as a base of operations subsequent to the Mason gang. It's interesting to note that Crockett would have still been a teenager when Mason and the Harpes were plundering and killing along the Ohio River. Scenes from the show were filmed at the Cave-In-Rock location, which had become part of a 200 acre Illinois state park. Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen can be seen approaching the entrance to cave just prior to the episode's climactic battle. In the early 1960s, Hollywood filmmakers used the site again for scenes for the movie How the West Was Won.