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Thursday, June 28, 2018 12:45 am

Visit Alton – historic and quirky

The dramatic Clark Bridge spans the Mississippi River at Alton. Nearby is Riverfront Park with an amphitheatre, walking paths and a marina. On July 3, a large fireworks display with light the sky over the water.
Photo courtesy of John Metcalf

Alton is a curiosity-seeker’s paradise. Where else can you celebrate the 100th birthday of the world’s tallest man, pay homage to an anti-slavery and press freedom martyr, marvel at antique torture devices and possibly commune with ghosts, only 85 miles from Springfield?

In fact, Alton has so much history related to the Civil War, floods and former residents that it has been called “one of the most haunted small towns in America.”

The town sits near the confluence of the Mississippi with the Illinois and Missouri rivers. Downstream are major locks, a dam and a river museum. Historic homes hug the hillsides and tall statues honor some of Alton’s notable residents.

Among them is Robert Wadlow, a true giant among men. Born in Alton in 1918 as a normal-size baby, he suffered an anomaly of his pituitary gland and reached 8 feet 11 inches before dying of an infection at age 22. The tallest man ever verified had toured with the Ringling Brothers circus and for the International Shoe Company.

At the Alton Museum of History and Art, you can see some of his shoes and the mold used to make them, his high school graduation gown, an oversized childhood sled and modified school desk. Across the street is his life-size statue.

The building housing the museum, originally Shurtleff College, was part of the Underground Railroad giving shelter to escaped slaves. Exhibits include sections on river and rail transportation so vital to Alton’s development, the Native American legend of the Piasa bird that is painted on a nearby bluff, early pioneers, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

Brian Combs, president of the museum board, says Wadlow spent a semester at the college and “Lovejoy did his best work here,” referring to another Alton notable, Elijah Lovejoy. The outspoken abolitionist preacher and newspaper editor relocated to Alton after being driven out of slave-state Missouri.
A life-size statue in Alton celebrates native son Robert Wadlow, who grew to 8 feet 11 inches and became the world’s tallest man. Doctors attributed his growth to an abnormality of his pituitary gland.
Photo courtesy of the Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau

In the 1830s, angry mobs three times dumped his printing presses into the Mississippi and eventually stormed a warehouse where he was holing up, killing him. Alton honors him as a crusader for slave and press freedom with a 90-feet-high monument atop a hill in the city cemetery.

Alton also celebrates native son and jazz legend Miles Davis with a statue downtown. It stands a few blocks from the site of the Alton Prison, opened in 1833 as Illinois’ first penitentiary and later used as a prison for Confederate soldiers. Only a crumbling block wall and several interpretive signs remain.

Dave Nunnally, who owns two businesses in the old Mineral Springs Hotel, claims Alton’s reputation as haunted dates to the Confederate prisoners. The book Haunted Alton by Troy Taylor details paranormal activity, and haunted history tours take visitors to associated spots.

Another oddity in Alton is a small museum in the old hotel devoted to torture devices and curiosities. The museum is open only on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and run by a local woman who shares her collection. It includes authentic thumb screws, a head crusher, a torture rack and chastity belts.

More mainstream are a plaza marking the site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas 1858 U.S. Senate debates and “My Just Desserts,” a popular lunch spot in the historic Ryder Building, which has links to Lincoln and overlooks the Mississippi.

Riverfront Park features walking paths, an amphitheatre, a nice view of the Clark Bridge spanning the Mississippi, a marina and, on July 3, a large fireworks display over the water. Near the riverboat casino, you can check out a plaque marking the level of the 1993 flood that covered most of downtown Alton.

To further explore Alton’s river connection, head to the southern edge of town to the Melvin Price Locks and Dam and adjacent National Great Rivers Museum. Kimberly Rea, recreation manager for the Rivers Project Office, estimates 6,500 visitors a year come for free tours of the locks, the newest on the Mississippi. The free museum showcases river traffic, animals and history. It is a good site from which to view eagles in the winter.

The 21-mile Confluence Bike Trail runs south from Alton to Granite City with stops at the rivers museum, the Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower and the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in Hartford.

Heading north out of Alton, the 20-mile Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail takes you along the Mississippi through quaint Elsah to Grafton and its riverfront restaurants.

For more information about Alton, go to www.VisitAlton.com or call 800-258-6645.

Mary Bohlen of Springfield writes a monthly travel column exploring Illinois for its 2018 bicentennial.


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