Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Interlude: Alton, Illinois

Alton, Illinois is one of the weirdest cities in the United States (for those friends of mine who live there, that is the highest form of compliment).  Alton is a river town, and its fortunes rise and fall with the river.  See that red line on the white building in the background of the photo above?  That is the mark for the Great Flood of 1993, and the black band below it denotes a 1973 flooding event.

A few months ago, I visited Alton with my wife primarily to view an exhibition of work by a group of friends at the Jacoby Arts Center.  Unfortunately, I was one day too late.  It was a massive sad face, but we decided to walk the town instead.

 

 

 

For many reasons, Alton feels both bigger than it is and smaller than it should be.  Most prominent among those reasons, however, was an Illinois legislative act from 1833.  In that year, a campaign was initiated to relocate the State’s Capital in Vandalia to a more central location.  Several cities vied for the role, but Alton won the popular vote.  Unfortunately for Alton (at the time a fast-rising, commercial and shipping center) the State overrode the vote, and relocated the Capital to Springfield where it remains today. It is a curious thought to imagine how different Alton would be, had it become the Illinois State Capital (Alton has 27,000 people, while Springfield has 116,000).  The implications for St. Louis would have been important too. An Illinois Capital so close to St. Louis during this era would have made the promise of Chicago harder to realize.

 

What I wouldn’t give for that Piasa Photo sign!

 

Back to the “Alton Weird” vibe.  The architecture of the city is an odd mix of influences.  There is a bit of what St. Louis was building at the time, combined with that of what other major regional cities were doing a bit later, like Chicago.  Certainly, there is something of an Alton vernacular happening in terms of its built environment, and perhaps that has something to do with the steep inclines of the city, which rises from riverfront to bluff-top in only a few blocks.

I’d say that Alton is handsome, but that’s slightly wrong.  Stately though quirky is probably more accurate.  There is even a mix of the small town square thrown in; this is probably having to do with the squeeze to Alton’s population growth that occurred during the shipping industry’s transition from water to rail.

This building is the inverse of a mullet- party in the front, business in the back.

The weird Alton factor goes even deeper than its buildings. The city is on the map of any ghost hunter within several hundred miles, and there is a plethora of ghost hunter tours available to get a glimpse inside the community’s most haunted places.

In addition, the town hosts the legend of the Piasa Bird, a giant winged beast with some origin among the Native Americans who initially settled the area, though the story has been colored a bit through generations of Western retelling.  A reconstructed painting occupies the bluffs just north of the city.

Finally, and perhaps oddest of all, is the story of Robert Wadlow, known as the “Alton Giant“, whose nearly 9 ft tall stature is the tallest in recorded history.

No doubt, when Photo Flood Saint Louis finally visits Alton a few years from now, it will be a great joy to delve further into the history of this strange and wonderful place.


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2 Responses

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  1. Chris Naffziger said, on October 11, 2017 at 10:02 am

    Alton is so fascinating. With a few twists and turns, it could have very well been a huge city, rivaling St. Louis in population.

  2. Jason Gray said, on October 11, 2017 at 10:04 am

    Most definitely!


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