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Illinois: Grafton, Pere Marquette State Park, Alton, Mississippi River, Melvin
Price Dam & Locks
2003 Travelogue# 11 Grafton, IL
Monday, September 22, 2003
Mileage: 41052, Traveled: 48 miles
Pere Marquette State Park, Route 100, Grafton, IL 62037 618-786-3323
Electric Hookup, 50-amps, no water/ sewer, gravel pads, $11
Pere Marquette State Park is an 8000-acre park, next to the Illinois River and a few miles up Hwy 100 from Grafton, IL. The name comes from Pere (Father) Jacques Marquette, a French Jesuit missionary, who traveled with Louis Joliet, a cartographer, up the Mississippi in search of a passage to the Pacific Ocean in 1673. They stopped near what is now known as Pere Marquette State Park.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the Park in the 1930's with many of the same construction characteristics used in building other parks throughout the country, such as the use of native stone and rustic timbers for lodges and cabins. The Park has wonderful trees with oak and hickory dominating. We scouted the Park last week and knew where we wanted to camp, so we quickly set up the site, registered at the Visitors Center and had time for a stroll down by the River.
Tuesday, September 23, 2003
Today we took off for "Fast Eddies Bon-Air" for lunch and the ½ lb. Fat Eddie Burger for 99 cents. This place is a legend, which started with Anheuser Busch in 1921. Busch opened the yellow brick building as a beer-drinking establishment and called it " Bon-Air". The laws changed due to prohibition and the Bon-Air was sold. The new owner ran it for 50 years but with only moderate success. Then in 1981, Eddie Sholar (alias Fast Eddie) bought the "Bon-Air" and as they say, "the rest is history". The amount of beer flowing through this place in one year is somewhat astounding; try 4000 half- barrels of beer and thousands of cases of cans and bottles. Some have said that the "Bon-Air" is the #1 volume bar in the world. Needless to say, Peggy and I were not that thirsty, but we did want to see and experience the place.
The first thing that got my attention was the parking lot. It was a large area, about 2-3 acres of cliché rock, resembling a small town football stadium parking lot room for lots of cars but no parking stripes. Just find a place to park and hope you can get out. The entrance into the building reminded me of an old movie theatre. It had one small narrow door opening into a room with the bar running down one side. Stepping inside we saw rooms added to the side and one after the other lengthwise. It was a hodge-podge of little rooms definitely added at various times.
The place opens at 1 pm and closes at 1 am; we arrived at 1:30 pm. As we worked our way through the club searching for a table, we passed a movie-type popcorn machine, making a fresh batch. We learned it was the cocktail waitress' job to keep it popping. Spying an older couple alone at a large table, we asked to join them and discovered that this was their 2nd "Fast Eddie" adventure. They happily filled us in on the food-ordering procedure, and soon the waitress arrived to take our drink order we both ordered a couple of "Buds".
Initially," Fast Eddies" was just a bar, but in 1989 many of the regulars wanted food. So, Eddie started serving ½ lb. Fat Eddie burgers, Big Elwood On-A-Stick (marinated tenderloin), Pork Kabobs, Hot Chick On-A-Stick, French Fries, and Boiled Shrimp. He has not changed his food prices in 14 years. We had the Fat Eddie burgers for 99-cents, with at least a 20-min. wait. We figured they wanted us to eat some popcorn and down a few more brews while we waited. As for the décor, the walls are covered with a variety of antique metal signs i.e. feed signs, John Deere Tractor, the red button Coca-Cola sign, gasoline and many different types of neon beer signs. So, here's the picture it's a dimly lit, loud music "honky-tonk" atmosphere with 29-cent per jumbo peel-your-own shrimp, popcorn, and Fat Eddie Burgers.
The clientele was a "mixed bag" for sure; in fact, two ladies captured my interest while we were eating. Getting up, I went to their table, introduced myself and asked one of the ladies "how old she was?" (Of course, Peggy almost croaked when she heard me ask that question.) She said she was 70 and the other was 93. They looked very stately, enjoying their draft beer, peeling their shrimp, and waiting for their Big Elwood's.
It was now pushing 2:30 and we had promised the folks at the Visitors Center to stop and sign their register, since we had forgotten it last week. As we entered, the girls recognized us and wanted to know what we had found exciting to do, see and eat. We told them we'd just had lunch at" Fast Eddies" and they said, "you need to go up the hill in the next block and have dessert at, My Just Desserts, but they close at 3 pm. I'll call and let them know you are coming up". So, off we went up the hill for the next round of food desserts!!
Ann Badasch, the owner of My Just Desserts (www.MYJUSTDESSERTS.ORG), met us at the door. Even though it was closing time, she invited us in saying, "we only have 6 pies left for the day" my, my, only 6!! Peggy immediately jumped to the Apple Praline Pie and I went for a slice of the Sweet Georgia Peach. From our table in this 100 year old plus building, we had a "bird's eye view" of the Mississippi River while enjoying our treats. Glancing around the restaurant we felt the cozy warmth of will used old oak tables and chairs in various shapes and sizes, with period pictures and a sprinkling of decorative old pieces here and there. Each table had its own unique small floral arrangement. Ann sat down to visit, giving us a brief walk-through history of the restaurant/store, and what she is doing now in the way of food preparation.
She has written a recipe book titled Recipes and Reminiscence, in which she combines her three loves, cooking, genealogy, and history. It is interesting how she's woven these three areas into a tapestry reaching back to connect with her genealogy and finding the recipes of the women in her lineage. Many of these are served in the restaurant, for lunch as well as desserts. She said they use over 150 recipes, which they divide by 4, leaving a column of 35 to choose from each month. She was pleased to tell us that when the Missouri Historical Society brings tours through for the Lewis and Clark exhibits, she provides the box lunches and desserts. Plus she has been selected to provide the lunches for all the bus tours for the big 2004 anniversary tours
I close today's food adventure with a quote from Ann's book:
"Modern life is very busy and hectic. Remember to take the time to cook.
You are not only making food, you are making memories that children and
adults take with them wherever they go."
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
We explored some of the walking trails at Pere Marquette this morning. Then crossed the highway to walk along the Illinois River. We finished our walk by meandering through the immense lobby at the Lodge. The design reminded us of the Lodges at Yellowstone and Grand Canyon with its large open lobby area, huge timbers for columns and crossbeams, and massive iron sculpted chandeliers. At one end of the room, an immense native stone fireplace soars to a roof height of 50 feet and is said to weigh 700 tons. All of this sits on the side of a gentile sloping hill, down to the Illinois River. We enjoyed a leisurely brunch in the Lodge restaurant before returning to the motor home.
While we were at the Alton Visitors Center on Tuesday, one of the ladies scheduled us a tour for Wednesday for the Melvin Price Dam and Locks that cross the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers south of Alton. Due to security reasons these tours must be set one day in advance.
On the way to the Locks, we made one quick stop in Alton, to see the first licensed Illinois gambling casino, the Alton Belle Casino. When the Casino first opened, it was a riverboat floating on the Mississippi, and cost $20 to enter. Within the last 10 years the complex has doubled in size and no longer charges an entrance fee. We walked through tight security and explored the two different levels. The first floors were all slot machines; the second floor had gaming tables along with the slots and a choice of buffet or restaurant dining. We decided we would rather spend our money on pies; so, we were out of there.
Arriving at the Locks Visitors Center for our 3 pm tour, we were joined by another couple. The COE (Corp of Engineer) Ranger, Janet, was a delightful young lady and a very knowledgeable guide of the Dam and Locks. Illinois is building a new Great Rivers Museum here at the Visitors Center that should be open in October. The outline of the Visitors Center building is shaped to resemble the boats that push the barges on the river.
The Dam and Locks are named for Melvin Price who was a Congressman from the Alton District. He lobbied to have a dam placed across the Mississippi and locks to facilitate barge traffic. During the summer months the Illinois River would drop so low that barge traffic could only flow 6 months out of the year. The dam provides backed up water to the Illinois River, so barge traffic can navigate throughout the year. Barges need a draft of 9 feet so they don't drag bottom. Alton is considered to be the 2nd largest port after New Orleans in tonnage. About 70 billion tons of cargo moved through these locks last year.
Janet took us on the catwalk above the two locks; one lock was 600 ft in length and the other was 1200 ft. A barge was coming up river and would enter the small lock and, about the same time, another larger barge was coming down river and would enter the larger lock. We were going to see both locks work at nearly the same time.
The purpose of the locks was interesting. In the first place, I never knew there was a dam on the Mississippi River. I just assumed it was too large to dam up, but here it was. The River in Minnesota is at an elevation of 900 ft and drops approximately ½ ft a mile to Alton where the elevation is 410 ft. The drop from Alton to north St. Louis is 75 ft. So, with the water backed up at the dam for the two Rivers, this was the perfect place to make the adjustment in navigable waters, and the locks were added.
We watched as the smaller barge worked its way into the lock, the gates closed, and the waters started to rise. We then took an elevator down to an observation room for the 1200 ft lock to observe the larger barge process through the lock. The accuracy and timing by the pilots are critical. After the larger barge passed through, Janet took us up to the control tower, which is like a flight tower at an airport, overseeing the entire complex. Here we were introduced to Lock Master, Terry Miller.
Terry showed us the many cameras used to monitor the locks and the various operating procedures. I asked him for one of his more exciting moments and he related this story.
He was looking up River one afternoon, when he happened to see a small fishing boat had capsized. He picked up his binoculars and he could see three orange life preservers clinging to the sides of the craft. He immediately jumped up, started hitting all the buttons to close the gates on the dam to stop the flow of the immense amount of water that was moving through the gates. He then got on the speaker asking for assistance to shut down all other operations at the lock. Grabbing a lifeline, Terry hurried down to the gate that the capsized boaters were approaching. His assistants arrived and the boaters were saved. He said, if they had gone through the gates, and fallen down on the other side, they would have drowned in the backwash.
While Terry talked to us, a small barge entered the lock. He stopped our conversation and talked over the loud speaker to the crew on the barge as they began their passage through the smaller lock.. It was time for us to leave.
We made our way back toward Grafton for dinner at the Finn Inn. This restaurant has four 2000-gallon aquariums along the interior walls. We chose a booth next to one of the aquariums holding many species of the fish found in the Mississippi. We ordered Turtle Soup, and Alaskan Walleye; Peg had hers fried and mine was broiled. The dinner was enjoyable watching the fish watch us eat. We both thought it was interesting to see that catfish are so inquisitive. They'd line up at the glass and just look at us. Maybe we looked funny to them? Oh well time to call it a day.
Bob & Peggy Woodall