Our adventure started as we crossed the narrow 1906 McKinley bridge on IL-Route 3. If you never make it off of the interstates, you wouldn’t know this but bridges are often quite frightening. Traffic heading in both directions with only a yellow line between you and a 50 foot drop to a flood swollen Mississippi River makes you grip the wheel that much tighter. Originally we had intended to visit the Old Chain of Rocks bridge, but our boys had other plans.
Anders (our one year old) decided it was nap time. When we changed course to allow him to sleep longer, Clarence (our two year old) decided to remind us that Nielsen men get car sick easily. Just like the forgetful young parents we are, we didn’t even think to bring a spare set of clothes. Thanks to the help of a nice lady in Alton, we were able to find a store to buy him some new clothes. After a quick 30 minute detour we set off down that same road that had thwarted us before. And thankfully so, because the village of Elsah is not one you’ll want to miss.
Now, we’ve been to Elsah before. Our first visit felt as though we had driven through a time warp and popped up in a 19th century Mississippi River town. We kept rubbing our eyes and blinking at the sweet sight before us. But this was the first time we spoke to the villagers themselves and truly experienced its rich history. On our stroll about the sleepy streets, we came to an open house. Thanks to a friendly Alton realtor named Diane Plummer we were able to tour a home built in 1897 by a carpenter named Edward Phinney. His master craftsmanship is easy to see in the hand made joists that have held the home up through several generations. You can see this house above, peeping out from behind the church.
In our tour, Diane taught us that the town was founded in 1853 by a US Senator named James Semple who made the simple offer of “free land if you buy stone from my quarry.” What a deal! We were drooling at the thought. By the 1860’s the town had reached its limit and served as the agricultural hub of Jersey county, thanks to its access to the rivers. In the 1930s the Christian Scientists established Principia college and slowly began buying up the houses to serve as faculty housing. Though over the years, most of the houses have reverted to private ownership. And look how well they’ve been preserved!In 1973 the entire village was placed on the National Register of historic places. Elsah has withstood the redirecting of the railroad and several major floods, but has remained a look into the idyllic past of America’s Midwest thanks to the community spirit of her residents. Besides having multiple foot bridges ideal for “Pooh Sticks”, it boasts one of the oldest restaurants in Illinois in its original building and was once considered for the site of the US Air Force Academy.
Perhaps our Sunday drive will take us there again. Until then, consider making that stop instead of whizzing by on the Great River Road. You won’t regret it. You never know what “Elsah” you might find.