Chester

Population (2010)

8,580

Introduction

An old river town, most of which sits atop a bluff high above the river, Chester draws visitors in with its Popeye-themed attractions, but it is also near a collection of old French Colonial villages and some good hiking.

Visitor Information

Get your questions answered at the Chester Welcome Center next to the bridge (10 Bridge Bypass Rd.; 618.826.3171).

History

In 1829, Samuel Smith built a cabin next to the river, opened a small hotel, and opened ferry service to Missouri, which is why the place was first called Smith’s Landing. Smith’s wife, Jane Thomas, was from Chester, England, which is apparently the source of the town’s current name.

Chester’s first important product was castor oil, which it produced in large quantities and shipped up and down the Mississippi. Nathan Cole opened a grain mill in 1837. His company was later powered by an electric generator that produced more electricity than it needed, so the company directed the extra power to the city’s street lights, making Chester one of the first cities to enjoy the luxury. The company is still operating today as Ardent Mills, which is part of food giant ConAgra.

The Menard Correctional Center has also provided a steady source of employment; it opened in 1878 and has housed some of the state’s most notorious criminals, including John Wayne Gacy.

By the end of the 19th century, the city began expanding away from the riverfront and up to the top of the bluffs. The International Shoe Company built a factory on the hills above the river, but the city lost many of its manufacturing jobs in the 1960s.

Popeye creator Elzie Segar was born and raised in Chester; many of the characters from his cartoon strip are based on people he knew in Chester.

Exploring the Area

South of Chester
It’s a little bit afield from Chester, nearly a half-hour-drive south, but Piney Creek Reserve Nature Preserve (618.826.2706) is worth a detour. The preserve is home to the largest collection of rock art (petroglyphs and pictographs) in Illinois, some of which are 1,500 years old (and not always easy to identify). Besides that, it’s a darn pretty place to hike around. From Highway 3 south of Chester, go east on Hog Hill Road to Rock Crusher Road. The signs will lead you the rest of the way.

Just south of Chester, the two thousand-acre Turkey Bluffs State Fish and Wildlife Area (4301 S. Lake Dr.; 618.826.2706) has several miles of hiking trails and a good overlook of the river.

In Chester
The Gothic Court House Museum (1 Taylor St.; 618.826.5000, x112) is the only remaining section of the second Randolph County courthouse. It was built in 1864 and now houses a museum. Its star attraction is the old electric chair from Menard prison, which was last used for an execution in 1938. The museum also has a lot of interesting exhibits and photographs of Kaskaskia. The fifth floor of the courthouse (next door) has a good view of the Mississippi River and the floodplain; you have to pass through security to get to it.

A series of Popeye-themed statues around town pay tribute to Elzie Segar. The original Popeye statue was installed in 1977 in Segar Park next to the Mississippi River bridge. In 2006 the city began a new effort to memorialize other Popeye characters with statues of their own. As of 2018, there are fourteen; a new statue is unveiled at the annual Popeye Picnic.

You didn’t come all this way to go home empty-handed, so make time to scan the shelves at Spinach Can Collectibles (1001 State St.; 618.826.4567), which has an impressive collection of Popeye-themed merchandise.

North of Chester
The French Creole Pierre Menard Home State Historic Site (4230 Kaskaskia Rd.; 618.859.3031) is a must-see site if you’re interested in the area’s French Colonial history. Menard was born in Quebec in 1767 and moved to Kaskaskia in 1790. He made a lot of money running a trading post and went on to an impressive political career. He served as Indian agent for a while, was selected for the Indiana and Illinois Territorial legislatures, and was Illinois’ first Lieutenant Governor. He built the house in the 1810s, which is a magnificent example of frontier Creole architecture. It’s a fifteen-minute drive north of Chester.

On the bluffs near the Menard home, Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site (Ellis Grove: 4372 Park Rd.; 618.859.3741) sprawls over 200 acres along the Mississippi River. The small fort—it only had a three-room barrack and a kitchen—was built around 1759 to defend the village of Kaskaskia but was probably never completed. The site of the old fort is clearly marked and has great views of the river; you look right down to the location where the old village of Kaskaskia once thrived. The park has plenty of room to picnic and walk around.

Entertainment and Events

The Popeye Picnic takes place the weekend after Labor Day and features a grand parade and the unveiling of a new Popeye-themed statue.

**Chester is covered in Road Tripping Along the Great River Road, Vol. 1 and Small Town Pleasures. Click the links above for more. Disclosure: This website may be compensated for linking to other sites or for sales of products we link to.

Where to Eat and Drink

Get your caffeine fix at Muddy River Coffee (106 W. Stacey St.; 850-238-1444), and don’t forget to grab a pastry or panini to go with it.

Jodie’s Ol’ Farmhouse Café and Bakery (639 State St.; 618.826.1870) is a good choice for local, home-style cooking; save room for dessert.

Reid’s Harvest House (2440 State St.; 618.826.4933) is popular for their delicious, buffet-style food, with options that change every day.

Where to Sleep

Chester has a few chain motels along the main routes.

There is a campground at Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site (Ellis Grove: 4372 Park Rd.; 618.859.3741), with primitive tent sites and 32 sites with electricity.

Heading upriver? Check out Ellis Grove.

Heading downriver? Check out Gorham.

Community-supported writing

If you like the content at the Mississippi Valley Traveler, please consider showing your support by making a one-time contribution or by subscribing through Patreon. Book sales don’t fully cover my costs, and I don’t have deep corporate pockets bankrolling my work. I’m a freelance writer bringing you stories about life along the Mississippi River. I need your help to keep this going. Every dollar you contribute makes it possible for me to continue sharing stories about America’s Greatest River!

Become a Patron

Chester Photographs

©Dean Klinkenberg, 2018

By |2018-11-04T18:16:08+00:00November 4th, 2018|Illinois|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dean Klinkenberg, the Mississippi Valley Traveler, is on a mission to explore the rich history, diverse cultures, and varied ecosystems of the Mississippi River Valley, from the Headwaters in northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. He is the author of Rock Island Lines, a mystery, and several guidebooks for the Mississippi Valley.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Ah, geez. Another pop-up? Yep! But if you sign up for updates, I’ll send you a free, full-color PDF of Small Town Pleasures, your guide to the most interesting small Mississippi River towns. You’ll save five bucks!

This is a limited time offer, so sign up today.

We value your privacy and will never spam you. You will receive updates about new books and offers, site updates, and news from the Mississippi Valley. You can unsubscribe whenever you want.