Plan on using GPS to get to Kaskaskia, Illinois’ first capital. The way the crow flies, it’s just 6 miles from Chester, the county seat. But by road, the distance is 18 miles — and the trip begins by crossing the Mississippi River into the state of Missouri.
Through a curious geographical quirk, the seat of government when Illinois gained statehood 200 years ago lies on an island west of the Mississippi’s main channel, surrounded not by the Land of Lincoln, but by the Show-Me State. The Illinois state line sign sits just off the main drag in St. Mary, Mo.
Fall is an ideal time to visit this interesting slice of Illinois less than 70 miles south of St. Louis. The humidity levels that can be stifling in summer become more comfortable, and when Mother Nature cooperates, the trees along the back roads and bluffs are awash in amber and scarlet.
The colorful journey into the state’s French colonial roots begins just a few miles off Interstate 55 along state Route 3. It roughly follows the old Kaskaskia Cahokia Trail, “Illinois’ first road,” said local historian Jennifer Duensing.
“It goes from Cahokia down to Kaskaskia Island,” Duensing added. “It started off as a footpath and buffalo trail and later became an actual road.”
The 60-mile trail along highways and back roads does its best to replicate the path of centuries past. Signposts along the way designate both the trail and portions of the Great River Road, a scenic byway created 80 years ago.
In Cahokia, visitors can tour an old log church that first welcomed worshippers in 1799. The origin of Holy Family Church, 116 Church St., goes back another 100 years, to 1699, and it’s billed as the oldest, continually operating Catholic parish in the United States.
Farther south, the St. Louis suburbs are replaced by farm country. In the small city of Columbia, whiskey is the big attraction at Stumpy’s Spirits Distillery, 1727 Centerville Road.
Owner-distiller Adam Stumpf said all of the barley, corn, rye and wheat used to make five kinds of whiskey, plus vodka and gin, is grown on his family’s farm. Stumpf’s newest product, gin, is named Eighth, reflecting the fact that he’s the eighth generation to work this land. Tours ($10) are offered year-round. In the tasting room, you can sample six products and enjoy a cocktail served in a souvenir glass. Visits should be booked at least 24 hours in advance; call 618-281-7733.
Veer off Route 3 at Waterloo for the 10-mile drive along wooded lanes to Maeystown. Despite a population of only 158, the community has 60 historic buildings, including founder Jacob Maeys’ log cabin, the original church and a picturesque stone bridge over which motorists cross a tree-lined creek. In addition to the Maeystown Mill & Museum, 1113 Mill St., the village has boutiques, coffee shops, and a bed and breakfast called the Corner George Inn, a restored 1884 hotel and saloon.
Heading out of town along Bluff Road, travelers turn toward the river to reach Fort de Chartres State Historic Site, 1350 state Route 155, 4 miles west of Prairie du Rocher. As many as 280 French marines were garrisoned here, along with missionaries sent to convert the native population.
The large fort — its bastions and barracks built of locally quarried limestone — dates to the mid-18th century.
Over time, most of the original structures crumbled and were rebuilt, but the original powder magazine, with its imposingly thick walls, remains. Built in 1754, it’s thought to be the oldest building in Illinois.
Outside the fort, wheat grown in fertile fields was shipped much farther south to another French settlement: New Orleans.
“The Illinois Country — that area along the Mississippi River Valley between Cahokia and Kaskaskia — was considered the breadbasket of New Orleans,” said Todd Hamilton, the fort’s supervisor.
Both Fort de Chartres and the nearby town of Prairie du Rocher will celebrate their tricentennials in 2022. Each New Year’s Eve, costumed Rocher residents keep alive La Guiannee, a 300-year-old French tradition.
“People go house to house and sing,” said Duensing, the historian and a Rocher resident. “They’re invited in, and the host gives them drink and food before they move on.”
At Fort Kaskaskia, 4372 Park Road in Ellis Grove, nothing but grass-covered mounds remains of the 18th-century structures built to protect the town of Kaskaskia. From a bluff-top perch, visitors can view the tree-studded islands that dot the river before taking a wooded trail down to the historic Pierre Menard Home, 4230 Kaskaskia Road, a French-Creole estate where Illinois’ first lieutenant governor lived.
Until the late 1800s, when flooding shifted the course of the Mighty Mississippi, Kaskaskia was on the Illinois side of the river. But despite the changing channels, the state boundary remained the same.
Flooding washed away much of Kaskaskia, once a bustling river port with 7,000 residents. Commerce declined as the town moved inland. Now, with a population the U.S. Census Bureau puts at 13, it is the second smallest incorporated community in Illinois, trailing only Valley City on the banks of the Illinois River.
Kaskaskia’s Immaculate Conception Church, built in the mid-1800s, survived the floods and was relocated. Inside, visitors can view the hand-carved walnut altar, a striking remnant from the original 1700s church. Its gold fleur-de-lis are reminders of the area’s French heritage that can still be found here, no matter what the season.
Just beyond the church and rectory is the hamlet’s other attraction, the Kaskaskia Bell State Memorial. Cast in 1741 in France, the bell was a gift from King Louis XV to Catholics in the Illinois Country. The 650-pound bell was nicknamed the “Liberty Bell of the West” after being rung in 1778 to proclaim the town’s liberation from the British. (The French had fled about a decade earlier.)
After a visit to Kaskaskia, head back to the Illinois side of the river aboard the Ste. Genevieve-Modoc Ferry in Ste. Genevieve, Mo. Known locally as “The French Connection,” the ferry is a fun way to soak up the scenery and watch the barge traffic on the busy Mississippi. Unlike three centuries ago, you won’t see boats bound for France, laden with furs and local delicacies like pickled peacock tongues. But if you time it right, you’ll see some amazing fall colors.
Jay Jones is a freelance writer.
Bicentennial celebration in Kaskaskia
On Sept. 16, the 1818 election of Illinois’ first governor will be re-enacted outside the Kaskaskia Bell State Memorial as part of the state’s bicentennial celebrations. “Back then, an election was like a big county fair,” said historian Emily Lyons, a Kaskaskia native who also leads group tours (618-826-2667). The festivities, complete with games and music, get underway at 3 p.m.