Named for the big rock on the other side on the Mississippi (Tower Rock), the site drew its first European settlers in the early 1800s, including Daniel Boone’s nephew, William Boone. A boatyard operated near where the power plant is today, and coal mining picked up around 1810.
The most significant boost to the area was the founding of the Grand Tower Mining, Manufacturing, and Transportation Company (GTMMT), which opened just after the Civil War. The company built coke ovens and produced pig iron—oblong blocks of rough iron that were shipped to other foundries for final processing. The company grew big enough to keep upwards of a hundred coke ovens burning and even built their own barges to transport their product.
The company platted a town in 1867 and named it Grand Tower; the village incorporated in 1872. The company built houses for some of its employees and painted them all red, so the neighborhood naturally become known as Red Town. A tornado in 1890 wiped out much of the neighborhood.
A national recession in the 1870s took a toll on the town, as did a series of floods and fires. Still, iron processing remained a steady employer. At one time, Andrew Carnegie even considered opening a big steel factory near Grand Tower. Lime manufacturing picked up in the 1880s, and the town got a small boost from sawmills and wood processing, too.
Grand Tower grew big enough that its opera house drew nationally-known performers. The town had three hotels, and the GTMMT bought the steamer RL Woodward and turned it into a floating hotel. Traveling circuses made regular stops; seeing those performances inspired local boy Tommy Halligan—the Flying Irishman! —to join the Barnum and Bailey Circus.
By World War II, however, the town’s fortunes were on the decline. Even the construction of a big levee in the 1950s didn’t make much difference. Grand Tower today is a quiet river town of about 600 people.
Random Fact: The suspension bridge at the north end of town carries a gas pipeline; it was completed in 1955.