In 1880, toward the end of his life, Ulysses Simpson Grant -- war hero, former president, connoisseur of quality cigars and intoxicants -- returned to Illinois.
He revisited Cairo, his army's headquarters in the early months of the Civil War. And he made his way back north to Galena, where he had worked in his father's leather shop and where, after the war, townsfolk had given him a house he rarely used.
He probably took a steamboat up the Mississippi River.
We, on the other hand, figured we'd take the Great River Road, but only the part of it -- from barbecue-flavored Cairo up through Galena and, finally, to cheddar-scented East Dubuque -- that stays on the Illinois side.
Chances are Gen. Grant saw the limestone bluffs and the forests and the fertile farmland, and visited some of the towns that still line the banks of the Mississippi.
So will we.
Chances are he missed Popeye, the B&P Cafe and Norma Jean, the dead elephant.
DAY 1: Cairo-Chester
The Great River Road in Illinois begins -- for us -- in Cairo.
"A lot of places say `Grant slept here,"' says the tour guide at Cairo's Magnolia Manor, Chicago-born Tim Slapinski. "We've got the actual bed."
Magnolia Manor (1872), where Grant dozed en route to Galena, was built by a crony named Galigher on profits made selling flour to the government during the war. Grant's base was at Ft. Defiance, just south of town at the point where the somewhat blue Ohio River merges with the very brown Mississippi, and the war had been kind to Cairo merchants. Some of their grand homes -- notably Magnolia Manor (which you can tour) and its neighbors on Washington Avenue -- survive as souvenirs of the era.
Unfortunately for Cairo, the war ended. The 20th Century was not so kind, and aside from a few pockets of affluence, Cairo is a rundown shell. Jaymes Manus, head of the Chamber of Commerce and president of the town's First National Bank, came here in 1993, which invites a question: Why?
"Because it needed help," he says. "Look at it."
Today, a close look finds positive things. The marquee of the long-closed Gem Theater on 8th Street glows once more. New-old street lights brighten 8th Street and Commercial Street, whose century-old stores, purchased by the city, have been painted and freshened, mostly by local volunteers.
So the historic district looks great.
Look closer. The theater has no seats.
"It's still just all facades," says Manus, "but you've got to start somewhere. This town has so much potential . . ."
"It'll happen," says librarian Monica Smith. "Maybe in my lifetime."
Smith's 1884 library, by the way, is a jewel. The old Custom House (1872) has been partially restored as a museum that reminds us, among other things, that the St. Louis Cardinals' redbirds-on-bat insignia was inspired by a Cairo woman.
But as always, the road beckons. The Great River Road, officially Illinois Highway 3 down here, eases north, through Klondike (Klondike?) and Cache and alongside Horseshoe Lake, "The Goose Capital of the World." The road is two lanes, it is in good shape, and it winds nicely through fields and patches of forest. The hills are gentle.
Thirty minutes north of Cairo is Thebes. (Note: Inspired by the founding of Cairo in the early 1800s, the region long ago was nicknamed "Little Egypt." So down here there's Cairo, Thebes and, not far, Karnak. Alexandria, on the other hand, is in Virginia.) From 1848 until 1864, this once-bustling river port was the Alexander County seat, and the courthouse is a reminder. (Another note: According to historical markers, guidebooks, oral history and local hype, every town on the Mississippi was a once-bustling river port. Lots of bustling went on in those days, I guess.)
Abraham Lincoln's circuit included the old courthouse on a bluff above Thebes, which today isn't much of a town; Dred Scott, then a fugitive slave whose case would rock the still-evolving nation, was confined in its dungeon.
More little towns. A sign announces the town of Ware. It's basically an intersection that includes a farm market called Ware Produce, and I approach a man overseeing the melons.
How did this town get the name "Ware"?
"I don't rightly know," he says. "But this is where we are."
This conversation has potential for greatness, but instead the man directs me to another who is standing alongside a red pickup truck full of tools. The man is Wayne Livesay, a retired trucker who once owned the market and is a lifelong Warean.
"Harry Ware, I believe that was his name," Livesay explains. "This was all his farm, and he sold some off, and that's how Ware started."
I ask about Mississippi River catfish.
"Been out just three times," he says. "Pulled out about 300 pounds. Averaged about a hundred pounds a day."
I'm stunned, and he sees I'm stunned.
"Last time one was about a 30-pounder, and a couple at 15. Don't take long to add up that way."
Which led to serious guy-talk.
"I always use peanut oil," says Livesay. "Put 'em in a bag with cornmeal and just a little flour, shake it up, then deep-fry 'em. When it fries up, it'll float. Leave it float just a little, and then it's done."
How about that greasy, muddy taste . . .
"Before I cook 'em, I take 'em and put 'em in a bucket of water with a little Joy in it."
"Joy. The dish soap. Swirl 'em around in there real good. That'll take that greasy taste right out of 'em."
Once out of Ware, the road turns lovely. The Cherokees, evicted from their homes in the Smokies, wintered here in 1838-39 during their forced march to what is now Oklahoma, and the state forest east of the highway -- part of Shawnee National Forest -- is called Trail of Tears. Farther north, wetlands take over, and a great blue heron swoops, then lands softly. Can't see the river, but there's evidence: Bluffs rise in the distance on both sides of the highway.
I get to Chester at 4:45. The Popeye Museum closes at 4:30. I cross the Mississippi to see what's left of Kaskaskia, Illinois' first capital (and the only Illinois town west of the river -- which changed course around it), and it's about gone. The lone real remnant is the Kaskaskia Bell, rung during the Revolution. I take a photo, and I'm not sure why.
In Chester, the Great River Road rides right next to the Great River, and people are fishing, including a pair of lads from the Missouri side accompanied by a dog of uncertain breeding named Snoopy. The bait is nightcrawlers; the current is strong; the line carries a weight the size of a small tractor.
"They've been catching 'em here, so we'll give it a try, I guess," says Jim Nunnery. Biggest he ever caught? "Probably about 38 pounds. My brother over there, he hooked about a 48. Flathead."
At that moment, the brother, Bob Shafer, 16, hooks one. Jim goes to help, but Bob doesn't need much: It's about a 3-pounder, good eating size. It's still on the hook as Bob admires it.
"Never caught an albino before," says Bob. I ask both how they cook 'em. Jim answers.
"Just throw 'em in a frying pan," he says. Cornmeal? Flour? Joy? "Nope. Just throw 'em in."
Dinner that night: fresh catfish, whole, no soap, breaded and fried at a place near town called The Roadhouse.
Day 2: Chester-Grafton
The former Chester Opera House that houses Spinach Can Collectibles and the Popeye Museum was owned by Bill Schuchert.
Bill Schuchert was Wimpy.
Debbie Brooks, who with husband Mike and another couple opened the combination Popeye Museum and gift shop five years ago, knows all about Popeye, Olive Oyl, Wimpy -- and Chester.
"This is a prison town, is what it is," says Brooks, a Memphis transplant. "We have Menard here, where Gacy was for 14 years. We wanted to put Chester on the map for something else."
Popeye's creator, Elzie Segar, was born here in 1894 and based his characters on locals. But today's locals, she says, haven't done much with it.
I remind her there's that big Popeye statue . . .
"Metropolis is an hour and a half from us," she says. "Their statue is a lot nicer than ours."
In any case, you can see the Mississippi from Chester's Popeye statue. You can see it again from what, in the mid-1700s, was the site of Ft. Kaskaskia -- which stayed east of the river -- built by the French to protect the namesake town below; the fort's earthworks are still visible, and they're part of a lush state park.
Below, by the river, is the restored home (1800) of Pierre Menard, Illinois' first lieutenant governor -- and who better to have a prison named after him than an Illinois politician?
Unlike Kaskaskia, the little village of Prairie du Rocher didn't get flooded out, and there are traces of its French heritage. Past Prairie du Rocher is stone Ft. de Chartres, most of it a reconstruction on original foundations; a 1755 powder magazine, possibly Illinois' oldest building, is original. Costumed interpreters explain the place, and re-enactments happen.
It was built on the river, but the river moved here too. In fact, after Chester, unless you really seek it out (there are access points), you won't see the Great River from the Great River Road for hours. Between river sightings, though, are some spiffy little towns (notably, Red Bud), a couple that aren't so spiffy (notably, East St. Louis) -- and the Cahokia Mounds.
When Europeans first reported seeing these big grassy bumps on the plains, they assumed someone other than regional Indians built them. Wayward Celts, maybe. Wayward Knicks. Space aliens. Prehistoric golfers.
"For some reason," says Bill Iseminger, spokesman for the site, "they didn't think (local tribesmen) were as capable as people from other parts of the world."
But they were. The builders are gone -- they were gone before the Europeans had a chance to send them to Oklahoma -- but the mounds, once part of a great city, are preserved as Cahokia Mounds State Historic and World Heritage Site.
It must have been something. You'll need imagination.
You can finally glimpse the river again via a short spur to the Lewis and Clark State Memorial, north of Granite City; but the Great River Road itself rediscovers the river in Alton, a town that deserves a little time. Here, the tallest man ever -- Robert Pershing Wadlow -- grew up, and up, and up. When he died, in 1940 at age 22, he stood 8 feet 11 inches and weighed 490 pounds. A bronze replica honors him.
Honored in Alton National Cemetery is Elijah Lovejoy, an anti-slavery newspaper editor who died defending his fourth printing press; the first three were dumped into the Mississippi by pro-slavery non-subscribers. The monument is neat.
The last Lincoln-Douglas debate was in Alton. On the riverfront location across from the resident casino boat, life-size statues of little Stephen Douglas making a point and angular Lincoln pondering a response make a memorable impression.
From Alton to Grafton, the Great River Road -- for the first time on this drive -- truly embraces the Great River.
The Mississippi is on the left. On the right, fluffy woodlands give way to great limestone bluffs, and here the road winds not as interloper but as an accompanist in a natural symphony.
Which sounds overly poetic. It isn't.
For the next 12 miles, the Great River Road is that good . . .
Day 3: Grafton-Nauvoo
Oliver Ready has been in the fish business for 32 years. He was in the fish business in Grafton in 1993, the last time Main Street was under the Great River. Lots of people were flooded out -- or were encouraged by government agencies to leave.
Oliver Ready stayed.
"I don't give a (darn) if it floods," he says. "(Heck), I've been on this river all my life. My family's lived here all their lives. They cleaned up after a flood, cleaned up after a flood, cleaned up after a flood.
"If they can clean up after a flood, I can clean up after a flood."
You can experience Oliver and Jan Ready at O-Jan's Fish Stand on Grafton's main drag. You can also dine there -- on sandwiches made of catfish, buffalo, crappie and fried turtle.
The rest of Grafton, even before the '93 flood a fading once-bustling river town, is slickening up.
The 1884 Ruebel Hotel and Saloon, a closed relic not many years ago, was upgraded and reopened in 1997 by the Lorton family. It's a charmer. Elsah Landing, a landmark sandwich-pie stop when it was down the road in cute little Elsah, shifted to increasingly cute little Grafton last year. There are new bed-and-breakfasts, gift shops and antique stores; fancy homes are rising on the bluffs above the town.
Whether the revival sticks through the next flood is an open question. If there is a flood, bet on O-Jan's staying O-Jan's.
"This building," says Oliver Ready, "ain't goin' nowhere."
The Great River Road, on the other hand, goes on but, again, loses the Great River. Just beyond Grafton, as the Mississippi bends south and west, the Great River Road heads west and north and shares pavement and water with the Illinois River Road. Together, the dual-named roadway winds leisurely through Pere Marquette State Park, crosses the Illinois River at Hardin and continues up that river's west bank until, at Kampsville, a split sends the Illinois River Road (as Illinois Highway 100) toward Peoria and us back (on Illinois Highway 96) toward the Mississippi.
But after a mere glimpse of wetland, the highway reverts to a Great Farm Road, with flat cornfields to the left extending to a ridge of far-away bluffs, the only hint that something interesting flows there.
It's still a nice road, though. I stop for a bite at Pam's Cafe in Pleasant Hill, choosing the day's buffalo-fish fritter special. There are more little farm towns -- Atlas, Rockport. The Rockport Cafe is shut down, and there's probably a story there, and I'm thinking the farmers smoking their cigarettes back at the big table at Pam's would know it, but I'm northbound now.
Then comes Kinderhook.
Country post offices all look pretty much alike. This country post office doesn't.
According to Bonnie Porter, Kinderhook postmaster, it was built during the Depression in 1932 as the office of the town doctor.
"The people here didn't have money to pay their medical bills," she says. "When they couldn't pay with chickens and eggs, they paid with rare rocks they had."
And the doctor planted those rare rocks -- and other stuff from his patients -- in the exterior walls. There are rocks made of onyx, chunks of quartz, marbles, sea shells, arrowheads, old clay bottles. There's a brick from France.
"We did have two rattlesnake rattles in test tubes," she says, "but the kids busted them out."
The Great River Road is Illinois Highway 57 into Quincy. It is a road of trailer parks and quarry operations until, just inside the city limits, there's a Moroccan castle. Seems a local eccentric named George Metz built the place in 1900, named it Villa Katherine and moved in with a 212-pound mastiff named Bingo. No one is quite sure why he did any of this -- he died in 1937 -- but there it is, now a museum overlooking the Mississippi, and you're invited.
Washington Park is our introduction to downtown Quincy. It is a well-tended patch just above the river, surrounded by once-grand commercial buildings in various stages of decay. Most are vacant.
"Quincy's developing that way," says Renea Kurfman, whose new Granite Bank Gallery -- in an old granite bank building -- is about the only functioning enterprise on Washington Park that isn't a saloon. That way is away from Washington Park and the Mississippi. "It just takes a lot of money to develop old buildings."
Money is coming, she says. Until it comes, Quincy's true glory is Victorian homes. And just a block from the square is the well-preserved Richard Eells House, built by the doctor in 1836-37 and once a major stop on the Underground Railroad.
The rain begins just when the Great River Road leaves the Mississippi and rediscovers cornfields. A Copland tape feels right. Before the end of "Appalachian Spring," the rain stops and the light turns strange and wonderful, and the land is refreshed and especially green, and I lower my window and smell it all.
Driving on a farm road after an early-summer rain is a good thing.
The Great River Road finds Warsaw's Main Street, which manages to be pretty even if most of the stores are empty. A right turn at what was the Warsaw Theater and the two-lane becomes again a river road in the best sense -- parklike, flowing, with the Mississippi on the left, tree-covered bluffs on the right.
The sign welcomes us to Nauvoo.
Day 4: Nauvoo-Moline
Around the same time the Cherokees were being forced west across the Mississippi, Joseph Smith's Mormons were retreating east from persecutionary Missourians.
They settled in what would become known as Nauvoo. That was in 1839. Smith would be killed five years later by a Carthage, Ill., mob. In 1846, Brigham Young took the Mormons west, leaving behind a city that once had been home to 12,000 and a great temple that, soon after, was rubble.
Today, at the old townsite near the river, we see restored and reconstructed houses and public buildings, most under the care and supervision of Nauvoo Restoration Inc., an agency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Costumed interpreters demonstrate pioneer skills; a visitor center provides perspective on both the town and the Mormon church.
Up the hill, Nauvoo's slightly more modern commercial strip offers rooms, gift shops, a Blimpie's, gas station, two saloons and a Christian storefront ministry devoted to depicting the Mormon view as a bunch of hooey.
All that is within walking distance of the exposed foundation of the original temple. A scale model of the temple is displayed there; plans are under way to rebuild it, possibly on the same foundation. Possibly.
"We pretty much tell people it's going to be here," says a young Mormon missionary acting as a guide, "but I always hedge it. I'll believe it when I see it."
The Great River Road, yet again, leaves the river for a time after Nauvoo. At Niota, a bridge across the Mississippi leads to Ft. Madison, in Iowa; a few miles farther comes another no-longer-bustling river town, Dallas City, where the B&P Cafe serves tenderloins as big as a small raft for $3.25.
"I can't imagine eatin' one of them and a bunch of fries," says Pat, the P in B&P, as she sets it in front of me. "My husband (Bob, the B) and I usually split one."
Pat refills my Pepsi. No charge.
"We like to make people feel welcome when they come," she says. "I hate that thing of, `What are you doing here?' "
It's about 2. Closing time. I've half-consumed my raft. Bob comes around from the grill, sets down two plate lunches on a table, B&P sit across from each other and they hold hands. Bob says grace, they unhold hands, then Bob looks over at me.
"Cub fan or Sox fan?"
And once more, the Great River Road becomes a farm road. Just past Gladstone, I spot a covered bridge.
The Henderson County Covered Bridge was built in 1866, then rebuilt -- mostly with the original timbers -- after a flood ripped the thing off its abutment in 1982. You can tell they're original by the carvings. How many first kisses must have happened in the sanctuary of that covered bridge . . .
The road runs back to the Mississippi at Oquawka. Yes, Oquawka bustled. An 1842 church survives. Norma Jean did not.
Norma Jean was an elephant smoted in 1972 by lightning right in the town square hours before a performance with the Clark & Walters Circus. In part because she weighed 6,500 pounds, Ms. Jean was buried where she landed; a memorial marks the spot.
Keeper Larry "Possum Red" Harsh landed 30 feet away, but because he weighed much less and especially because he lived through it, Possum Red wasn't buried where he landed and his name isn't carved into the memorial.
Except for a pretty stretch as it cuts through Big River State Forest, the Great River Road out of Oquawka becomes straight and dull. Ahead are more once-bustling river towns. The highway -- a county backroad -- turns bumpy as it rides the low bluff after New Boston, then smooths out as it crosses into Rock Island County, where it joins Illinois Highway 92 and heads toward Loud Thunder Forest Preserve.
Here, for the first time on this drive, the road rides up and down the bluffs instead of cruising daintily alongside. It is dramatic, and it is fun. A pullout overlooks Lake George, tucked within those bluffs, and fishermen in boats work the water, and this suddenly feels a million miles from Illinois.
The feeling doesn't last. Near Andalusia, the river briefly borders the road again, and there are spots for picnics and fishing and dreaming -- but quickly the river is gone.
After all those little towns, Rock Island is a city.
Day 5: Moline-E. Dubuque
The Quad Cities get a lot of grief from people from places like, oh, Chicago. In truth, if you consider Davenport and Bettendorf (in Iowa), and Moline, East Moline and Rock Island (in Illinois, which is five all together, but that's another story), on any given summer weekend there will be something interesting going on in the Quads.
Limit it to just the Illinois side, and the odds drop a little.
Laurie Finch is first mate on the Channel Cat, a water taxi that plies the river (one-hour loop: $3.50). When it comes to Moline, East Moline and Rock Island, Laurie Finch knows what's going on.
"Really," she says, "there's not much going on."
Aside from the casino boat at Rock Island, the ever-ready attractions are the Rock Island Arsenal, whose museum may have every gun known to man and will fascinate all but the hardest-core weapon-hater; and, in Moline, the John Deere Pavilion.
At the Pavilion, you can get a close-up look at farm machines through the ages and even climb on a few. At the John Deere Shop, you can buy your very own toy liquid fertilizer spreader for $5.99. Or, if you brought a checkbook, you can take home your very own 9976 Pro-Series Cotton Picker.
"In a 10-hour day," says guide Roswitha Bump, "this machine can pick enough cotton to make approximately 120,000 shirts."
Roswitha Bump, originally from Dusseldorf, on Moline: "It's a dull place."
So it is with regret that the Great River Road -- Illinois Highway 84 here -- pulls us from the Quads toward Cordova, home of the Cordova Dragway, and to Albany, a fine-looking (and no doubt once-bustling) river town whose riverfront is a particularly good place to view eagles that nest here in winter.
And there's Thomson, the "melon capital," with its depot-museum (open weekends). And Savanna, a well-preserved town boasting some of the best antiquing around.
But more than anything, there's Mississippi Palisades State Park. If up to now you have resisted the urge to check the river from atop those bluffs that have been teasing us since at least Grafton, this is the time.
At Hanover ("Mallard Capital of the World"), a choice: Stay on the Great River Road all the way, which connects with U.S. 20 into Galena and provides one of Illinois' most scenic drives; or, for the first time on this Great River Road drive, cheat and instead take Blackjack Road Scenic Drive into Galena, which is one of Illinois' most scenic drives.
Being in no particular hurry, we drive in on the River Road, loop back to Hanover on Blackjack Road and do the River Road part again. With no regrets.
Galena has its fans and its contraries, and usually both sides have merit. Not on this drive.
From the beginning, back in Cairo, the Great River Road passes through small towns that celebrate a cluster of Victorian mansions and one or two or five 19th Century storefronts.
After hundreds of miles' worth of historic bits and pieces, approaching the majesty of the time capsule that is Galena's Main Street is like moving from a couple of lodgepole pines to a forest of giant redwoods.
If Grant -- whose gift house overlooks the town -- had known toward the end how good the place would look a century later, he never would have run off to New York.
Yet we run off to East Dubuque, not because of anything in East Dubuque (though a late-night chili dog at Mulgrew's saloon does have recuperative powers), but because that last 12 miles of Illinois' Great River Road take us back, one last time, to the Mississippi -- which, by the way, is still bustling along.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times