The Edmond Sun

April 5, 2013

Plenty of history, inspiration to be found in Alton, Ill.

Elaine Warner
The Edmond Sun

Alton, Ill. — If you’re Alton, Ill., just north and across the river from St. Louis, it’s easy to get overshadowed.  That’s a shame because Alton is a cool little town with a great history and worthy of exploration.  I met Alton’s public relations director, Jong Cambron, at a media marketplace and he told me enough about the town to convince me I needed to visit.

And yes, Jack and I had gone to St. Louis. But we took a couple of extra days to visit Alton — not exactly on the way home, but not much out of the way. And what we found was a delightful river town, a load of Lincoln and the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.

And that’s where we began our exploration — with Lewis and Clark. Everyone knows — but I’m repeating it anyway — that in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased more than 800 million square miles of French-held territory in the west (the Louisiana Purchase) doubling the size of U.S.-held lands. The treaty was signed in May, ratified in October and the French transfer accomplished in December.  

Lewis and Clark already had headed west to begin exploration and, on Dec. 12, 1803, established Camp River Dubois at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers near the site of present-day Alton. They spent the next five months preparing for their epic journey.

The Lewis and Clark State Historic Site and museum sets the scene for one of America’s greatest adventures. Each room in the museum is set up in outline style — you could spend all day delving down into details, or simply follow a blue line and hit the highlights.

The logistics for mounting such an expedition were daunting. The explorers and their party were heading into little-known territory with only rumors of what they might find. Rivers were their highways for most of the trip.  

Lewis and Clark plus the 31 other members of their party and a Newfoundland dog named Seaman packed all the necessities into three boats — a large keelboat, a good-sized red pirogue and a small white boat. There are lots of neat exhibits in the interpretive center but my favorite was a life-sized keelboat cut-away to show how efficiently they packed. For anyone interested in the expedition, this stop is a real treasure.

Lincoln lovers, too, will find meaty material in this town that Lincoln visited frequently. Did you know that Lincoln ALMOST fought a duel here? Though the story misses most history books, I think it is a fun one. Apparently when Lincoln was a young lawyer and state legislator, he seriously disagreed with the state auditor on some policy issues. Letters to the editor of a Springfield paper appeared, castigating auditor James Shields. Lincoln, who may or may not have written the letters, was named.

Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. The practice was illegal in Illinois so it was to take place across the river. Mediation failed — Shields demanded satisfaction. Lincoln had the choice of weapons and chose a broad sword. Approaching the field, Lincoln brandished the sword, whacking off a willow branch high overhead. With Lincoln’s height and long arms, Shields quickly realized his disadvantage and backed down.   

In 1858 Alton was the site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate. Although the results favored Douglas, the publicity brought Lincoln to national attention leading to his candidacy for president in 1860. Visitors can stand on the spot where the debate took place and admire life-sized statues of the adversaries in action.

There are 10 sites on Alton’s Lincoln and Civil War Legacy Trail. Among those included are the Elijah Lovejoy monument (an anti-slavery editor killed by an angry mob for his defense of freedom of speech and of the press) in the Alton City Cemetery, the National Cemetery, the Confederate Cemetery and the remains of Alton Prison used as a federal prison during the war years.

Jack and I were guests at the Beall Mansion Bed and Breakfast Inn. The mansion, built in 1902, is a blend of styles popular around the turn of the last century. Cognoscente will recognize elements of the Neo-classical, Georgian and Victorian styles. Inside, the house features beautiful woods — oak on the stairs, cherry in the parlor, walnut in the dining room, cypress in the butler’s pantry — and fine art. There are few original pieces in the home but owners Sandy and James Belote have furnished the rooms with pieces appropriate to the period.

There are lots of nice things to say about our stay. James greeted us dressed in a tuxedo — shades of Mr. Carson! His explanation: “We want to immerse our guests in the experience of going back in time — to a more genteel and romantic era.”

Our room was comfy and well-appointed and the breakfast lavish. But the thing that really won our hearts was the Chocolate Bar! Set out on the elegant buffet in the dining room were almost two dozen varieties of chocolate treats. “We want to make sure everybody’s chocolate needs are satisfied,” James said.

Well, it satisfied mine. And so did Alton. There was much more to see and do in the area — the Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower, Pere Marquette State Park, the beautiful river road, the legendary Piasa Bird, the National Great Rivers Museum, the Audubon Center — go, explore and find out for yourself.

ELAINE WARNER is a travel writer from Edmond.