Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Great River Road: Illinois

Cruisin' Across America
-The Mighty Mississippi thru a stretch of IL
In honor of Illinois Scenic Byway week I want to share this trip from last summer. I'm continuing to enjoy each and every trip I get to take along the Mighty Mississippi. While down in St. Louis I got a chance to have a quick day fling with her as me and my buddy took a ride into Alton, Illinois which was celebrating it's 175th Anniversary that weekend. On the way into town we rode thru Hartford Illinois which is about 15 miles north of St. Louis. It sits where the mouth of the Missouri River meets the Mississippi. It's also where Camp Dubois was set up which is where Lewis & Clark spent the winter of 1803-1804 before heading off on their now historic expedition.

Hartford, IL

There are a couple of places commemorating the brave expedition the two of them and the many men with them made over 200 years ago. They have an interpretive Center where people can go experience "...over 14,000 square feet of exhibits, displays, artifacts, and multimedia renderings that emphasize the Corps’ preparations for the expedition" Then there's also a Tower which rises "high above the point of departure to take in the Spectacular panoramic view of the rivers" We stopped in to check it out and arrived just in time to take the last tour of the day.

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Another great stop with some spectacular views that's well worth the $5 donation. "Climb 50, 100 and 150 feet above the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and look down on their waters and the story where two explorers began their journey westward. From the three levels, vantage points give way to communities, history and stories of life along the riverbanks."


The tower does indeed have an elevator and if you choose to take the tour you'll be guided by a local volunteer who will share with you his/her knowledge of this once booming town which is now an area filled with oil and gas pipelines. I saw the Koch brothers set up shop nearby. Hartford is also the birthplace of actor Clint Walker who many of the old timers here on LTH may remember. Our guide was a great guy and proud to be showing us the area where he's from. I have yet to visit a river town that isn't interesting in one way or another.

View of the confluence at 50 feet

View of the town at 150 feet

This tower began as a project by a grassroots citizen group that wanted to do something to honor the bicentennial celebration of the space where the men courageously set out on their expedition. 20,599 cubic yards of concrete or approximately 3,433 concrete truck loads later, it's a great place to check out while riding the Great River Road in Illinois. On we pushed as we rode into the historic town of Alton shortly thereafter.

Alton, IL

Located about 7 miles up the river from Hartford is another very interesting river town. Alton Illinois is famous for its picturesque limestone bluffs along the river which make for a beautiful scene as you drive by. It's also well known for its importance in the American Civil War as it was an important town for abolitionists with Illinois being a free state across the river from the slave state of Missouri. It was the site of the last of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and is said to be the most haunted town in America. It's most famous resident was probably Robert Wadlow who was the tallest person ever. Alton was once a booming industrial town with some big steel companies taking up residence there but these days it thrives more off of people who like to go antique shopping, tour historic areas and gamble. It hosts quite a few weddings year round as well.

Riding around Alton

I wish we had more time to further explore this historic city which is a popular weekend destination for those from down this way and bikers riding the Great River Road. One of the most popular stops for folks from all walks of life is Fast Eddie's Bon Air. Its here where you can mingle with big old burly biker men alongside beautiful young women counting down a bachelorettes last days as a single lady. If the name sounds familiar but you know you've never even been to Alton you may remember Fast Eddie's being featured on Alton Brown's "Feasting on Asphalt" series on Food Network.

The legendary roadhouse/eatery in Alton, IL

"The Legend begins with beer—Busch beer to be exact. But this was just the beginning. In 1921 Anheuser Busch decided to open a drinking establishment in the picturesque river town of Alton, Illinois. A yellow brick building known as Bon-Air, was constructed right on the corner of three streets, 4th, Pearl and Broadway. Approximately ten years later, Busch had to sell the tavern due to a change in the statutes, which prohibited breweries from owning drinking establishments." Well 90 years later and the purchasing of the place in 1981 by Eddie Sholar things have changed.

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Some views from inside

Fast Eddie's has quadrupled in size and it is now said by some that it is the #1 bar in terms of beer volume in the world. So that means it's pouring alot of Budweiser and cracking many caps off the bottles of Bud Light these days. Alton is a town of about 28,000 people but on a good day at Fast Eddie's that number can rise by a couple thousand. We were there on a Saturday and it was rocking, of the 100's upon 100's of places to sit at including the area they built outside with a roof just so people could smoke, there were maybe 4 or 5 seats open. We found some at one of the many bars stationed throughout the place.

another view from one of the drinking areas

Most come here to drink and while they do that they like to snack. Fast Eddies takes the "sell our food for cost while bringing them in to drink lots" approach. The menu isnt big but they have beef, chicken, pork and seafood selections ready. You can imagine that a place packed with 1000's of people may have some problems as far as serving food goes but at Fast Eddies they have a system and they got it down pat. The line starts where the sign says it does, it then extends around the main bar which is what greets you as you enter. As you wait in line you'll see about 25 feet of grill space where each section has certain things being made. If you want some of their cocktail shrimp, you tell the guy who's in the middle.

View of some of the grill

Once your at the register you order what you want and are given a number on your ticket which you better not lose. After that you go wait while on the loudspeaker groups of #'s are called. When yours is in the group "NOW SERVING #'s 73-87" you give your ticket to the guy who gives you your food which you can top with whatever at the condiments section. I took the "might as well try it all" approach and the bill came to $13 and it's not like they jack up the price of booze with the lowering of food. I got a brat, red hot, burger, chicken on a stick, a Big Elwood aka steak and peppers on a stick and a bunch of shrimp. This was alot of food for two people and I was actually pretty happy it's a "you get what you pay for experience" as far as that goes. I didn't want to eat all of that which you see.

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Eats at Fast Eddies

First off, the shrimp was bad and so the 14 of them that I got were a waste of my $4 but I liked the brat and red hot. The brats come from a longtime 100+ year butcher down the block called Schwegal's and I liked the extra kick of black pepper in their family recipe. That and the red hot which was a sausage with red casing like those popular in the south were worth the $.99 pricetag and a good eat with an ice cold beer. The burger was bordering just below being ok but at $1 I cant complain. It tasted like the ones your buddy who isn't much of a cook makes, where he just throws a big hunky fresh patty of beef on the grill and cooks it all the way thru. The chicken stick tasted like it was full of the stadium where the Knicks play and the steak was better but not by much. All that said, well worth the stop if you're looking for cold beer and fun atmosphere. After that we rode off to Grafton.

Riding the Great River Road from Alton to Grafton

There was once a time when Alton was a faster growing metropolis than its sister city St. Louis. But a group of St. Louis businessmen would plan to build a competing town to stop its expansion and bring business to St. Louis. The result was Grafton, Illinois.

Entering Grafton, IL

Grafton sits at another scenic point along the Great River Road. Its here where the Illinois river meets the Mississippi. Also near is where Route 66 meets the Great River Road. During the late 1800's The Shafer’s Wharf Historic District was one of the largest commercial fishing centers along the Mississippi. These days Grafton's dollars come from mostly tourism as it is the center of the regions bald eagle watching and has some fun local shops along Main Street including some wineries and restaurants. Its a popular place when the leaves start to change colors. As we were riding thru and I was lucky to find a couple food recs online.

A locals and people passing thru's favorite in Grafton

O'Jan's Fish Stand sits right along the Main street which rests right along the river. Its the type of spot you should expect to find when riding the Great River Road. I'm sure back in the day there were many more places like O'Jans but these days there arent as many so Grafton is lucky to have it. They double as a market where you can buy fresh from the river fish.

Notice the 93 feet mark which is where the water rose to during the Great Flood of 1993

If you wish to just eat something they make rather than you, you can just walk up to the window and place an order. It's all fish here and they're secret breading is used to hand batter upon ordering. I was going to go with the obvious choice of catfish or maybe a catfish fritter sandwich but when I saw buffalo fish, which I'm familiar with, See: Here. I had to go with that.

Fried buffalo Fish Sandwich

Portions come in sandwich size or as full fried dinners but after alot of eating in St. Louis and then Alton me and my buddy shared a sandwich. It comes with two nice hunks of freshly fried fish each placed on a piece of white bread with the options of mustard and raw onions available. Hot sauce is there for you to put on as you like. Orders come in old cardboard boxes so that its easier to walk with them in case you have a few and want to eat on the deck overlooking the river. I would imagine this is a seasonal joint since there is nowhere inside to eat at.

The view from the deck at O' Jan's

As far as O'Jans goes, its another great old school stop found while riding the road. I'm a fan of buffalo fish, for those who haven't had any, its very flaky and I like to rip each little piece off the skin which is then left bare to go in the garbage with the paper plates. Just like many of the old time Coney Shops around the Midwest, I was excited over the fact that there was another competing fish stand/market right down the block from O'Jan's.

Also in Grafton, IL

I was lucky to get the final fish sandwich made for the day at O'Jan's but unfortunately Beasley's just down the block closes at the same time (7p) so I'll have to wait another day to try theirs. If they were open I would of got a fritter sandwich and seen what was up. After that it was time to ride back and get ready for the night ahead in St. Louis.

See ya next time on "Riding and Gobbling up the Great River Road"

Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower
435 Confluence Tower Drive
Hartford, IL 62048
(618) 251-9101

Fast Eddie's Bon Air
1530 East 4th Street
Alton, IL 62002
(618) 462-5532

O'Jan's Fish Stand
101 Main Street
Grafton, IL 62037
(618) 786-2229

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