Alton sits at the upriver end of a wide floodplain known as the American Bottom. It has long been an attractive place to live for its fertile soil and easy access to rivers, which is part of the reason that the largest pre-Colombian civilization in North America (what we now call Cahokia Mounds) flourished here.
Today’s Alton was once six separate communities: Alton, Upper Alton, North Alton, Hunterstown, Salu, and Milton Heights. The community known as Alton was laid out by Colonel Rufus Easton in 1817 and named for his oldest son; he named a few streets after his other children. The original Alton is now the downtown area; it eventually absorbed two other towns and incorporated in 1837.
Early Alton had a mix of residents from around the US, including many from the South. When Elijah Lovejoy moved from St. Louis to Alton in 1835 to continue printing his abolitionist newspaper, The Observer, some folks weren’t too happy. A mob stormed his office before he could get the first issue printed and threw the printing press into the Mississippi River. That was his second press; a mob in St. Louis had destroyed his first press. Lovejoy bought another press and published for about a year until that one was also destroyed. Not easily deterred, he bought his fourth press and stored it in a warehouse near the river. When news leaked about the new printing press, a mob assembled and went to the warehouse to confront Lovejoy. They attacked the warehouse in the middle of the night and this time they didn’t just go after the machine, they also went after Lovejoy, killing him. In spite of the number of witnesses, no one was successfully prosecuted for the murder.
The issue of slavery didn’t go away with Lovejoy’s murder. When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas met for their seventh and final debate in a US Senate contest, slavery was still the central issue. Both men arrived in Alton at dawn on October 15, 1858, on the steamer City of Louisiana. Later that day, thousands of people turned out to hear the two men’s views. Douglas later won the Senate seat, while Lincoln had to settle for the US Presidency two years later.
Abe Lincoln had one other connection to Alton, one he rarely talked about. In 1842, he publicly chided James Shields, then the Illinois State Auditor, about Shields’ role in a plan to close the failing Illinois State Bank. Lincoln wrote a letter to the editor of the Sangamo Journal under the pen name Rebecca, in which he assumed the persona of a distressed farmer to attack Shields’ politics and his character. Lincoln showed the letter to Mary Todd, with whom he had recently reconciled, and a couple of days later she wrote an anonymous letter of her own, apparently without Abe’s knowledge.
Shields was not amused. He found out who was behind the letters and demanded that Lincoln write a retraction. When Lincoln refused, Shields challenged him to a duel, naturally. As the one who was challenged, Lincoln got to choose the weapons; he chose broadswords. Lincoln was six feet, four inches tall, a full seven inches taller than Shields and with a much wider wingspan. He hoped that choosing swords would encourage Shields to change his mind. It didn’t.
On September 22, the two met in Alton, then traveled downriver to Bloody Island at St. Louis to swing their swords at each other. (Dueling was illegal in Illinois but not Missouri.) Standing face-to-face with a plank marking the line between them, Lincoln swung his sword above Shields’ head, slicing off a tree branch. That demonstration apparently sobered Shields, who, with the encouragement of friends, agreed to a truce. Shields accepted a muted apology from Lincoln, and the two men put the swords down and went their separate ways.
They would meet again, though. During the Civil War, Shields was a Brigadier General in the Army of the Potomac. After Shields’ forces defeated Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Kernstown, Lincoln promoted Shields to Major General, so two men had apparently moved past their previous differences.
Alton had the distinction of being the site of the first state prison in Illinois. Opened in 1833, the prison was a regular target of criticism from reform advocates like Dorothea Dix, in part because the site was a notorious vector for spreading deadly diseases. The prison closed in 1860 as the new Joliet prison opened, but about two years later it saw new life during the Civil War as a detention center for captured Confederate soldiers. During the war, nearly 12,000 Confederate prisoners spent some time at the prison, alongside a few civilians—men and women—arrested for treason or for committing acts of terrorism.
The Alton prison was deadlier than the average Union prison, mostly because diseases like dysentery and pneumonia were common. When a small pox epidemic erupted in the winter of 1862, three hundred prisoners were moved to an island across the river for quarantine where most of them died and were buried. At least 1,500 Confederate soldiers died in the prison; most were buried in North Alton. The prison closed again on July 7, 1865, and was torn down gradually; most of the stones were re-used in construction of buildings around town.
Alton’s early fortunes were closely tied to the Mississippi River. In 1841 alone, Alton counted 1,100 steamboat landings. River traffic was so central to the city’s life that some homes and businesses were built with special platforms at the top, from which folks could watch for approaching steamboats.
By 1850, Alton had grown to over 3,500 residents, about 5% of whom were free blacks. The first African Methodist Episcopal Church was established in 1839 in Lower Alton to serve the growing community.
Factories grew as steamboating declined; the city’s first grain mill opened in 1831; the city still has an active grain processing facility. One of the largest employers was the Illinois Glass Company. It grew from a modest operation with 74 employees in 1873 to a local giant with 3,200 people working there thirty years later. The company employed nearly half of the city’s workforce at that time and was once one of the largest manufacturers of glass bottles in the world. In 1929, the company merged with the Owens Bottle Company of Toledo, creating Owens-Illinois Glass Company; the factory closed in 1984.
Apart from the glass company, Alton once had factories that produced lead, steel, chemicals, and box-board. In addition, the quality of the local clay supported several potteries for a while.
Altonians have survived and rebuilt after many floods. One of the worst was in 1844, before the city had a large population. Steamboats floated across flooded fields far away from where the main channel would normally have been. In modern times, the flood of 1993 was the most damaging, but the Mississippi River has stretched into town since then, most recently in 2016 and 2017.
One of the city’s best known and beloved residents was Robert Wadlow. After an unassuming birth on February 22, 1918, Wadlow began to grow at an unusually fast rate. When he started kindergarten, he was already 5’ 6” tall, and by ten years of age he had surpassed six feet in height. An exceptionally active pituitary gland was responsible. His size made life a challenge at times. He had to custom order his clothes and had to climb stairs sideways because his feet were so big (size 37 AA).
Still he never complained about anything, living his life with grace. He traveled with his father for a while, which gave him a lot of opportunities to see the country. While visiting Manistee, Michigan, with his father, he developed a blister on his foot that became infected. Doctors couldn’t get it under control. On July 15, 1940, he died; he was just 22 years old. At the time of his death, he was 8’ 11” tall and weighed 490 pounds, the tallest man who ever lived. Five thousand people turned out at his funeral to say goodbye.