Popular with bikers, not just the manually-propelled type but also of the Harley variety, Savanna is a little rough around the edges after a couple decades of job losses. Don’t let the peeling paint deter you from getting to know what some locals call the Blue Collar Galena.
Savanna’s first settlers arrived in 1828, several years before most other river towns in this area. Aaron and Harriet Pierce and their four children came south from Galena, guided through the wilderness by Vance Davidson. They were soon joined by the families of William Blundell and George Davidson who reached the same spot only hours later after traveling via the Fever River and down the Mississippi.
Luther Bowen bought the claims of the original settlers and platted the town of Savanna in 1836. The town was named for the marshy plain it inhabits because it was thought to resemble those in the South. Savanna had about 200 residents by 1840 and was a regular stop for steamboats. The usual businesses sprang up: hotels, a sawmill, a ferry, a brickyard. By the late 1840s Savanna was growing steadily enough to withstand the defection of many early settlers for the California Gold Rush, including Vance Davidson.
Savanna’s steady economy was based largely on its status as an important Mississippi River port. The Western Union Railroad arrived in 1865 and by 1880 a railroad bridge across the Mississippi had been completed. In 1886, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad also reached Savanna. At their peak, the railroad companies switched 4,500 freight cars every day.
With the railroad business humming along, another employer that would dramatically impact life in Savanna set up shop. In 1918, the federal government purchased land just north of town and established the Savanna Proving Grounds to test artillery; it would grow into a large military base called the Savanna Army Depot. Between the success of the railroads and the opening of the Proving Grounds, Savanna’s population continued to grow, reaching 5,237 in 1920. Flush with cash and facing the needs of a growing city, town leaders began a series of improvements after the turn of the century: sewers were built, telephones installed, a power plant built, cement sidewalks laid, a library opened, parks created (including Marquette Park along the Mississippi River), and the Sabula-Savanna Bridge opened for passenger cars.
- Read more about the Savanna Army Depot here.
Savanna’s dependence on the two major employers, however, led to dramatic fluctuations in employment and population. During the Depression, both industries struggled and cut jobs, but both recovered with World War II. The good times didn’t last, however, and the railroad and Depot, which accounted for over half of the jobs in Savanna, began to scale back their operations; Savanna lost nearly one-quarter of its population between 1970 and 1990. By the time the Savanna Army Depot officially closed on March 18, 2000, most of the damage to the local economy had already been done. Savanna today is working to revive its economy by emphasizing light industry and service-sector jobs, with hopes of growing its tourist trade.
About 2½ miles south of town, the Ingersolls Wetlands Learning Center (7071 Riverview Rd.; 815.273.2723) is information central for the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge.
If you’re looking for a place to fish for a couple of hours, just south of Savanna, there are two wildlife areas that are part of the Upper Miss Refuge that just might suit you: Frog Pond and, a half-mile south, Spring Lake Wildlife Area.
Take time to tour the Savanna Museum and Cultural Center downtown (406 Main St.; 815.273.0316/815.275.1958). The centerpiece is the exhibit of Civil War soldiers created as a labor of love by a teacher, Gene Wright. The exhibit includes over 150 mannequins dressed in historically accurate clothing, each with a short profile of the person depicted. The museum is generally open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, but you might be able to schedule a visit at other times of the year if you call in advance.
If you’ve seen the TV show American Pickers, you’re probably familiar with star picker Frank Fritz. He’s got a store in Savanna, Frank Fritz Finds (324 Main St.; 815.273.2661) where you can buy stuff he’s rescued from barn lofts and basements.
The Savanna Train Car Museum (25 Main St.; 815.273.3292) has railroad trinkets in an old passenger rail car. The town is also raising funds for the future Savanna History Museum (404 Main St.) that will have a wider focus on local history, including displays about the Savanna Army Depot and an ambitious Civil War display; check back later.
What to do with an oak tree that is nearing the end of its 150 year long life? Why not sculpt a memorial to the town’s railroading past. That’s exactly what artist Thom Gleich did when he created the Trainman Wood Carving for the Law-Jones Funeral Home. You can see the finished product on South 4th Street, just ½ block south of Illinois Highway 84.
The Iron Horse Saloon (314 Main St.; 815.273.2600) is a popular tavern with the Harley set; it has a motorcycle museum in a restored 19th century building with an impressive tin ceiling and beautiful back bar.
Marquette Park (815.589.2616) is the riverfront park and a place I have enjoyed many picnic lunches.
Mississippi Palisades State Park (16327A State Highway 84; 815.273.2731), established in 1929, is another spectacular park along the Mississippi River. The park has a few Indian burial mounds, several overlooks, and an extensive trail network. A short hike on the Indian Head trail, leads to a spectacular view of the Mississippi Valley. Please be careful. It’s a long fall. If you are the adventure sport type, this is one of the few public parks along the Upper Miss where rappelling is allowed. Call the office for a list of bluffs where it is OK.
Part of the former Savanna Army Depot has been turned into wildlife refuge. The visitor’s center for the Lost Mound Unit, part of the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge, (3159 Crim Dr.; 800.344.9453/815.273.3184) has a few stuffed birds and some pictures that show the dunes before they were leveled for the army depot. The rest of the unit has an overlook and plans to develop trails as money permits. Please stick to the areas along the road. It will take a little while to get to the overlook, because you will probably be distracted by deer and the abandoned buildings of the old depot, including the old bunkers that bear more than a passing resemblance to Native American burial mounds. Other parts of the unit are accessible by boat only but, if you can get to them, are fine spots for swimming and camping. Be aware that some areas along the shore are off-limits. Don’t camp or park your boat in spots that are marked with No trespassing or Danger signs—but I really don’t need to tell you that, do I?
Savanna is the northern terminus of the Great River Trail; from here you can ride 62 miles to Rock Island.
Getting Out on the River
South of Savanna, Winter’s Spring Lake Resort (8048A State Highway 84 South; 815.273.4595; open May 1 to Oct 1) rents rowboats that can take you around the backwaters.
Entertainment and Events
The Savanna Times Theater (222 Main St.; 815.273.2951) has two screens.
Music on the Mississippi Riverfest (815.273.2722) is a June music festival on the riverfront, usually on a Friday night.
Eating and Drinking
Fish “R” Us (7634 State Highway 84; 815.273.3277), just south of town, is a family-run commercial fishing operation; the store has live and smoked Mississippi River fish (carp, catfish, and sturgeon) for very reasonable prices.
Poopy’s Pub N Grub (1030 Viaduct Rd.; 815.273.4516) has a shitload of food options night and day. Breakfast includes generous-sized pancakes and omelets; lunch and dinner entrées are primarily grilled or fried meats served in ridiculously large portions. Poopy’s also hosts live music on weekends.
Iron Horse Saloon (314 Main St.; 815.273.2600), as noted above, is a popular place to wet your whistle, especially if you are traveling on a Harley.
If you’re looking for a good, made-from-scratch experience, check out Circa 1888 (305 Main St.; 815.565.7294). You”ll find a good selection of tasty sandwiches and salads, as well as fine dining options for dinner like steak and walleye, all at reasonable prices.
If you are boating through the area, primitive camping at any island in the river is fine with the folks who run the Upper Miss Refuge (800.877.8339).
Winter’s Spring Lake Resort (8048A State Highway 84 South; 815.273.4595; open May 1 to Oct 1) is a few miles south of Savanna and situated along Spring Lake (go figure!) which connects to the main channel; it has about 50 sites with water and electric, plus 20 or so tent sites on a peninsula next to the lake; no showers.
Seven Eagles Campground & Resort (9734 State Highway 84; 815.273.7301; open Memorial Day–mid-October) is tucked between Frog Pond and Spring Lake along the River Road; they have 73 sites with full hookups.
Mississippi Palisades State Park (815.273.2731) has 241 campsites, many well-shaded, including several primitive sites that are accessed only by a 1½ mile hike.
South of town, Seven Eagles Campground & Resort (9734 State Highway 84; 815.273.7301) has five immaculate motel rooms equipped with microwave, coffee pot, and a small fridge.
L & M Motel (2000 N. Oakton Rd.; 815.273.7728; WiFi for most rooms) has 27 rooms equipped with coffee pot and small fridge and decorated in various themes (wolves, Harleys, Mustangs), a festive communal atmosphere in the summer, and a hot tub in the parking lot.
Just north of Savanna near Mississippi Palisades State Park, Indianhead Motel (15161 State Highway 84 North; 815.273.2154) has ten small rooms that feel rather dated but they are clean and offer still a decent budget option for the area; most rooms are equipped with a microwave and small fridge.
Seven Eagles Campground & Resort (9734 State Highway 84; 815.273.7301) also has two cabins, each with private bath and kitchen.
At The Nest at Palisades Cabins (Scenic Ridge Rd.; 815.273.7824) choose from three comfortable, private cabins in a quiet setting just a short walk from the trails of Mississippi Palisades State Park; each cabin has a spa tub, microwave, fridge, coffee pot, and access to dirt bikes.
Rooms to Rent
The Ecology Inn (321 1/2 Main St.; 815.273.0336) is a modern apartment in an old commercial building with four rental rooms, one with a private bath. All of the rooms share common living spaces, including a kitchen and two decks with views of the Mississippi River.
Post Office: 321 3rd St.; 815.273.3621.
Savanna Illinois Public Library: 326 3rd St.; 815.273.3714.
Heading upriver? Check out Hanover.
Heading downriver? Check out Thomson.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2009
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