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Welcome to Alton!

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Located just 25 miles north of St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi River, the city of Alton, Illinois is not only a wonderful vacation destination, it is also a city steeped in a wealth of history.

From the stories of the first Native American tribes that settled here, to its historic districts, Confederate prisons, influence by Abraham Lincoln, the Underground Railroad and abolitionist activities, and more, Alton has it all!

In the Beginning

The history of Alton dates back to the mid-1600s when French explorers Marquette and Joliet navigated the Mississippi River in search of new territory. Among their discoveries were numerous Native American tribes including the Illini (the tribe from which the state got its name), the Potawatami, Fox, Big and Little Osage and others.

Some 100 years later, slaves were brought to the area by the French to work the salt and mineral mines. By the early 1800s, Alton had become a hub of activity. At that time, the St. Louis area was the furthest west to be discovered, therefore it took on its own “Wild Wild West” ambiance with the number of frontiersmen, explorers (including Lewis and Clark), traders, and so forth that came here.

The Civil War was a very tumultuous time in the Alton area, including the imprisonment of numerous Confederate soldiers and following small pox epidemic that threatened much of the town for several years. From about the 1830s to 1860’s, the Underground Railroad, extensive abolitionist attempts and the Lincoln Douglas debates became historical, political, and cultural focal points here.

The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway

Named as one of the “Seven Wonders of Illinois,” The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway extends 33 miles, encompassing beautiful, majestic, limestone bluffs, an abundance of natural wildlife, archeological discoveries, quaint historic towns and spectacular views of the confluence of the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers.

Whether exploring by car, motorcycle, bicycle (the byway offers a 20-mile paved bike trail), riverboat cruise, personal watercraft or one of the five regional ferries, both residents and visitors alike enjoy have plenty of sites and attractions to choose from as they meander along the byway through the villages of Hartford, Wood River, Alton, Grafton, Elsah and Godfrey. There’s so much to see and do that the locals have coined a moniker for the area – “All Around Alton.”

A little taste of “All Around Alton”

One of the best things about exploring the Alton area is that you will find interpretive signage and historical markers everywhere, making it easy to learn about and explore each of the different villages and attractions.

Located at the southernmost part of the byway, the village of Hartford was the winter home of explorers Lewis and Clark, and it is here that the duo established their first camp—Camp River Dubois—in preparation for their journey west. Situated at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, this was the official departure point for the Corps of Discovery in 1804. Today Hartford is a center for commerce, maintaining the commercial, rail and river industries that develop in the decades after the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Wood River holds the distinction as the home of Standard Oil Company’s newest refinery in 1906. The prospects of work in the refinery, as well as in the community to support those who came here catapulted the population. By 1920, it had become the fastest growing town in the country. To learn more about the town’s legacy and history, which includes the massacre of 1814, the Civil and Revolutionary Wars, the Flood of 1915 and more, be sure to check out the Wood River Museum and Visitor’s Center.

From its name to its attractions, Godfrey, settled in 1817, is a tribute to one of its most prominent citizens–Benjamin Godfrey–a sea captain, shipmaster and merchant trader from Massachusetts. The town was originally called Monticello, and that is what its namesake used when he founded the Monticello Seminary for Women. Today the seminary is called Lewis & Clark Community College, and it is here that you will find The Benjamin Godfrey Memorial Chapel. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the chapel is one of only six representing authentic copies of New England architecture outside of the northeastern U.S. Oodles of beautiful nature trails, expansive parkland and the 300-acre John M. Olin Nature Preserve are other town highlights.

The first village in its entirety to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, Elsah is truly the “village where time stood still.” A boutique enclave that was once an important steamboat landing, Elsah is nestled in the bluffs of the Mississippi River. Strolling through Elsah feels like a true New England adventure with its bounty of multi-hued flora, charming stone cottages, inviting bed & breakfast inns and welcoming people.

Because the village of Grafton sits right at the junction of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, it is a true river town, experiencing numerous floods since its founding in 1832. Its position made it very attractive to those traveling along the river so it wasn’t long before loading docks, wharfs and manufacturing companies followed. Despite the floods and commercial entities over the decades, the town and its denizens have managed to survive, nurturing and transforming Grafton into a unique, down-to-earth destination chocked full of water recreational opportunities, boutique specialty shops, wineries, flea markets, antique stores, cafés and restaurants and tranquil lodging options.

At the other end of the Byway is Pere Marquette State Park. The largest state park in Illinois, Pere Marquette is named after the aforementioned French explorers and offers a wealth of activities for visitors of all ages.

Although not located along The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, two other worthy stops are Jerseyville and Calhoun County.

Dating back to 1834, Jerseyville is a rural community teaming with historical sites and attractions including the Lone Star Schoolhouse, 1866 Fulkerson Mansion and Farm Museum, Cheney Mansion Museum and historic Courthouse Square. The latter features numerous unique Victorian and Gothic architectural style residences and structures, including the Courthouse highlighted by a towering 124-foot dome. 

Calhoun County is home to a handful of rural villages, each possessing their own unique history and charm. To get to Calhoun County just hop on the Brussels Ferry and upon arrival, you can tour the villages of Kampsville, Brussels, Hardin, Batchtown, and Hamburg. Together they offer scenic drives, a myriad of plentiful orchards, archaeological digs, hiking trails, acres of prairie and woodlands, festivals and more.

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

Great River Road History in and around Alton

African American History Runs Deep in Alton

Eat your Heart Out in Alton!

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