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Great River Road History in and around Alton

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A brief overview of Alton reveals a beautiful river bend region located just 25 miles north of St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi River in Illinois. The historic villages here are Hartford, Wood River, Alton, Grafton, Elsah and Godfrey.

Despite the area’s boutique size, there is a great deal to see, do and experience, from fascinating historic sites and attractions to gastronomic delights, intimate accommodations, great shopping, family fun and more.

The largest village here is Alton, and here you will find one of their most famous residents, Robert Wadlow – the World’s Tallest Man. Born in 1918 Wadlow seemed to be a typical, albeit hefty child, weighing a little over eight pounds. However, he was born with an over-active pituitary gland that produced an excessive amount of growth hormone. This caused him to grow at an astounding rate, reaching 5 feet, 6-1/2 inches by Kindergarten, 6 feet, 5 inches with a size 17-1/2 shoe by age 10, and 7 feet, 4 inches and a weight of 270 pounds by the time he was 13. Wadlow ultimately reached 8 feet, 11 inches and 490 pounds by the time of his death at the age of 22 from an undetected infection in his leg due to the special braces he wore to support his height and weight.

However, what made Wadlow so famous was not just becoming the tallest man in history. Despite his unusual size and the circus attraction-like atmosphere that often occurred wherever he went, he was a very friendly, soft-spoken, down-to-earth young man, earning him the nickname “The Gentle Giant.” In fact, he even travelled as a goodwill ambassador for International Shoe Company, the company that made his eventually size 37 shoes. An extensive exhibit of photographs, clothing, shoes, archival documents and more documenting his life is on display at the Alton Museum of History and Art. Across the street, the town honored him years after his death with a life-sized bronze state and bronze replica of the massive chair he sat in.

Take me to the River

The Alton area possesses a great deal of river history, as it is here that you will find the confluence of the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers. As such, riverboat commerce has always played an important role in the history here. To get a great perspective on the influence that the rivers still have today visit the Melvin Price Locks and Dam #26 and the National Great Rivers Museum.

Located on the Great River Road (IL-143) south of the Clark Bridge between the communities of Alton and Wood River, the Melvin Price Locks and Dam #26 controls all river traffic, from small personal watercraft to commercial barges, as they navigate up and down the Mighty Mississippi. A tour of the dam provides an up-close and personal view of the two massive lock chambers spanning the eight-foot high, 1,160-foot long dam. The system, intricate details and security here is quite impressive. While there, visitors have a great view of the numerous species of birds and waterfowl that rest and nest along the National Audubon Society’s Great River Birding Trail.


The National Great Rivers Museum is a great adventure for people of all ages. A meandering, visually appealing, interactive museum, the facility does a great job of presenting the history of the Mississippi from prior to the arrival of settlers and towns until today. What Makes a Great River, Communities: Habitats of the Mississippi, Stairway for Boats, Surf the Watershed and an aquarium are among the numerous exhibits here.

Another place for a spectacular panoramic view of the waterways is the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower down the road in Hartford. Just opened this past May, the tower offers visitors 50, 100 and 150-foot vistas above the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, the spot where explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began their history journey westward to find a route to the Pacific Ocean.

Also located in Hartford is the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site, where they established Camp River Dubois, their first camp and the official departure point for the Corps of Discovery in 1804. The multifarious exhibit spaces here provide a great deal of history about the importance of the rivers as trade routes and sustainability for the surrounding towns and villages; the various influences–Native American, French, British, Spanish and American—on the development of the U.S. and the west; “camp” and “Corps” life; a high-impact visual and sensory theater experience, and more. Outside, a replica of the winter Camp Dubois setting provides insight into the living conditions, military regulations and other aspects that took place back in the day.

Two more historical and ecologically oriented attractions include the National Great Rivers Research & Education Center, one of the nation’s premiere river research facilities, and The Audubon Center at Riverlands. The latter, utilized for bird watching and education, is situated just across the Clark Bridge at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary.


Moving from the historic to the supernatural, Alton is one of the most haunted small towns in America! Believe it or not (pun intended), fans of everything paranormal flock to Alton to delve into its historic haunted locales including churches, schools, homes and mansions, a post office, sanatorium, hotels and other “spooktacular” spots. Visitors swear by their brief experiences with those who have departed their earthly bodies due to violence, the Civil War, disease and other causes.

Added to the “excitement” is the ambiance of the tours, given in the evening via flashlight through many of these structures filled with creaky old stairs, dank basements, and other “accoutrement.” Not for the faint of heart, there are almost as many different ghost tours offered all over town as there are restaurants and hotels!

All told, these are just a few of the many attractions give the Alton area its own unique flavor and flair.

Check out these other great “All Around Alton” adventures!

All Around Alton Overview

African American History Runs Deep in Alton

Eat your Heart Out in Alton!

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