Alton History — Thick as a Brick

For a small city in Illinois, my hometown has seen a lot

hank you, Mrs. Burt.

My 5th grade teacher worked hard to give her students an appreciation of their hometown’s incredible history.

Unfortunately, being children, we didn’t have the perspective to understand.

When I began reading horror novels, I wondered why the small towns in them seemed so thin.

Except Stephen King’s Derry — and I believe Alton influenced Mr. King. The sections of IT that took place when the characters were children, felt real to me. Especially the observation how the kids lived in a world few adults paid any attention to. The Derry of IT has a rich, complex and dark past, some of it touching on the supernatural, as does Alton.

(Mr. King has been to Alton. What I don’t know is how much about Alton’s history he learned while he was there.)

Alton never had a killer clown, however, to the best of my knowledge.

So, while I didn’t appreciate Mrs. Burt while I was in her fifth grade class at McKinley School, I sure do these days.

She was passionate about the history of Alton.

Therefore, in addition to learning about the great explorers of the New World, and math, reading and everything else (which I don’t remember), we learned about our own small city.

Alton is Close to the Largest Native American Metropolis in North America Above the Rio Grande

The story begins hundreds of years ago, just a little south of Alton, in what is now Cahokia.

The former capital of a major North American Native empire.

The largest city north of Tenochtitlan, base of the Aztecs.

Prior to the arrival of Spanish conquistadores and — most importantly, the horses and smallpox viruses they brought with them — most Native Americans north of the Rio Grande lived east of the Mississippi River. Some lived on the Pacific coast.

But the Great Plains in between?

No, though that is counter to our images of traditional Indians.

The glamorous Great Plains Indian cultures — the Sioux, the Cheyenne and all the others we see in movies — required horses, and horses did not exist in the New World until Spanish explorers brought them.

The Great Plains were covered with long prairie grass, except where the herds of buffalo roamed. In the hundreds of thousands.

Try trekking through grass so high you can’t see five feet in front of you. Try killing a buffalo with just a bow and arrow when you have to chase it on foot.

Try escaping when a hundred thousand-head buffalo herd panics and starts to run TOWARD you.

No, prior to the ability to travel on horseback and the death of millions of Native Americans by smallpox, most Native Americans lived east of the Mississippi.

Hundreds of years before Columbus, the largest urban center was in Cahokia.

This is logical. The Mississippi River never dries up. There’s always fresh water. And, therefore, fish and game. It’s a major North American bird migration path.

The Missouri River joins the Mississippi just south of Alton, giving access to the west. (The Lewis and Clark Expedition used it.)

And the Illinois River dead-ends into the Mississippi just north of Alton, leading to Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.

Years ago, archeologists found evidence for Native American agriculture along the Illinois River, close to Campsville (where my grandfather used to take my family to his cabin so we go with him in his boat and collect pecans). They date back 6,000–7,000 years.

Some miles south, the Ohio River ends at the Mississippi, making the Ohio River a gateway to the east.

And, of course, the Mississippi River itself means access to the north up to Minnesota, south to New Orleans and into the Gulf of Mexico.

While I don’t know of any evidence Native Americans had sea-going vessels, it’s likely they could use canoes to travel and trade with people along the gulf, staying close to land.

Somebody did, because shark’s teeth have been found in Indian remains hundreds of miles inland.

These peoples went through a period Robert Silverberg in his book THE MOUND BUILDERS calls the “cult of death.” And they did build mounds, thousands of them.

That included the Great Mound in Cahokia, the largest such structure in the world. Yes, larger than the pyramid of Giza — and it’s made of dirt.

They raised maize and had every attribute of civilization except, unfortunately, a written language.

At some point, due to climate cooling according to one source I read while researching my novel VIRGIN BLOOD, Cahokia fell, and its people devolved into a more primitive hunting and gathering culture. We now call them the Illini.

The Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase President Thomas Jefferson bought from Napoleon in 1804, set out just south of Alton, around Wood River and Hartford.

Thanks to its location near three major rivers and, a little later, near transnational railroads, Alton became a booming town, economically far more important in the early 19th century than it is now.

When Illinois became a state, Alton was in the running to be the capitol. However, Abraham Lincoln used his influence to make Springfield the capitol, presumably because he lived there.

Mrs. Burt never forgave Lincoln for that.

The Tallest Verifiable Man in History

Alton was the birthplace of the tallest man ever documented: Robert Wadlow.

8 foot, 11.1 inches tall. And he weighed 439 pounds upon his death at age 22. He died because a leg brace irritated his ankle, causing a blister and then an infection.

A few more years and a course of penicillin would probably have killed it.

And when he died he was still growing.

Now that I think about it, I find it odd my mother never talked about Robert Wadlow. She must have known who he was. He was four years older than her, though, so they probably didn’t hang out together.

She did tell me that when I was a baby his father used to look in on me when she took me out for a walk in my carriage.

Miles Davis

Alton is also the birthplace of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. I don’t know whether he grew up there or not. Apparently he began his musical career in East St. Louis, which had much more of a nightlife, and live music scene, than Alton.

Alton even looks historical. Forty years ago, a visitor told me that if you looked at a typical street scene downtown, and raised your eyes so you couldn’t see the automobiles, the street looked like it did in the 1930s. There’ve been some changes, but that’s still true for much of the downtown area.

Two old family friends, who long ago moved away to Florida, commented on how Alton buildings looked so old when they visited the area a few years ago.

IMDb lists 41 movies that have been filmed on location in Alton.

It’s also the site of Season 3 of the show Small Business Revolution.

On the Border of North and South

Alton’s location on the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis put it on the front lines of the greatest divide of the Republic.

The Mississippi River made the importation of slaves up from New Orleans easy and economical, and so slavery existed in Missouri, though not to the extent it did below the Mason-Dixon line. Missouri never had lots of cotton plantations or any of that other antebellum southern stuff.

However, Missouri did have lots of agriculture that needed cheap labor. And the established slave states wanted to extend their political strength.

The free states, and especially the abolitionists, wanted to limit the political power of slavery. The two sides fought constant ongoing battles from the Constitutional Convention to the Civil War.

In 1820, they reached what’s called the Missouri Compromise. Missouri continued to have slaves, but it forbade the importation of new ones, and granted all children born as slaves freedom at the age of 25.

Therefore, historically, the border line between Illinois and Missouri in the early 1800's was much more significant than it is now.

It could mean the difference between slavery and freedom.

Alton became part of the Underground Railroad.

Although Dred Scott is not connected to Alton, he filed his court papers in St. Louis, and his grave is in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.

Elijah P. Lovejoy

I don’t want to make it sound as though Alton was an abolitionist paradise, however. Because it attracted runaway slaves, it also attracted runaway slave catchers. And many of its citizens favored slavery despite living on the eastern side of the Mississippi.

In the 1830's Elijah P. Lovejoy moved to the area to promote the abolitionist movement. He worked for, and founded, newspapers in St. Louis.

While he was in St. Louis, proslavery mobs threw his printing presses into the Mississippi River three times. He then moved to Alton, hoping I guess to meet with a kinder reception in a northern, “free” state.

Once he began operating his fourth printing press, however, the resulting mob killed him before throwing that printing press into the Mississippi River, making him a national martyr of the abolitionist movement. Lincoln mentioned him in a speech.

Lovejoy was buried in Alton Cemetery where he’s now honored by a large monument. The Alton Evening Telegraph has kept a portion of his printing press in the front of their building on Broadway.

He’s also still honored at Colby College in Maine, where he went to school. My nephew graduated from Colby a few years ago, but apparently the other students didn’t care that his grandmother lived in the same town that killed the college idol.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

In 1858, Republican Abraham Lincoln ran for the office of Senator of Illinois against the incumbent, Stephen Douglas of the Democratic Party.

They held a series of debates throughout Illinois, the last one in Alton.

The chief subject of these debates was slavery. Lincoln said the Declaration of Independence applied to African-Americans as well as to whites, and Douglas accused him of being an abolitionist.

Fortunately, Lincoln lost the election. I say fortunately because if in 1860 he’d been a sitting senator, perhaps he would not have run for President. Although he wouldn’t have been the last Illinois Senator to run for, and win, the presidency after serving only two years as a senator for Illinois.

Lincoln published the text of the debates, and they were widely read throughout the country. They helped him become the 1860 Republican presidential candidate.

When I was growing up in Alton, the site of that debate near the riverfront was marked, but lost admidst a sea of parking meters.

As part of the deal to allow the Alton Belle casino riverboat, the Belle owners came up with the money to better mark the debate site.

The Civil War

When the Civil War broke out, Alton, as part of the free state of Illinois, of course fought with the Union.

The state penitentiary in Alton was converted into a prison for captured Confederate soldiers. It rapidly became horribly overcrowded.

Some of the stones of this prison still exist in a back parking lot of a downtown building. When I was growing up, I don’t remember them being marked at all. They looked like just some random, leftover rubble — as though Alton had been rebuilt after World War II.

There was a smallpox epidemic from 1863 to 1864, and many Confederate POWs died there. Because of the diseases and inhumane conditions, many of the men were taken out to Sunflower Island in the middle of the river.

There’s a Confederate Cemetery and Confederate Monument in North Alton on Rozier Street. I’ve heard they are the only such cemetery and monument in “Union” territory.

Up to My Childhood

Through my childhood, I’d characterize general African-American living conditions in Alton as semi-Southern.

It was NOT legally segregated as were the southern states.

However, housing was pretty much segregated by economic status and custom, and elementary school attendance followed from that.

However, that could be changed. My first day of First Grade, I was sent to the local black school, Rufus Easton. After that, I went to McKinley, which was slightly — though not much — farther away. My sister spent at least one full year at Rufus Easton, though she also later attended McKinley.

There were only four junior highs, with attendance again determined by geography, but their areas were large enough that three of the four (East, Central and West) had many African-American students. North didn’t have as many, because it was mainly kids from the suburbs. I’m not sure where the lines were drawn because, come to think of it, at West Junior many of my fellow classmates also came from subdivisions.

There was only one public high school, so everybody went there unless your parents paid to send you to the private Catholic high school or to a private school in St. Louis.

During my high school years, racial tensions ran high, and there was some kind of fight/near riot or something every year in the spring and/or fall. (Winter cooled things down.)

I have vivid memories of standing around on the steps overlooking The Pit (the central parking lot) while crowds of black and white students confronted each other. When fists began flying, the police sirens sounded, the cops were right there, and threw everybody involved into a van and whisked them away.

As Bruce Springsteen sings in My Home Town, “There was nothing you could do.”

The other notable memory of this came one night following a demonstration by African-Americans, some of whom burned down Haskell House, the building holding the Alton School District offices.

Somebody declared some kind of curfew or emergency. My girlfriend lived in Florissant Missouri, which is across the river in St. Louis County, and we did something that night.

When I returned to Alton with friends, we found police cars blocking every intersection along the Beltline leading into Alton proper. I wound up sleeping at a friend’s house in Godfrey, wondering if Alton were burning down.

Nothing did happen. I had other friends who, I later learned, drove around town with no problems, but it was scary that night to be unable to drive home, blocked by police cars.

Wegener’s Robbed

In 1959, my mother told me Wegener’s Grocery Store was robbed the night before.

Wegener’s was a Tom Boy chain store at the corner of 9th Street and Alby. We didn’t shop there because Haymer’s Tom Boy was much closer to our house.

However, the owners’ grandchildren lived right across the street from us. Their father worked at his parents’ store.

Years later, I read in a book how the robber tied up the grandparents of my friends. He fled when Patrolman John Light (who eventually became Chief of Police in Alton) chased him all the way north up Alby Street to the Beltline.

That must have been a terrific car chase, and would make a good movie scene. Alton is very hilly, so Alby Street has a lot of rises and dips.

But Light did catch him. The robber was also convicted of robbing two grocery stores in St. Louis, so he was sentenced to 20 years in jail.

In 1967, however, he escaped. Following that, he traveled around a lot, including to Mexico. There, he tried to set himself up as pornography tycoon. When that didn’t work out, he returned to the United States. In Los Angeles, he spent a lot of time volunteering for George Wallace’s presidential campaign.

On April 2, he arrived in Memphis, Tennessee.

On April 4, he shot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

At least, he confessed to the crime when facing the death penalty, which he could have received if he’d been convicted by a jury.

Later, he claimed he was a dupe and he didn’t pull the trigger.

Like all the 1960's high-profile assassinations, the death of Dr. Martin Luther King generated a lot of controversy and conspiracy theories.

I don’t know. But it is a fact James Earl Ray was born in Alton — in a small frame house on 9th Street hill, just around the corner from Wegener’s.

I don’t recall hearing this myself, but supposedly the principal of West Junior, to avert problems after the news of Dr. King’s death, got on the PA system and told students the assassination had nothing to do with Alton.

West Junior is on State Street, about seven or eight blocks from the house where James Earl Ray was born.

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Originally published at on October 16, 2019.

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