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Thursday, May 29, 2003 04:40 pm

Worlds away

Day tripping to Elsah, Grafton, Alton—and beyond.

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Clark Bridge in Alton
Ginny Lee

If you don't happen to be one of those lucky long-term employees with enough vacation time stacked up to leave for a month, don't worry--you can drive 100 miles southwest and find yourself a world away.

Down Interstate 55 and west on State Highway 140 lies the tiny village of Elsah, nicknamed "the town that time forgot" (www.elsah.org). Unlike some "restored" towns that feel like Disney came in and plastered on a coat of quaint, this town feels genuinely preserved. The entire village is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Here you can park and stroll through the town, most of which is situated between two parallel streets that run about six blocks long. You can shop for beautiful handmade pottery, fired in a salt kiln at Crocker and Springer (www.elsah.org/crockerandspringer), and dine at the one restaurant, My Just Desserts (618-374-1607). If you're inclined to stay a while, there are three B&Bs--The Corner Nest (www.elsah.org/cornernest, 800-884-3832), Green Tree Inn (www.greentreeinn.com, 800-701-8003), and Maple Leaf Cottages (www.elsah.org/mapleleaf, 618-374-1684).

Wedged into the bluffs bordering the Mississippi River, Elsah was founded in the 1850s by James Semple, a politician who plotted the village and offered free lots to anyone who would build a house using stone from the local quarry, which Semple himself just happened to own. Thus was born a particularly durable town that withstood all the Mississippi threw at it--everything from floods to steamboat crews, who patronized the local taverns. The village was also protected by its relative isolation. Jersey Landing provided the major access to the town until 1965, when the Great River Road (State Highway 100) was built.

But that doesn't mean the village didn't grow. In the 1930s, the town gained a college campus designed by one of America's top ten architects, Bernard Ralph Maybeck. The largest commission of Maybeck's career was the campus for The Principia (www.prin.edu)--the world's only Christian Scientist college. Originally planned for a site in St. Louis, the project was derailed when administrators learned a highway would bisect the property. Maybeck suggested the campus move to the bluffs he had seen from the train as he rode into the city. Those bluffs belonged to Elsah.

The college purchased 2,000 acres, which Maybeck adorned with creativity. The campus resembles an English village, and includes a whimsical "Mistake House" he used to experiment with various building materials. In 1993, the entire collection of structures was given National Historic Landmark status. Visitors can take driving tours of the campus.

The village proper is in a valley shielded from television and cell phone signals, meaning B&B guests find themselves effectively "getting away from it all." Those who need relief from the overwhelming peace and quiet have a variety of options for getting back to more bustle.

Just four miles west is the town of Grafton, with restaurants, antique shops, wineries, and a bargain ice cream stand. The Fin Inn (www.fininn.com), open for lunch and dinner, offers the novel dining experience of seafood served in plain view of four well-stocked 2,000-gallon aquariums.

For more active visitors, Grafton offers bike and boat rentals, and Raging Rivers Waterpark (www.ragingrivers.com). This 20-acre facility has all the standard attractions (giant water slides, a wave pool, kiddy pool, endless river), plus a ride said to be unique in the nation--the "swirlpool," which takes swimmers down a tunnel flume and around a giant vortex before flushing them into a deep pool. The park is open May 31 to Labor Day, except August 25 through 29, from 10:30 a.m. until at least 6 p.m. Tickets are $15.95 for adults. $12.95 for children ages three to eight; prices drop by $4 after 3 p.m.

Just five miles farther down the Great River Road is Pere Marquette State Park (http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/Landmgt /PARKS/R4/PRM/PEREMARQ). Although the grounds include a riding stable and a playground, the park seems geared toward more mature guests. Its centerpiece is a massive stone lodge built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Recently restored by the Illinois Department of Conservation, this lodge and conference facility boasts a cocktail lounge, an "elegant dining room" with a menu that includes prime rib, and a Sunday brunch said to attract diners from two states. The indoor pool is equipped with a special lift for handicapped swimmers.

If you leave Elsah heading east, you'll soon find Alton, another city with a wide range of diversions. Tethered to downtown is the Alton Belle Casino (800-711-GAME), a 60,000-square-foot boat offering endless ways to part with your money amusingly 8 a.m. to 6 a.m. daily. Behind the casino is the spectacular Clark Bridge, a cable-stay bridge unlike any other in the United States. Designed in 1985 and constructed in 1990, the bridge spans more than 3,000 feet across the Mississippi River.

Back on land, there are more antique shops and restaurants. For lunch, locals favor Cane Bottom/My Just Desserts (31 East Broadway, 618-462-5881), which is reported to be both male- and family-friendly despite the tearoom décor. Moonlight Restaurant (3400 Fosterburg Road, 618-462-4620), an Alton institution for more than half a century, features chicken and Italian cuisine.

Food for thought is also available in Alton. At the corner of Broadway and Landmarks Boulevard is a large commons area with two statues--one of Abraham Lincoln, the other of Stephen Douglas. Lincoln Douglas Square marks the site where the two men staged their final famous debate on the issue of slavery in 1858. Also visible from almost anywhere downtown is the winged monument to Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist newspaper publisher who fled to Alton in July 1858 to escape harassment in St. Louis. His attempts to move his printing press, however, proved frustrating. The first one that arrived at the Alton dock was almost immediately destroyed and dumped into the river. A little more than a year later, Lovejoy and his friends stood guard inside a riverside warehouse over the fourth press he had delivered to Alton. A mob gathered, demanded they surrender the machine, and then began throwing rocks and brandishing guns when Lovejoy refused. Someone in the warehouse fired through a window, striking a man on the dock. When Lovejoy ran outside to stop the mob from torching the warehouse, he was gunned down and died.

Alton had other noteworthy abolitionists. The town's proximity to the river made it an active "depot" for the Underground Railroad. The town contains more than a half-dozen documented Underground Railroad sites. Most--such as the Old Stone House, the Enos Apartments (at Third and George), and the Lyman Trumbull House (home of the U.S. senator who proposed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery)--are private residences and not open to the public. But the Alton Museum of History & Art (2809 College Avenue, www.altonweb.com/museum, 618-462-2763) offers more information about the railroad, Lovejoy, and black pioneers. The museum also features exhibits on the Confederate prison that was located in Alton, and the Lewis & Clark Expedition, which spent the winter of 1803 to '04 in a base camp near town. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, 1 to 4 p.m. weekends.

Across the street from the museum, there's a life-size statue of another Alton resident--Robert Wadlow, the world's tallest human being. Born in 1918, Wadlow had an overactive pituitary gland. He was six feet tall by his eighth birthday, almost seven feet tall by age 12, and eight feet tall before he turned 18. He was nearly nine feet tall when he died at the age of 22, after being poisoned by a blister on his foot. Wadlow lived most of his life in Alton, where he was known as the "Gentleman Giant." A bronze replica of his special oversized chair is available for visitors to try.

Finally, one other route away from Elsah is to take the private ferry across the Mississippi to St. Charles, Missouri. This little city boasts its own historic districts served by trolleys, including the Frenchtown district, said to contain the largest selection of vintage architectural products in the nation. A round-trip ticket that includes your vehicle costs $12.

ALTON AREA CALENDAR

Alton Block Party, May 31 (618-463-1016).

Alton Muny Band Park Concerts, June 5 through August 3, from 8 to 9 p.m. Thursdays at Riverview Park, Sundays at Haskell Park (www.altonmuniband.org).

Two Rivers Family Fishing Fair, June 7 at Pere Marquette State Park Visitor's Center (618-786-3323).

Lewis and Clark River Market, farmers' market and flea market every Saturday in June, July, and August (618-463-1016).

Alton Symphony Orchestra Pops & Jazz Concert, June 14, 7 p.m., informal concert at the promenade at the Price Lock and Dam Visitor's Center (www.altonsymphony.org).

American Ghost Society, June 19 through 22, seventh annual conference featuring Loyd Auerbach, David Hatchers Childress (My Life as a Cargo Cult God & Other Supernatural Experiences), Troy Taylor, Dale Kaczmarek, Rene Kruse, and John Brill (www.prairieghosts.com/conference.html).

Country Days Antique Tractor & Gas Engine Club Show, June 21 and 22 in Godfrey, featuring antique tractor implements, cars, and trucks. Hours 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday; free admission and parking (618- 462-7954).

Pride, Inc. Home & Garden Tour, June 22 noon to 5 p.m. in Alton and Godfrey. Tickets are $12, children 5 and under are free (618-467-2375).

Great Rivers Towboat Festival, June 27 through 29, featuring dinner cruise aboard the St. Charles Princess June 27. Tickets for the dinner cruise are $55 per person. Other festival events include crawfish boil, rope-throwing competition, and zydeco music (618- 786-3555).

Riverside Flea Market, June 28 and 29, July 26 and 27, August 23 and 24, in Grafton (618-786-8210).

Alton-Mississippi Fireworks Festival, July 3, free festival featuring food, entertainment, and fireworks 5 p.m. to midnight at Riverfront Park (618-463-3526).

Fireworks in Grafton, July 5 (618-786-3344).

Alton Drum & Brass Review, July 10 at 7 p.m., competition sanctioned by Drum Corps International, benefitting Alton School District music programs. Tickets are $13 in advance, $14 at the door (618-465-8281).

Alton Arts & Crafts Adventure, July 11-13, 18th annual fair featuring quilting, woodworking, jewelry and baskets, floral crafts, fabric crafts, soft sculpture, and painting. Free admission. Hours are 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday (312-751-2500).

Lilly's Birthday Party, July 13, free carnival rides (618-786-2353).

Jimmy Buffet Parrot Head Tribute Party, July 26 (618-465-6676).

Open Buddy Bass Tournament, August 10, fourth annual competition presented by Jersey County B.A.S.S. Anglers (618-786-3524).

Great River Road Music Festival, August 15 through 17, hosted by the Gateway Dulcimer Society at the Lodge in Pere Marquette State Park

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