The mid 1800s was a history-rich period for Alton, Illinois. Located on the Mississippi River and near the Illinois and Missouri Rivers, Alton was easy to reach by riverboat, and the city built itself into a thriving riverport. Situated across the river from Missouri, a slave state, Alton became an important Underground Railroad location. The last of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 was held here, and in the 1860s Alton found itself in the midst of the Civil War. Today you can follow the Alton Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail, with nine stops that document this crucial time in history for Alton and the United States.
The last of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 was held in Alton, and the site is commemorated with life-size statues of the pair. Citizens turned out in great numbers for the debate in which Lincoln argued against slavery. Lincoln lost the senatorial election that year, but he was noticed nationwide, leading to his 1860 election as President.
Used as a courthouse for trials, Lincoln visited the building quite often as a young lawyer. Entrepreneur Simeon Ryder, owner of the building, was a friend and client of Lincoln.
Sunflower Island was renamed Smallpox Island when it became home to a quarantine hospital for Confederate prisoners who were victims of a smallpox outbreak during the Civil War. The island flooded in 1865, and the hospital was closed. While the hospital existed, 268 prisoners died and were buried on the island.
After a series of letters written by Lincoln criticizing Illinois Auditor James Shields were published in a Springfield newspaper, Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. On the tour, you’ll learn the amusing story of “the duel that never happened.” The site of the would-be duel is marked at Riverfront Park in Alton, the same site as the monument to Smallpox Island.
Elijah Lovejoy monument
As the editor of the Alton Observer, Lovejoy wrote editorials condemning slavery, and as a result, pro-slavery mobs threw his presses into the Mississippi River three times. When Lovjoy got a fourth press, a mob not only threw it into the river, but murdered Lovejoy, as well. A monument to Lovejoy stands in the Alton City Cemetery.
Alton National Cemetery
Located within the Alton City Cemetery lays Alton National Cemetery. Of the 518 graves in the National Cemetery, 264 were Union soldiers, almost half of them unknown. Members of the armed services were buried here through the 1980s, when the cemetery was deemed full.
Lyman Trumbull House
A friend of Lincoln’s, Trumbull co-authored the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. The home is still a private residence, but you’ll find a marker in nearby Haskell Park.
The Confederate Cemetery is the final resting place for over 1300 Confederate soldiers killed by bloodshed or disease during the Civil War. The crude wooden caskets were buried in a large trench, and marked by stakes that rotted away or were used as firewood over the years. Today there is just one headstone in the cemetery. In 1909 a monument was erected with the names of 1,354 deceased Confederate soldiers engraved on the base of it.
Opened in 1833, Alton Prison was the first Illinois State Penitentiary. The prison was closed in 1860 due to deplorable conditions but was reopened during the Civil War as a federal military prison to house Confederate prisoners. Today just a portion of one wall exists and is preserved as a piece of history.
On the day of the Lincoln-Douglas debate at Alton, Lincoln used the Franklin House as his headquarters. The building fell into disrepair over the years, but was renovated in the 1990s.
Pick up an Alton Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail guide at the Alton Convention & Visitors Bureau office or download a guide from their web site. Listen to the audio tour on your cell phone, download audio tracks to an MP3 player or iPod or borrow a CD from the Alton Convention & Visitors Bureau office.
Alton is about a four-and-a-half hour drive southwest of Chicago, near St. Louis.
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