Population (2010)

673

Introduction

If you look up “river town” in any dictionary, I’m pretty sure you’ll see a picture of Grafton. While the emphasis has shifted from living off the river to playing on the river, Grafton retains a strong identity as a place deeply tied to its rivers.

Visitor Information

Visitors can load up on brochures and information at the Grafton Welcome Center (950 E. Main St.; 618.786.7000).

History

Grafton is situated at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. The rivers gave Grafton life, and the town has deep and enduring ties to those rivers. Before the Illinois River was thoroughly sculpted into a barge canal, it had a different character. The WPA Guide to Illinois, written in 1939, had this to say about the confluence:

Save in extremely rainy weather, the Illinois retains its naturally clear beauty and refuses, for several miles, to mingle with the mud-stained waters of the Mississippi. Thus for a considerable distance there is presented the spectacle of two great rivers flowing side by side in the same channel, each retaining its identity.

Grafton didn’t get off to a fast start. In the 1830s, the land owned by James Mason was little more than a post office and a tavern. Mason died in 1834, but his widow Sarah and brother Paris platted the village and called it Grafton in honor of the Massachusetts town where James was born.

A decade later, it’s economy began to boom, as hundreds of people—including many German and Irish immigrants—moved to the area to work in nearby quarries, to build boats, and to catch fish. After work, those folks relaxed and partied in the dozen or so saloons in town. Much of the stone they removed was used to build structures in the region, like the Eads Bridge and the Old Cathedral in St. Louis.

The Rippley Boat Company began building ferries, skiffs, and paddlewheelers at the end of the 19th century. They also built a thousand life boats for the military during World War I. The company became the Grafton Boat Works in 1923 and continued the boat-building tradition until they closed in 1978.

Grafton also had a pearl button manufacturing plant that used mussels harvested from the Illinois River. The city expected an economic boost when a series of locks and dams were built on the Illinois River beginning in the 1920s, but the dams never delivered the promised benefits.

Grafton’s population stayed steady around a thousand people for a long time, but the 1993 flood took a heavy toll; about a third of the town’s pre-flood residents moved away. Grafton today depends heavily on tourism, although there are still a handful of commercial fishermen in the area.

Exploring the Area

The Grafton Welcome Center (950 E. Main St.; 618.786.7000) has a few exhibits about local history.

Raging Rivers Water Park (100 Palisades Pkwy.; 618.786.2345) is a good place to cool down on a hot day.

A few miles north of Grafton, 8,000-acre Pere Marquette State Park (13112 Visitors Ln.; 618.786.3323) has good (and moderately challenging) hiking trails, some of which come with expansive views of the Illinois River Valley. There’s also a 1930s-era lodge that is a great place to relax and enjoy a drink or meal before retreating to the comfort of a modern room.

Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge (618.883.2524) has multiple tracts throughout the area. One of those, the Gilbert Lake Division, has a three-mile hiking trail through a floodplain forest along the Illinois River which is a good place for bird watching. Gilbert Lake is just north of Grafton along Highway 100.

Getting On the River

Rivers define this region but there aren’t many bridges, so residents rely on a tried and tested mode of river transportation: ferries. The seasonal Grafton Ferry connects the town to rural St. Charles County, Missouri (for a fee), while just up the Illinois River, the Brussels Ferry connects Illinois’s Jersey and Calhoun Counties (for free).

You can also get on the river by taking a river cruise on the Hakuna Matata; cruises board at Grafton Harbor (215 W. Water St.; 618.786.7678).

You can rent a pontoon boat or runabout at the Grafton Harbor (215 W. Water St.; 618.786.7678).

River Road Watersports (215 W. Water St.; 314.800.5695) rents personal watercraft and kayaks that you can take on the river and can arrange a raft trip on the river, too.

If you’d prefer to see the river at a slower pace, you can paddle on the Mississippi with Big Muddy Adventures (314.896.4262); they offer guided trips in a 29-foot voyageur-style canoe from Grafton to Piasa Harbor or from Piasa Harbor to Alton. You can also rent paddling gear from them and go out on your own.

Entertainment and Events

Live music is pretty easy to find at bars on weekend nights; the Loading Dock (401 Front St.; 618.786.3494) is a popular choice.

In September, pick up that piece of original art you’ve been looking for at Grafton’s Art in the Park or that boat you’ve been thinking about at the St. Louis Boat Show Extravaganza (Grafton Harbor).

Grafton’s River Rat Catfish Tournament (October) is a good time to engage that competitive fisher deep within you.

The Grafton Towboat Festival is a good time to get an up-close look at the inside of one of the river’s towboats (November).

**Grafton is covered in Road Tripping Along the Great River Road, Vol. 1 and Small Town Pleasures. Click the link 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

Grafton has a lot of places to satisfy your thirst or hunger. While most offer some variation on the bar food theme, most do it well, so it’s hard to make a bad choice. Here are few places to consider.

If you brought a cooler along (and who doesn’t travel with one?), pick up some freshly caught river fish at Beasley Fish Stand (1512 W. Main; 618.786.3697).

You won’t find a better view than at The Winery at Aerie’s Resort atop the bluff (600 Timber Ridge Dr.; 618.786.7477) and you can enjoy it with a glass of wine or a beer. They also serve food, most of which is light fare like flatbread, salads, sandwiches, and small plates.

At the Grafton Winery & Brewhaus (300 W. Main St.; 618.786.3001) you can enjoy their house-made wine and beer on a large patio overlooking the river; they also have a full menu featuring burgers, wraps, and salads.

The historic Ruebel Hotel (217 E. Main St.; 618.786.2315) has an elegant wood bar that was salvaged from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Besides the standard burger and sandwich menu, the hotel also serves schnitzel, catfish, and pasta.

The Loading Dock (401 Front St.; 618.786.3494) serves a few items of traditional bar food that are best enjoyed on the riverside patio.

The unique Fin Inn (1500 W. Main St.; 618.786.2030), built with stones gathered and placed by the original owner, James Seib, is best known for the aquariums in the restaurant. As you might guess, they serve mostly seafood and fish dishes, including local favorites like catfish and buffalo fish.

The Grafton Oyster Bar (215 Water St.; 618.786.3000) features New Orleans-inspired Cajun and Creole dishes, including fresh oysters, po boys, and blackened meats.

Upriver a bit, the Pere Marquette Restaurant (13653 Lodge Blvd.; 618.786.2331) in the historic park lodge serves pleasing dishes that lean toward comfort food.

Where to Sleep

Located high atop the bluff above Grafton, Tara Point Inn & Cottages (1 Tara Point Dr.; 618.786.3555) offers luxury accommodations and a million-dollar view.

The historic Ruebel Hotel (217 E. Main St.; 618.786.2315) has been offering overnight accommodations since 1879, more or less; rooms have been thoroughly modernized, of course, while retaining the historic inn atmosphere.

The lodge at Pere Marquette State Park (13653 Lodge Blvd.; 618.786.2331) may date to the 1930s, but it is equipped with all the modern conveniences. It’s a relaxing place to stay for a night or two, with several hiking trails in the park and a full-service restaurant on site (and Grafton just a few minutes away).

Grafton also has a lot of house and cabin rentals.

Where to Go Next

Heading upriver? Check out Brussels.

Heading downriver? Check out Chautaugua.

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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!

Grafton Photographs

©Dean Klinkenberg, 2018