A giant catsup bottle, a museum of initiation devices and the nation’s largest Native American mound are a few of the attractions to explore along the National Road through southern Illinois. Add wineries, a dairy farm and perhaps a casino for a full weekend of quirky, fun and historic adventure.
The first federally funded road, the Cumberland Road, later renamed the National Road, was originally built between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers. Construction began in 1811 and was completed in 1818. Plans were to extend the road to Jefferson City, Missouri, but when funding dried up, construction ended at Vandalia, Illinois. The National Road eventually became part of the coast-to-coast U.S. Route 40 and today closely parallels, and sometimes runs with, Interstate 70.
This trip, easily done in two days, heads west from Vandalia and ends at the Mississippi River in East St. Louis.
Tour the state’s oldest existing capitol building, where Abraham Lincoln received his law license and where he sat in the Illinois House of Representatives before the state capital was moved to Springfield.
Note the Madonna of the Trail statue, depicting a pioneer woman with her children, on the southwest corner of the Old State Capitol grounds. This is one of twelve statues, all identical, placed in each of the states along the National Road, a project of the Daughters of the American Revolution in the early 1920s.
Walk a couple of blocks to the National Road Interpretive Center (106 S 5th Street) to gather informational brochures about highway attractions, watch an orientation film, see National Road memorabilia and learn more about the history of the road and the Conestoga wagon, considered the “semi-trailer of the National Road.”
The DeMoulin Museum is filled with quirky initiation devices used by fraternal organizations in the late 1800s and early 1900s that would shock, paddle or otherwise startle a new member. See the Ferris wheel goat, a collapsing chair and many other devices. The DeMoulin Company is still in business today, but instead of initiation devices, they are the nation’s largest manufacturer of marching band uniforms.
Stop for lunch at Kahuna’s at 104 W Harris Ave., a Hawaiian-themed fast-food restaurant, with burgers with names like the Hawaiian Burger (with a grilled pineapple ring and barbecue sauce) and Wipe Out (Cajun seasoning, pepper jack cheese, jalepeno peppers, bacon and chipotle mayo).
Watch the cheese making process and visit newborn calves at the Marcoot Jersey Creamery. Although the dairy farm is seventh generation, the cheese making business is just a few years old. Enjoy an ice cream cone or pick up some creamy cheese while you’re there.
Sit on the deck overlooking the lake at the Copper Dock Winery (498 White Oak Lane) while enjoying appetizers or a sandwich, a glass of wine and, often, live music. They offer wine tastings, although they don’t make their own wine yet. Still in its infancy, Copper Dock’s grapes are too young for winemaking.
For a bit of Americana, stop at the water tower disguised as the world’s tallest catsup bottle, next to Route 159 just south of Downtown Collinsville. The 170 foot tall Brooks Catsup bottle is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Plan to spend a few hours at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, the largest prehistoric Indian site north of central Mexico. Watch an orientation film for an overview of the Mississippian culture and then browse the exhibits in the interpretive center. Ten miles of hiking trails take you past mounds thousands of years old. Walk up the stairs to Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas, where a huge building once stood, possibly the building from which the chief ruled.
East St. Louis
The Casino Queen, located on the Mississippi River at 200 S Front St., offers slot machines and table games, along with four restaurants, a nightclub, a hotel and an RV park.
Your best bet for accommodations is in Collinsville, where you’ll find lots of mid-range hotels and plenty of chain and independent restaurants.
Vandalia is about a three-and-a-half hour drive from Chicago, south on I-57 to Effingham and then west on I-70. For further information on activities, events, dining and accommodations along the National Road from Vandalia to East St. Louis, visit the Tourism Bureau Illinois South web site.
Disclosure: The author’s visit was hosted by Tourism Bureau Illinois South, but any opinions expressed in this article are her own. Accommodations were provided by Hampton Inn, Collinsville, Illinois.
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