Looking for Lincoln Roadtrip - Alton!
Flat Lincoln and his dog Fido are hitting the road to discover all the great day trips around the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area. Their adventure this week: Alton Illinois! Let’s start exploring this historic town along one of the great rivers of the world!
Fido and Flat Lincoln’s first stop is the Elijah P. Lovejoy monument in the Alton Cemetery. It’s HUGE! You can easily view it from a tiny convertible from Monument Ave and East 5th Street. But, they decided to head up the steps and take a closer look.
It’s even more impressive up close. Do you like giant winged eagles? Check! Angels playing trumpets? Check! Urns with the faces of lions and bodies of mermaids?
Hold on... let’s check on that.....
Yup! There are lion faces on giant urns. The mermaid bodies are a bit questionable, but they decided to let that pass.
Best of all, there is a great exhibit to tell you about Lovejoy. He was an editor of the The Observer newspaper, and was concerned with politics and social justice. Because of his anti-slavery views, angry mobs destroyed his printing presses and dumped them in the river. On the night of November 7, 1837, Lovejoy was murdered as he stood defending his press. His ideas sparked the ideas debated by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas 21 years later.
Fido was getting nervous, as they were at one of the highest points in Alton at the Lovejoy monument. Being flat, and coming from an even flatter land, both of them were not used to the hills and beautiful views that are seen all over Alton.
History in Alton is really tall! Next stop was the statue of Robert Wadlow - the tallest man in the world. He was born in 1918, and grew to be 8 feet, 11.1 inches tall and weighing 439 pounds. His shoes were size 40. Flat Lincoln is a .12 shoe size. Fido doesn’t wear shoes, except for special occasions.
This is a man you can really look up to - both figuratively and literally. By all accounts, he was a really great guy, and became known as the ‘Gentle Giant.’
The exhibit in the park near SIU School of Dental Medicine allows you to comprehend his height by standing with the life-size statue. You can also sit in a replica of his specially-made chair, and read about his extraordinary, but tragically short life.
Fido suggested a quick jaunt across the park to see the Alton Museum of History and Art. Lots of displays of the famous people and stories of Alton (including Lovejoy and Wadlow), plus it’s a cool old building - Loomis Hall. It’s the oldest building in the state of Illinois continuously utilized for education.
Fido was ready for some lunch. So, they jumped in the car and headed downtown to find something to eat.... and maybe do a little shopping. There is no shortage of fun antique stores to discover....
.... and cool old architecture with restaurants, shops, and even fudge! Can’t go wrong with fudge.
There were even creative gardens using found objects for planters. Ever seen a ringer-washer turned into a planter? You have now!
It made a bit more sense that the fun garden was near the Jacoby Arts Center. Creative people tend to do creative things with empty lots.
Who doesn’t love a good mural? We love them, and Alton doesn’t disappoint. This one was HUGE - nearly 4 stories tall! It celebrates the riverboat history of the area.
This mural near the pottery store raised a few more questions than answers. The road and bridge made sense, the people looked familiar, but the creature flying over the bridge was a bit confusing. A scaly winged creature flying over Alton? What’s that about? Maybe we’ll learn more later. Moving on....
The murals inspired our intrepid explorers to find the real things shown in the paintings, so they headed off to find the Clark Bridge. Very impressive! The bridge is supported by 44 steel cables looped over concrete pylons 250 feet above the Mississippi River. They decided NOT to drive over the bridge today, as Fido was not fond of heights. So many TALL things in Alton, but thankfully no flying scaly creatures.
They decided to bypass the gaming boat (Fido isn’t yet 21 years old, anyway), and delve deeper into downtown. Suddenly, Flat Lincoln saw a familiar site: himself debating his old nemesis Stephen Douglas!
The debate site, overlooking the river and downtown, re-creates one of the famous Lincoln Douglas debates held in 1858. The debate itself drew national attention, and more than 6,000 people gathered in downtown Alton for the event. Fido thought Mr Douglas seemed a bit passionate - maybe he was discussing the giant scaly monster terrorizing the citizens of Alton?
The Lincoln statue was decidedly more thoughtful. He was probably forming his thoughts for the debate, but Fido thought he may be wondering about what to have for dinner later. (pasta? pizza? pop? or is it 'soda' in this part of Illinois?)
Flat Lincoln was more concerned about the hat size. After the Wadlow shoes and this giant hat, he was starting to question his personal stature. Shaking off a bit of insecurity, Flat Lincoln chose instead to delve a bit deeper into downtown.
An unexpected site was the remnants of the Alton Confederate Prison. During the Civil War, 11,700 Confederate prisoners passed through the gates and were held captive with its walls. Conditions were horrible, and more than 1,435 prisoners died of influenza, dysentery, and small pox.
The soldiers are laid to rest at the Confederate Cemetery, northeast of downtown. Each of their names is commemorated at the Memorial. The prison site and memorial are rare northernmost monuments to the Confederate Soldier.
They got back in the car, and headed up the scenic Great River Road for beautiful views of the river and bluffs. It was easy to see why early settlers and Native Americans found this area to be a great place to call home. That Mississippi is quite Mighty!
Fido was still concerned about the flying winged creature depicted all over town. Will it devour small flat yellow dogs? Possibly all the tall things around Alton were built to discourage attacks? The caves they saw along the scenic Great River Road seemed to be the perfect home for such a mysterious animal. Flat Lincoln assured him the caves were old mines, and they enjoyed the cool air streaming out of the openings.
They pulled over for a quick break, and there it was - the Creature! It was painted high on the bluff just up the road from downtown.
They learned that the ‘creature’ is known as the Piasa Bird (pronounced Pie-a-saw), and was a painting first discovered and recorded by Father Jacques Marquette in 1673 during his exploration of the Mississippi. The legendary bird is part of native American lore, and was said to devour people. It was painted on the bluff by the local native Americans after legend said their warriors killed it during battle. The current version is a replica of the original. Mystery solved!
With Fido’s fears curtailed, they headed back into Alton for the evening. The entertainment district was a hopping place, with restaurants and local shops to explore. Plus, it was all within earshot of the Ryder Building where Abraham Lincoln frequented during his visits to Alton. It felt like a familiar homecoming for Flat Lincoln - but with paved streets, cell phones, electric lights, and 100% more pizza. Plus, he decided air conditioning was a nice perk in humid Illinois.
They found a great place with outdoor seating that seemed very patriotic! Plus, no flying scaly monsters. There was even a statue next door of jazz musician Miles Davis, celebrating the great Alton native son.
As the sun finally set over the Mississippi, they decided that Alton made a great day-trip for the whole family to learn more about the fascinating history of Lincoln and Illinois! Where will they go next!?!?!? For more information about visiting Alton go to https://www.riversandroutes.com/ For Looking for Lincoln info, check out https://www.lookingforlincoln.org/explore/communities/1/alton/