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Mississippi River towns, Illinois

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Personality Types that Like it Best

Did You Know … ?

  • Rock Island gangster John Looney was inspiration for the John Rooney character in “The Road to Perdition” (2002).
  • Alton resident and U.S. Sen. Lyman Trumbull wrote the 13th Amendment, ending slavery.
  • Due to a devastating 1856 fire, it’s forbidden to build with wood in downtown Galena.
  • Alton’s Robert Wadlow (1918-1940) was the world’s tallest man at 8 feet, 11.1 inches; he weighed 439 pounds.
  • Moline’s Deere and Company makes more farm machinery than any other farm equipment maker in the world.

Focus on a Great River

The Mississippi is America’s grandest working river, but the river and sites along its banks (natural and manmade) are fodder for leisure pursuits as well. The river marks Illinois’ long western border with Iowa and Missouri. Toward the south, the Missouri River joins the Mississippi, and at the state’s southern tip, the Ohio River — Illinois’ southern border also joins the big one.

Illinois metro areas on the Mississippi are the Quad Cities (Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa; East Moline, Moline and Rock Island in Illinois — yes, more than four) and the cluster of suburbs that sit across the river from the considerably larger St. Louis in Missouri.

Visitors come to the metro areas, but also favor some of the smaller towns, which have played important roles in U.S. history and have often retained their historic town centers. All give access to the river, whether for shipboard sightseeing, hikes or biking trips paralleling riverbanks or wildlife viewing, mostly birds and especially bald eagles. The river’s oh-so-practical system of locks and dams also rates a position on the visitor’s menu.

Tourist choices may include the following, listed north to south:

  • Galena, in the far northwest corner of the state, is a full-blown destination in its own right and treated separately at
  • Moline and Rock Island: Moline has benefited from a major downtown remake and is home base for Deere and Company, a huge maker of agricultural machinery. Rock Island boasts historic neighborhoods, and its downtown, the District, is known for its happenin’ nightlife and a roster of lively festivals. The cities provide access to Arsenal Island, too.
  • Quincy has several associations with President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, which offer themes for sightseeing.
  • Alton, Elsah, Grafton and Hartford are small sites in the greater St. Louis area. Alton boasts antiques shops, B&Bs and lots of interest in the paranormal. All of Elsah, tucked into riverside bluffs, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Grafton gives access to riverboat cruising, a state park and even ziplining. Hartford is where Lewis and Clark began their epic journey (1804).

Things to do for Venturers

  • Cycle the 62-mile Great River Trail between Rock Island and Savanna to its north.
  • Rock Island boasts of a rockin’ nightlife. Look for it.
  • Also, in June, party it up at Rock Island’s Gumbo Ya Ya-Mardi, featuring Cajun and zydeco music and New Orleans-style food. Or, plan an August visit around Ya Maka My Weekend with reggae music and Jamaican food.
  • Camp and hike in the 3,323-acre Siloam Springs State Park in Quincy.
  • Get your river views from a zipline at Grafton.
  • Participate in an overnight paranormal event at the Mineral Springs Paranormal Research Center in Alton, or attend less-involved meetings there with paranormal investigators. Or, take a ghost tour in Alton or in Galena.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Make time for the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, not far east of St. Louis. It was the site of North America’s largest Native American settlement and encompasses the largest manmade earthen mound on the North American continent.
  • Look for migrating bald eagles in Alton or at the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge at Brussels. Take advantage of structured viewing and other activities during Bald Eagle Days in Rock Island, in January. Also, the eagles winter in Quincy at Lock and Dam No. 21.
  • For the unique, tour the Historic Museum of Torture Devices in Alton.
  • Explore the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge on a cruise vessel sailing from Hanover.
  • Seek out the historical attractions at Rock Island Arsenal, an island that has served the U.S. military since 1862. As this is an active U.S. Army base, all visitors need a state-issued photo ID, and international visitors must register one week in advance.
  • In midsummer, get a glimpse of real life on the Mississippi at the Towboat Festival in Grafton. Take free tours of working towboats. Further to the theme, at a simulator in the National Great Rivers Museum in Alton, steer a towboat through the Melvin Price Locks and Dam.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Walk any of the historic districts found in the river towns, such as those in Alton, Galena, Quincy and Rock Island. Or stroll Elsah, all of which is on the National Register of Historic Places, from end to end. And, stay at a historic B&B, such as the Beall Mansion in Alton.
  • Book a lunch, dinner or sightseeing cruise offered in Moline spring through fall. Or, choose a dance cruise or an overnight sailing. Riverboat cruising is offered at Grafton, too.
  • In Galena, join a walking tour led by a Ulysses S. Grant impersonator. The general and president was a resident.
  • Build an itinerary around big machinery, meaning the several attractions associated with the Deere and Company manufacturing business, based in Moline. At the John Deere Pavilion, climb into a shiny new green combine (that’s a grain harvester), or test your skills on simulators that look, sound and feel like the real machines. Take a factory tour, as well.
  • Pursue an interest in history, whether associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition (the historic site is in Hartford) or Abraham Lincoln, who debated Stephen Douglas in Alton and Quincy and planned his presidential run in Quincy.
  • Drive the 33-mile Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, from Hartford to Grafton. Or, more ambitiously, drive all or some part of the 550-mile Great River Road along Illinois’ western border, and drink in the scenery.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Illinois Office of Tourism at