Alton, Illinois - A Historic River City
by Charles H. Keller
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Easily accessible from St. Louis by crossing the Clark Bridge, Alton can be a wonderful day trip for anyone in the area. If you visit by water, day rates are available at the Alton Marina which is conveniently located near downtown, the antique stores, the Alton Belle Casino and other sites of interest.

The first stop on any visit to Alton should be The Alton Visitor Center located at 200 Piasa Street. Mary Ann, Sissy or Suzanne can be very helpful with information and directions to points of interest.

So take a day or a week and tour the many historic points of interest in and around Alton, Illinois. Watch the spectacular sunsets over the Mississippi river. Explore the "haunted" tours of downtown, the beautifully restored and maintained homes and buildings or just dock your boat in Alton's beautiful marina facility and try your luck at the nearby Alton Belle Casino. Whatever you decide to do, Alton offers food, fun and excitement to brighten any summer day after you've enjoyed a cruise on the river or a drive down the river road.

Charming, cobblestone streets still exist in Alton, Illinois. They are just one of the reminders of the historic significance of this quaint, river city. Founded by Colonel Rufus Easton and named for his son, Alton, it became an important site in the history of America's early days.

The seventh and final debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas took place here in 1858 at the corner of Broadway and Market Streets. Elijah P. Lovejoy, the abolitionist who is today revered as a martyr by many in the press, was attacked and killed in Alton by a pro-slavery mob in 1837.

During the civil war, Alton was a key supply point on the Mississippi River for the Union Army and the first Illinois State Penitentiary served to house and treat captured Confederate soldiers.

Lewis and Clark established their first camp just south of Alton during the winter of 1803-1804, before embarking on their historic expedition into the Great Northwest. The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and National Trail Site #1 which celebrates their "point of departure" are scheduled to open in 2008 at the Lewis & Clark Confluence Memorial Tower.

High on the stone walls of the Mississippi River bluffs near Alton is a reproduction of an ancient depiction of "The Piasa" (pronounced pie-a-saw), a symbol which represented "the bird that devours men" to the Illini Indians. As Marquette explored the river in 1673, his diary entry described what he saw painted there: "two large monsters. Each was as large as a calf with horns like a deer, red eyes, a beard like a tiger's, a face like a man, the body covered with green, red and black scales, the legs, ending like a fish's tail." Later records describe only one image of the monster.

The legend goes that the mythical birdlike creature could easily carry off a full grown deer in its talons but it had an appetite for human prey. Hundreds of warriors attempted to destroy him but were unsuccessful. Entire villages were wiped out by the ravenous monster. After praying to the "Great Spirit," Chief Ouatoga had a vision of how to end his people's terror. In his dream, Ouatoga was to select 20 of his bravest warriors, each armed with poisoned arrows and conceal them at a designated spot. Ouatoga placed them strategically and instructed them as he had dreamed, to fire their arrows as soon as the bird attacked and grabbed its prey. Then Ouatoga placed himself in the open view of the bluff as bait and began to chant the death song of a warrior.

The Piasa swooped down swiftly. Poisoned arrows found their mark just as the giant monster approached Oatoga. It is said that the fearful screams of the dying bird could be heard across the river as it died. In honor of that event, "The Piasa" was engraved on the bluff. No Indian ever passed that spot again without discharging an arrow at the image of the horrible creature in tribute to Oatoga's bravery.

The Alton Museum of History and Art, 2809 College Avenue, contains memorabilia about Robert Wadlow. He is still listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest human being who ever lived. At 8'11" and 390 pounds this gentle giant wore size 37 shoes. He died of infection and fever while on a promotional tour in Manistee, Michigan, July 14, 1940.

His body was returned to Alton where an estimated 40,000 mourners filed past his 1,000 pound casket before he was interred in a 12 foot long concrete tomb at the Upper Alton Cemetery. Now called the Oakwood Cemetery, he remains there next to his parents and his brother Eugene.