Three Illinois River Towns: Alton, Elsah and Grafton

The southwest region of Illinois is resplendent with the scenic river towns of Grafton, Elsah and Alton. Set against breathtaking natural surroundings and immersed in history and culture, these towns reflect a sense of the past and a simplicity that is perfect for leisurely exploration. From superb wineries, picturesque state parks, orchards and civil war history to stunning architecture and excellent cuisine, Illinois' river towns offer an abundance of excellent attractions.

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Grafton, Illinois, founded in 1832, is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. In the late 1800s, the town's harbor was one of the largest commercial fishing centers along the Mississippi River. Today, this historic town draws visitors for its wineries, specialty shops, ferries to Calhoun County's produce orchards, Pere Marquette State Park; the town is also renowned as a winter haven for Bald Eagles.

Grafton is one of the best areas for eagle-watching in the U.S. with 2,000 eagles that migrate to the middle Mississippi River Valley in the winter months. Eagles are attracted to the region's tall trees for roosting and the expansive rivers plentiful with fish for hunting. Make sure to bring your binoculars and cameras for outstanding eagle-watching.

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The largest state park in Illinois is the magnificent, Pere Marquette State, located a few miles west of Grafton. The park's stunning beauty is especially notable for its fall hues, as well as its numerous lookout points, such as Lover's Leap. The views overlook lush farmland and the meandering Illinois and Mississippi rivers. The park offers a wide variety of activities year-round as well, such as scenic walks, hiking and biking to camping, fishing and boating and no pay pass is required.

Of course, there is no better way to immerse yourself in the park's landscape, then to stay at the Pere Marquette Lodge and Conference Center. The lodge's rustic architecture and vaulted timber ceilings is the essence of tranquility. Relax in the spacious and comfortable lobby that incorporates a 50-foot limestone fireplace, or play a game of chess with the lodge's enormous game board and waist-high chess set. In addition, the lodge also features guest cabins that are set across from the lodge amongst the park woodland. For additional information, visit

If you happen to visit Grafton in the summer to fall season, take the Brussels Ferry across to Calhoun County and explore the small town of Brussels. With its mid-19th century architecture, scenic farmlands, farm-fresh produce shops and stands, it is a mid-west treasure. Enjoy the harvest of luscious peaches and fall preserves with the best pumpkin butter and preserves you have ever tasted.

At the end of an adventurous day in Grafton, you may wish to visit the town's excellent wineries and enjoy some marvelous fare. The Grafton Winery & Brewhaus is located on West Main Street and overlooks scenic river views from the second floor outside deck. Mike Nikonovich, the convivial owner and vintner of the winery and brewhaus, runs the winery, brewhaus and restaurant with his family; together, they offer some stellar wines, brews and marvelous fare. If you visit, try the winery's exceptional Harbor Red wine that is a perfect blend of Cabernet, Zinfandel and Syrah. Moreover, their award-winning Pinot Gris is fabulous as well. If beer is your passion, try the American Wheat and Stout Pilsner.

Noted as the best view in the Midwest, Aerie's Winery offers an incredible vista from their expansive, outdoor deck. This is the location for amazing sunsets as you enjoy fine dining and award-wining wine. Once the wine, cuisine and view have you captivated, you don't have to leave this glorious haven, as Aerie's offers brilliant lodging as well. From woodland cabins to the newly completed lodge rooms with deck views to Aerie's vacation villas, you'll find the ultimate vacation getaway. If you prefer fully furnished accommodations, the stylish villas provide a full kitchen, dining area, small deck, living room space and full bedroom and bathroom; perfect for families or couples.


The small and charming village of Elsah is right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Located just four-miles from Grafton along the scenic Great Rivers National Byway, the village is set back in time. Founded in 1853, Elsah was once a thriving waterfront town with mills, river shipping and railroads; however, the waterfront is now lies beneath the McAdams Highway. Today, many of the village's original homes still stand and are happily occupied, as well as the picturesque Methodist Church. In fact, residents of this small community walk a block or two to collect their mail at the village post office.

In winter, the homes are decorated for Christmas and the village becomes a holiday wonderland replete with horse-drawn carriage rides that take visitors on home tours. For the rest of the year, visitors can take guided or self-guided tours of the village and experience true 19th century, Midwest Americana at its finest.

Further, if you wish to stay in Elsah, the wonderful Green Tree Inn Bed & Breakfast is a perfect escape for rest and relaxation. Proprietors Connie and Gary Davis are the perfect hosts and they will make you feel completely at home in their enchanting B&B, as well as provide info on the village history and tours if you wish. The inn's rooms proffer blissful beds with beautiful and comfortable decor, while the delicious, homemade breakfasts Connie serves will spoil you rotten. And, as a guest of the Green Tree, you are afforded private tours of the village museum. For additional information on the Green Tree Inn, visit


Alton, Illinois, located 11-miles from Elsah along the Great Rivers National Byway is the largest of the three towns and is filled with fascinating history, splendid restaurants, historic homes and museums. From the famous abolitionist Elijah Parish Lovejoy and the Underground Railway to Abraham Lincoln's debate with Stephan A. Douglas, Alton is an intriguing destination. Located in front of Alton's City Hall, at the corner of Broadway and Market Streets, Abraham Lincoln and Stephan A. Douglas engaged in the 1858 final senatorial debate. The debate was at the forefront of national attention and drew crowds of over 6,000 visitors to the town. Today, two life-size statues of Lincoln and Douglas stand poised in the square with Douglas appearing animated in his debate and Lincoln, thoughtful in silent contemplation.

The Simeon Ryder Building, located just down the street on Broadway from City Hall, is another historic Lincoln site, as well as a former courthouse used for trials. On the third floor, Abraham Lincoln and his fellow lawyers strategized about his debate before he met with Douglas in the final deliberation. Today, the building is home to the scrumptious, My Just Desserts. The restaurant is only open until 4 p.m., but make sure you stop by and try their famous chicken salad, tantilizing soup and amazing pies. Make sure to get there early, as the restaurant is always packed.

The Alton Museum Of History And Art, located on College Avenue, features excellent exhibits on the Civil War, Underground Railway, the Lincoln and Douglas congressional debates and Alton's gentle giant, Robert Pershing Wadlow. Especially interesting is the exhibit on the Underground Railway that helped slaves during the Civil War period to escape from slavery states. The exhibit highlights numerous aspects of how the railway worked and displays an original quilt that was made to secretly provide directions to safe houses. For additional information, visit

Alton's historic districts of Christian Hill, Upper Alton and Middleton are perfect for driving tours. These buildings and beautiful homes were built during the heyday of Alton's early, if not tumultuous history. The city's historic homes in Middleton are on the National Register of Historic Places and date back to as early as 1817. Most of the homes and buildings were designed in the Federal, Italianate and Queen Anne styles. Visitors can take driving and walking tours of Middletown; and several times a year, visit the interior of numerous homes in the district. The Samuel Wade House, now owned by John and Margaret Hopkins, is a glorious mansion built in the 1830s and is located on Henry Street. It is an outstanding example of Victorian Gothic Revival style.

Another breath-taking mansion in Middleton is the Holden House, located on the corner of Henry Street. The famous architect Lucas Pfeiffenberger (who also designed the haunted McPike Mansion) designed the Federal-style mansion for Charles Holden who was a prominent businessman from England. Lindy Jorges, current owner of Holden House, has completed outstanding renovation work and returned the home to its original splendor with fitting, modern updates. If you wish to go on walking or driving tours of the city's historic districts, contact Alton's Convention and Visitor's Bureau for maps and information.

Grafton, Elsah and Alton, Illinois are truly fantastic destinations to visit. Whether you wish to explore historic locations and villages, the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site and Confluence Tower, discover civil war history, enjoy nature, take a river cruise or sample the area's wineries; you'll find great Midwestern hospitality, friendly people and fantastic destinations for a unforgettable visit.

For additional information, on Grafton, Elsah and Alton, Illinois, go to VisitAlton

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Patrice RapleePatrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site and is a regular contributor on travel radio shows. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and the Recording Academy. Her articles and photographs have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: January 11, 2015

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