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Thursday, May 24, 2012 09:59 am

Life on the Mississippi

Historic Alton offers something for everyone


The Clark Bridge over the Mississippi River at Alton was designed by a Springfield engineering firm.

Don’t take the freeway.

A drive into yesteryear is best taken on back roads, so skip Interstate 55 and spend an extra half-hour cruising Illinois 111 south to Alton, a great bet for a day trip 90 miles south of Springfield.

At once historic and modern, Alton is a Mississippi River town both swift as the mighty river’s current and laid-back as a day checking trotlines. It has a touch of the capital city on either end, with the modernistic Clark Bridge to Missouri on the southern part of town being designed by Hanson Engineering of Springfield and the Argosy Casino on the northern part started by William Cellini, a Springfield political powerbroker who landed the state’s first casino license in 1990. The bridge, featuring twin spires from which steel cables radiate, is as futuristic as the casino, made to resemble a 19th century steamboat, is kitsch.

Alton is a great place for antiques. Shops abound in the downtown district, offering everything from wooden airplane propellers to dolls to clothing to glassware to just about anything you can imagine.

This is where Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas met for their final debate in October 1858, with the man from Springfield intoning that the real issue was the principles of right and wrong.

“They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle,” said Lincoln, whose performance helped land him in the White House. “The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings.”

Statues of the participants mark the downtown spot where the debate captured the nation’s attention on the eve of the Civil War. It’s not far from the banks of the Mississippi River, where an angry mob, after gunning down newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy in 1837, dumped his printing press in the waters, stopping publication of Lovejoy’s abolitionist newspaper and in the process creating a martyr. Lovejoy was buried in an unmarked grave, but his name lives in a towering stone monument erected in the town cemetery 60 years after his death.

The Great River Road stretches 20 miles from Alton to Grafton.

Ah, cemeteries. Alton is known for ghosts. Legends vary, with some saying that a Confederate prison where deadly disease was rampant is to blame for apparitions said to make Alton one of the most haunted towns in America. The old Mineral Springs Hotel on Broadway features a paranormal research center and a museum of torture devices – you can’t miss it, just look for the hearse parked out front. Walking tours of haunted sites are held most Saturdays during the warm-weather season, and, with July 13 falling on a Friday, you might want to make early reservations by visiting www.altonhauntings.com.

Located at the highest point in town, the McPike Mansion on Alby Street looks every bit the haunted house it is purported to be, right down to a stone wine cellar that resembles a dungeon where Hannibal Lecter would feel at home. The home, built in 1869, has been vacant since the1950s but is on the National Register of Historic places.  A family campout is planned for June 9-10, with a ghost hunt, tour and tarot card readings on the agenda. For tour schedules and more information, visit www.mcpikemansion.com.

Alton also has a reputation for liveliness. Until recently, the town was known for downtown bars where barmaids served up suds in the nude, a tradition said to have dated back decades. City fathers have reportedly cracked down, however. Alton is a mecca for motorcyclists, but the city’s patience goes so far. Signs with silhouettes of motorcyclists with the words “When In Town Keep It Down” dot main thoroughfares, and those who don’t quiet loud pipes risk tickets.

A guided tour takes place at the notorious McPike Mansion in Alton, Illinois, on the Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Route.

Alton and the surrounding area is a fabulous place to tour on two wheels, either motorized or human-powered. Fast Eddie’s, a humongous bar on the south part of town, is famous for super-cheap food ($1.29 for a half-pound cheeseburger, 99 cents for a massive basket of fries, boiled shrimp for 29 cents apiece), cold beer and live music. No children are allowed. Motorcyclists on hot days will appreciate air conditioning that just doesn’t quit, and a covered beer garden makes for pleasant dining during moderate weather.

While at Fast Eddie’s, make sure to check out the size 37 shoe in a glass case near the front door. It belonged to Robert Wadlow, the tallest man who ever lived during recorded history. Tens of thousands attended the funeral of the 8 foot, 11.1 inch Alton native when he died in 1940, and a statue honoring him stands tall, naturally, on College Avenue near the Alton Museum of History and Art.

For those who pedal rather than roar, there’s a wonderful bicycle trail along Illinois 100, aka The Great River Road, that follows the shore of the Mississippi River north to Grafton, which has several restaurants and is a fine place for lunch. The route, being alongside a river, is flat, and so the 15 miles between the two river towns isn’t as long as it might sound.

When it’s time to go home, take The Great River Road north. The drive offers fine views of the Mississippi as well as limestone bluffs that border the river. Make the turn inland at Kampsville, where a free ferry takes you across the Illinois River. It’s a good idea to stop at the Kampsville Inn at the ferry landing, where you can watch the ferry go back and forth – it takes about five minutes to cross the river – and enjoy some of the best catfish anywhere. The chicken gizzards are also good, but you should arrive hungry. The portions are massive.

Fast Eddie’s features cheap food, cold beer and is a magnet for motorcyclists and tourists.

Once across the river, head back toward Springfield on Illinois 108, which will eventually intersect with Illinois 111. If you’re in a hurry, you can hit Interstate 55 via Carlinville. Or you can meander back north on rural roads, the way you came.

Why rush?

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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