Friday, June 3, 2016

Introducing our wedding guests to the Great River Road

Great River Road near Alton, Illinois 

Despite having no prior connection to the St. Louis area before first moving here in 1997, and leaving twice for the coast, the region has fascinated me to the point I wrote a book largely about it.

Being a tour guide is in my nature, and when showing guests around I always set aside a day for the Great River Road, which skirts the confluence the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. This confluence spurred Native Americans to construct the largest metropolis north of present day Mexico  -the Manhattan of its day- in the area, which was larger than London in 1250 AD. These rivers served as the highway system for Native Americans, captured the imagination of Mark Twain, have divided empires and warring states, and for millennia served as a corridor for migrating birds including Bald Eagles.

I could drive the twenty mile stretch between Alton and Pere Marquette State Park every weekend and not tire of it, and it was along that stretch of road I first got to know Kage one overcast January day, after first laying eyes on him in the gazebo at Riverview Park, where we will be married.

Many guests are visiting the area for the first time and while I'd love to give each of you a tour, I'm attempting to offer the next best thing by telling you a few of the stories and pointing out some of the sights so that you can go on your individual adventures.

From Downtown St. Louis the sites of the wedding and the reception are about 25 miles, but the best scenery doesn't begin until Alton, so my tour takes you another twenty-five miles. In addition to cruising one of the most scenic stretches of road in the nation you'll explore interesting towns, learn about legendary monsters, ghosts and even a giant, and then will cross the river by ferry to dine at a historic restaurant serving family-style meals in a hotel that was once part of the Underground Railroad.

Crossing the River 

McKinley Bridge, 1910

If you're coming from St. Louis, my preference is crossing on the McKinley Bridge, which connects St. Louis to Venice, Illinois, which long owned it. The river bottom town of Venice got its name because the streets always flooded, and the impoverished town owned and operated the Bridge, once part of Route 66, as a toll bridge for decades, collecting about fifty cents per vehicle to cross.

When I first moved to the area the St. Louis Post-Dispatch always referred to the structure as "the rickety McKinley Bridge" and with good reason. The bridge was the town's major source of revenue and little was spent on maintenance. "The East Side" - as St. Louisans call East St. Louis and the surrounding towns, long had a sinister vibe as it was - home to the mafia and all the vices not welcomed on the Missouri side like strip clubs and prostitution, and the rusty, hulking McKinley Bridge was the perfect portal to this world. Your car would vibrate on the layers of potholed concrete and asphalt as you approached the battered toll booth, with its yellowed, scratched up windows and little old man with thick glasses collecting fare. The road surface was so terrible you could actually see through to the river in spots.

It was officially deemed unsafe and closed in 2001, and then was foreclosed on by the City of St. Louis. The states of Missouri and Illinois took it over, and after an overhaul it reopened in 2007.

Comfort Cruise

The next twenty miles are behind the levy so there's not much in the way of natural scenery, but the six lane road is lightly traveled and is an enjoyable ride. Following are a couple of highlights.

Escape from New York 

In the 1981 film Escape From New York, the island of Manhattan has become a maximum security prison. Filmmakers were looking for a "grimy, futuristic metropolis" and found St. Louis to be the perfect location.  The bridge scene (video) was filmed on the Chain of Rocks Bridge, which is just before Interstate 270.

Chain of Rocks Bridge 

Chain of Rocks Bridge, built in 1929

I don't know of any kinkier bridge than the Chain of Rocks, with its 22-degree bend in the middle which caused countless accidents.  At 5,353 feet long it's one of the longest continuous steel truss bridges in the country. 

The 22-degree bend in the middle allowed southbound riverboats to align with the current, slip between the Bridge's piers and avoid crashing into two water intake towers midstream just south of the Bridge. The Chain of Rocks Bridge became a part of Route 66 in 1936 and was used until 1968 when the opening of the I-270 bridges caused a decline in traffic.

The bridge was slated for demolition in 1975 but the cost of demolition and the low demand for scrap metal rendered the project unprofitable. In 1998 the bridge was leased to Trailnet and millions were spent restoring the structure for pedestrian and cycling uses. From the bridge you can see the skyline, and interesting castle-like intake towers sitting in the river. You can also walk or bike thirteen miles to Downtown on designated trails.

Intake Towers 

Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower

You can view the confluence of the Mississippi & Missouri rivers, where Lewis & Clark began their westward journey, from 150 feet.

The muddy Missouri meets the Mississippi

Shortly past the tower you'll need to get in the left lane to follow 143/ Alton Riverfront. 

City of Alton 

Alton, Illinois

While Kage was born in Chicago, his family moved to the picturesque town of Alton when he was two. Growing up here he always heard about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which took place in the city, the monstrous Piasa Bird, which we'll revisit shortly, but what captured his imagination the most were the tales of the Alton Giant, Robert Waldlow (1918-1940). Waldlow was the tallest person in recorded history, standing 8ft, 11.1 inches, and is a beloved historical figure. More information on Wadlow and local monuments in his honor can be found here.

I stumbled upon the town, which for a time was growing faster than St. Louis, while exploring the area years ago and have been taken with the its natural beauty, striking topography, architecture, and history ever since. For years I explored the area as an outsider, but since meeting Kage I've gotten to know and become fond of Alton's relaxed and hospitable people.

While St. Louis was a union-sympathizing city, Missouri was very much a slave state and being situated just across the river, Alton was an important town for abolitionists and was a major player in the Underground Railroad.

Alton's role in the Civil War included imprisoning thousands of confederates.  The Illinois State Prison, which operated from 1833-1857 was reopened during the war as The Alton Military Prison and some 12,000 were held there in deplorable conditions. During a smallpox epidemic about 2,000 died and were buried in a nearby mass grave.

Alton Military Prison

The prison closed in 1865 and after the building was demolished, much of the stone was used to build homes and businesses all over town, which is one theory as to why Alton is considered to be "the most haunted small town in America."

One corner of the prison remains.

The epicenter of the St. Louis region's paranormal community is the Mineral Springs Hotel , home of the Museum of Historic Torture Devices , and you may encounter the proprietor driving her hearse around town. A hearse that carried her best friend's husband, her best friend, and then her husband. You can read my interview with her here.

Alton's "Mistress of the Macabre" Photo by Mark Moore

Alton's most famous restaurant is Fast Eddies Bon Air, which is an always-busy bar and restaurant selling cheap and delicious burgers, brats and kabobs. They normally have live bands in the evening. Must be 21 to enter.

I suggest you save your appetite for the Wittmond, about an hour away (with stops), but Fast Eddies is a great alternative or a good place to make plans for another time.

Flood of 1993

As you head through Downtown Alton on West Broadway towards the Great River Road you'll notice the base of the silos to your left are painted black. The paint marks the height of the 1993 flood.

The Good Part

You're now on the best stretch of the Great River Road, and atop the bluffs to your right is Riverview Park, where the ceremony will take place. Along the bluffs you'll see a cliff painting of the Piasa Bird.

Piasa Bird

In 1673, while exploring the river, Father Jacques Marquette saw a painting on a limestone bluff which struck terror in his heart.  He recorded the following description:
While Skirting some rocks, which by Their height and length inspired awe, We saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made Us afraid, and upon Which the boldest savages dare not Long rest their eyes. They are as large As a calf; they have Horns on their heads Like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard Like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a body Covered with scales, and so Long A tail that it winds all around the Body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a Fish's tail. Green, red, and black are the three Colors composing the Picture. We have learned that the great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather of Miss Jessica Beetner smote this monster. Moreover, these 2 monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe that any savage is their author; for good painters in France would find it difficult to reach that place Conveniently to paint them. Here is approximately The shape of these monsters, As we have faithfully Copied It.

You can read the legend of the Piasa here.  


Fifteen miles ahead, nestled in a forested valley, is the town of Elsah, and visiting the historic district is like going back in time. Before the river road was built in the sixties, Elsah sat right on the water. For many years the small town prospered as the main shipping point for the agricultural goods produced by the farmers of Jersey County, and drew many tugboat crews looking to get drunk. The town's importance diminished with the coming of the railroad, later being revitalized when Principia College was established in the thirties. In 1973 the entire town was placed on the National Register of Historic Places

At the very least you should make a loop through on your journey. 

The proprietors of the Green Tree Inn, Gary & Connie Davis, are very friendly and will gladly give you a tour of the inn. Rooms range from $115 to about $165 a night, which includes breakfast.

Green Tree Inn 


In the 1830s St. Louis businessmen became concerned about Alton's rapid growth and founded Grafton to blunt its momentum. Grafton developed a major boat manufacturing industry and had a large limestone quarry.

Today Grafton is a thriving tourist town known for bikers, bars, restaurants, and wineries. Aeries Winery claims to have "the best view in the Midwest" and is worth the short ride up the hill. Aeries has a nice restaurant and bar with indoor or terrace seating. They also operate a zipline.

View from Aeries Winery

Brussel's Ferry

Take your car across the river to Calhoun County, Illinois via Brussel's Ferry. Calhoun County is a 37-mile long, 5-mile wide piece of land that is the tip of the peninsula formed by the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, and with the exception of its northern border, is surrounded by water.

The ferry is free. Turn off your vehicle and feel free to walk around. 

Calhoun County, Illinois

Wittmond Hotel 

Drive straight ahead until you reach Brussels, and you'll see the Wittmond on your right.
Walking into the Wittmond reminds me of visiting an elderly relative's house as a boy. Lace curtains, doilies, antiques, and family-style meals. You don't order at the Wittmond, you simply sit down and the courses start coming.

You can read about the history here.

Assuming it's Saturday and you're attending the wedding, It's now time head back to Alton.

Riverview Park 

The ceremony will take place in the gazebo at Riverview Park around six in the evening. This is July along the Mississippi so we suggest dressing for the weather.

Bubby & Sissy's (Reception)

Kage has been frequenting Bubby & Sissy's since his 21st birthday. He knows nearly everyone who walks in, and the owners and employees are personal friends. The reception will be on the back patio, and we'll be serving BBQ by Ron Boles, a well-known restaurateur and grill master in the area.

We're registered, but there's not much we want or need. Since we've extended an invite to the entire community, any contributions to the catering fund would be greatly appreciated, and can be sent via the registry link.

We're deeply honored that you're celebrating with us.

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