The Great River Road

At Alton, 20 miles northeast of St. Louis, the riverfront turns decidedly urban. The GRR races along the water, past busy tugboat docks, sulfurous chemical plants, and towering concrete grain elevators, all along a great protective levee under a thicket of high-tension power lines. The main attraction here is the vivid multicolored (and hugely lucrative) Argosy Alton casino boat, formerly the Alton Belle, the first in Illinois when riverboat gambling was made legal in 1991.

Inland from the waterfront, however, Alton is surprisingly peaceful and quiet, its redbrick streets lined by mature trees and a range of modest but well-maintained 19th-century houses. Near 5th and Monument Streets at the south end of town, high on a hill above the riverfront, Alton’s cemetery is dominated by a large column topped by a winged figure—a monument to one of Alton’s most important individuals, the abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy. Widely considered to be the nation’s first martyr to freedom of the press and freedom of speech, Lovejoy, a newspaper publisher and preacher, was lynched in Alton in 1837 by a mob of pro-slavery Missourians.

Six miles south of Alton, near the village of Hartford, keep an eye out for the signs to the Lewis & Clark State Historical Site, a reconstruction of the winter campsite of the Corps of Discovery in 1803-1804. Recently expanded with a small state-run museum (618/251-5811, Wed.-Sun., free), the site sits opposite the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, which roll together in a muddy tide between swampy wooded banks.