SMITHVILLE ECCENTRIC STILL HAS PRESENCE - A Visit To Burleigh McNeil's Cave

(06/10/2017)

Approach to Burleigh McNeil's cave just above the
South Branch of the Hughes River near Smithville

Burleigh's Lookout, carved and constructed on
a rock with view of river and pastoral meadows

Nila Francis Smith (L) and Hope McWilliams (R) stand on
Burleigh's Lookout in 1940 (Photo courtesy of Judy Powell)

Area residents visit McNeil in 1940, Hope McWilliams (L)
and Nila Francis Smith (Photo courtesy of Judy Powell)

By Bob Weaver

The legend of Ritchie County caveman Burleigh McNeil is alive and well, 44 years after his death in 1965 at age 88.

The eccentric and colorful character lived in several carved-out caves located above the South Branch of the Hughes River, a short distance from Smithville.

A recent visit to his home-place almost conjured his spirit.

Despite decay, doors to his cave rooms are still standing, with his wooden storage boxes, a bed frame and a cord of firewood.

Entrance with door still standing to one of
McNeil's cave rooms (L) with a cord of wood
still remaining in his wood box since 1965

Old wooden boxes and furniture remain, looking toward Hughes
River (left) a chimney hole is carved through thick rock

Most noticeable was a constructed look-out above the Hughes River, accessed by steps carved into the large rock.

Far from being a hermit, McNeil had breaking-the-mold aspirations before he settled into his cave life. A Frankfort, Kentucky newspaper, in the early 1900s, published a story about McNeil's plan to float a raft from Smithville, down the Little Kanawha to the Ohio, then down the Mississippi and beyond.

"Burleigh McNeil, a young man of Smithville, Ritchie County, and the son of a minister, is planning to go to South America as a missionary among the sun worshipers."

Entrance to a second cave room ...

... with inside and outside view of opening, the
built-in door and ventilation hole still standing

"He will make the trip in a shanty boat whose construction is nearly finished. McNeil will launch his craft near his Smithville home and ... drift down to Cairo, where he will install machinery which he has ordered from Minneapolis."

"The craft will weigh 2,500 pounds when equipped. It is 27 feet long and seven feet wide and is built of white walnut. It will be lighted with electricity generated from the river current."

"He expects to tie his boat in the swift currents at night, which will generate enough power to run him through the day."

"After leaving Cairo, his course will be down the Mississippi to its' mouth and to the West Indies to the mouth of the Orinoco and up that river to the Cassaquirl...to the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon."

We have yet to read if McNeil actually embarked on the long journey.

Many Calhoun residents visited McNeil and his cave, while Smithville folks still recall his coming down Route 16 or Route 47 in his bib overalls, clogging and signing down the middle of the highway.

More to follow ...


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