Alton: A town of tall men, explorers and ghosts

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The first thing you notice when you approach this Mississippi River city from the Missouri side is the 4,620-foot Clark Bridge, a span whose breathtaking design has made it an architectural tour de force. The second is the Argosy Casino, a complex of buildings painted in Disneyesque colors on Alton's downtown riverfront.

"Some residents don't much care for the colors," admits Suzanne Halbrook of the city's tourist office, and in truth the casino contrasts sharply with downtown's monotones. Nevertheless, patrons seem more interested in the busy casino's 1,000 slots than its vivid appearance.Alton's appeal, though, is not limited to poker and one-armed bandits. The city and the area around it on the east side of the Mississippi River across from St. Louis are awash with history.

This is where the legendary Lewis and Clark expedition began. It's where the last of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates took place. It's where the world's tallest man lived and where the Underground Railroad funneled hundreds of slaves to freedom. And it's even reputed to be one of the most haunted small towns in America.

As Alton lies on the Mississippi River, a visit to the National Great Rivers Museum here gives an overview of life on America's greatest river, its history, and ecological and commercial importance. Exhibits include Jurassic fish and mastodon bones from prehistory, stories of a disastrous 1993 flood, and a simulated control room that lets visitors experience what it is like to guide a tug into one of the Mississippi locks.

Adjacent to the museum is the newest and largest of those installations, the Melvin Price Lock and Dam where guided tours are given.

A couple of miles south, in Hartford, is the spot from which the Lewis and Clark expedition set out. Opened just four years ago, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center depicts the world of the explorers in 1803. It was here that Capt. William Clark built Camp River Dubois near the confluence of the mighty Mississippi and the creek-sized Dubois, and spent 53 days gathering men and supplies for the Corps of Discovery.

A friendly argument exists between Missouri and Illinois over where the expedition began. Illinois partisans say it was Camp River Dubois. Missourians disagree, claiming the expedition left from St. Charles, Mo., where Clark's group met up with a group led by Capt. Meriwether Lewis. Never mind that Lewis himself wrote in his journal that "the mouth of the river Dubois is to be considered as the point of departure."

The replicated half of a 55-foot keelboat lets visitors to the interpretive center see how the expedition's men lived and worked on the river. Among other exhibits are Clark's watch, compass and telescope.

Outside, based on Clark's original drawings, is a full-scale replica of Camp River Dubois. Costumed interpreters explain the function of the buildings and the men who lived there.

Back in downtown Alton, bronze statues of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas stand at Douglas Square, the site of the old city hall, where in 1858 the final Lincoln-Douglas debate took place. Six thousand people attended the event, which is re-enacted in shortened form every Oct. 15.

Lovingly remembered in Alton is the world's tallest man, Robert Wadlow, who was 8 feet, 11 inches tall and wore specially made size 37AA shoes that were 181/2 inches long. Called "Alton's gentle giant," Wadlow was always cheerful and accommodating. At age 8 he already was 6 feet, 21/2 inches tall. The Alton Museum of History and Art tells the story of his short life, which ended at age 22 in 1940. In an adjacent park stands a full-size statue of him.

Another signal event remembered in Alton is the murder of abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy, considered by some to be the first casualty of the Civil War. Run out of nearby St. Louis, Lovejoy set up shop in Alton, but a mob sacked his plant, tossing his presses into the river and killing him as he defended the fourth estate. His story is told in the Alton Museum of History, which also showcases Underground Railroad exhibits. Group tours of Underground Railroad sites can be arranged.

Alton's reputation as a haunted locale has been reinforced with articles in Fate magazine and a segment broadcast on the Travel Channel. Two companies offer ghost tours.

North of Alton are several sites of interest. A painting of the mythical Piasa bird, a monstrous creature that the Illini Indians believed devoured men, decorates a bluff on the Great River Road. The Village of Elsah, with many buildings dating to the 1800s, is a trip into history. A new bike path parallels the river in Grafton, winter home of bald eagles and a town with an attractive shopping district and a ferry across the Mississippi River.

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Information: Alton Regional Convention and Visitor Bureau, 800-ALTON-ILL; www.visitalton.com.

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