The Great River Road traverses ten states and over 3000 kilometres. On this trip, we centred on one unique part of the route, the Meeting of the Great Rivers.
I had encountered the Mississippi before. Once, crossing it on the Southern Chief on my way from Chicago to Los Angeles, and another on a visit to New Orleans near to where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico. However, I had never driven alongside it or, indeed, met it where a road was supposed to be. The Mississippi is seen as the pulsing artery of the United States. The Great River Road traverses ten states and over 3000 kilometres. On this trip, we centred on one unique part of the route, the Meeting of the Great Rivers.
Located where the Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi rivers meet, the towns of Grafton, Elsah and Alton owe their existence to the US River system. They were established in the early 1800’s and thrived on the trade routes that passed through the area. There’s a lot of US history to see in this region, from some of the earliest settlement sites through to Route 66.
For us, Elsah was the most fascinating of the three towns. Founded by Scots settlers, it was named after Ailsa Craig, the granite rock in the Irish Sea which would have been the last part of Scotland emigrants would have seen on their long journey to America. A walk through the lower part of the village is like walking through history. The general store, church and village hall are just some of the original buildings that can be seen. Our base was right in the heart of the village, the Green Tree Inn. It was a perfect place to soak in the surroundings. The owners, Connie and Gary really make guests feel at home. Cooked breakfasts are accompanied by locally produced relishes, one is known as Goose Poop, which are amazing. In the afternoons, guests can enjoy Connie’s home-baking skills as carrot cake, cookies and pies are readily available. I found the wildlife to be particularly interesting. On one particularly stormy night, I sat out on the verandah during the early hours and watched as a family of deer wandered past while coyotes howled in the background. Morning brought birdsong from beautifully coloured Cardinals, Woodpeckers and Heron. The wildlife theme continued as we made our way to the Treehouse Wildlife Center, which is a rescue and rehabilitation hub. We were able to get up close to possums, bald eagles and wolves during our visit.
Route 66 runs through part of the region as it makes its way between Chicago and St Louis. For someone like me, who loves roadside attractions and Americana, it’s a bit of a playground. From the eccentricity of the Pink Elephant Antique Mall, complete with its giant statues, UFO and bric-a-brac to the genuine affection for Route 66 shown by Rich Henry, at Henrys Rabbit Ranch, there’s an experience to be had. Henry’s Rabbit Ranch grew out of the owners collection of Volkswagen Rabbits (known as the VW Polo in Europe), which grew to encompass rabbits of the animal variety. It’s easy to see what rules the roost here.
Nearby Weezy’s Diner has, in various guises, been a staple of this area for over 70 years. Primarily a local hangout for the residents of Hamel IL, the staff have welcomed visitors from all over the world.
The claim of being “the horseradish capital of the world”is a strong statement for the city of Collinsville to make, however it makes the most of the moniker by holding a popular annual festival. Another big event marks the city as the home of another famous roadside attraction, the Worlds largest Catsup Bottle, which forms the backdrop to many photos (good and bad!)
The city is proud of the fact it’s business community is very close knit, the Old Herald Brewery & Distillery is breathing life into a building in the Main Street which had been derelict for over 20 years. The owners are employing locals, offering community space and bringing great menu items to the fore.
Alton is the biggest city in the region. The historic centre is a delight to wander around. We popped into Morrison’s Irish Pub, a small family run business and we really enjoyed our visit. It’s so unfortunate that the pub is badly affected by the frequent river floods as it must be so difficult for the hard-working owner, who sometimes have to close for weeks at a time. . They do have great support from customers and neighbouring businesses, something we realised permeates the whole region. Another family run business is Tony’s restaurant, which now holds the record for actually beating my personal man versus food challenge. The portions are huge! I had to sample the famous toasted ravioli and the pepperloin steak. Both were exceptional and led to us leaving with carry out boxes.
Grafton is the other riverside town, which has many restaurants and local businesses. Whilst the riverside location is really important, the frequent floods, whilst part of life in the area, do shock visitors. However residents and business-owners are very stoic, and the strength of community shines through when others need help. The Grafton Winery is not usually as close to the rivers edge as it was the day we visited. At a time when the Mississippi was flowing high, the winery was one of the only businesses able to remain open. We arrived during one of their frequent live music sessions and split our time between the spacious interior and the stunning outdoor deck area, imagining ourselves sitting there on a warm summers evening sampling some of the local wines.
In a strange way, we found ourselves feeling very much at home in the Alton region. Most likely that would be down to the history of the area and the friendliness of the people who live there, whatever the reason, I have no doubt you will feel the same way if you get the chance to visit.