Blink and you might miss it! Tucked into a wooded ravine between two sets of cliffs along the Mississippi River, the village of Elsah, Illinois, is sometimes referred to as the “town that time forgot.”
Located about 40 minutes north of St. Louis, Missouri, this tiny hamlet (between Alton and Grafton, IL) is rich in beauty, history, and architecture and is now listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places. A visit here will give you an idea of 19th-century small-town America along the Mississippi River.
We find it by accident. Even though we have been on the Great River Road before, photographing bald eagles on the ice floes, we had not seen the village.
It takes us by surprise. It is rare to find a village preserved in time that has not been turned into a “living museum” with reenactments and “actors” walking around in costumes. Instead, this is a living, breathing village, occupied by some 600 plus residents who call this their home and take great pride in maintaining the buildings and structures in pristine condition.
Even the Great Flood of 1993 has not dampened the enthusiasm. Notwithstanding significant damage to both structures and trees, the residents have rebuilt and replanted. Apart from a small plaque on the old schoolhouse marking the height of the water, there is little evidence of the damage.
James Semple, a local lawyer, politician and US Senator founded the village in 1853. He offered people free lots of land if they would use the stones from his quarry to build their homes. He named the village Elsah, allegedly after Ailsa Craig, the last outcrop of rock seen by emigrants from Scotland. (Ailsa is a word for a fairy in Gaelic).
The village quickly became an important shipping point for goods produced in the area. These were loaded onto barges on the Mississippi River for transportation to markets. With the advent of the railroads, the town faded into the background. Today, its once bustling port and waterfront are under the Great River Road Highway, opened in 1964.
There are effectively two streets in Elsah – LaSalle and Mill — with some small side roads. There are no shops or restaurants, just a small post office. The Stone Houses on LaSalle date to before 1861, the Methodist Church with its whimsical twin bird feeder to 1874; the houses on Mill street are mainly post-1861. In the winter they are decorated, part of an Elsah Houses Tour, that will take you through what becomes a winter wonderland. You might even get to ride in a horse-drawn carriage as you wend your way through the village.
On this trip, we want to be out with the cameras just after sunrise and are looking for a Bed and Breakfast to stay at without having to drive all the way from St. Louis. The Green Tree Inn in Elsah seems just the ticket.
Five delightful ensuite bedrooms with folksy names such as “The Robin’s Nest,” “The Hummingbird Garden,” and “The Nightingale,” are cozy and impeccably decorated. They each have their own entrance, making it easy to come and go without disturbing others.
A common living and dining area near the kitchen is open 24 hours a day so you can get a cup of coffee to go with your cookies or indulge in a midnight feast if you need one.
Our innkeeper, Connie Davis, clearly loves what she does and really goes the extra mile to make sure that our stay is comfortable. Every afternoon a plate of freshly baked cookies appears on the dining table. In the morning, Connie serves a delicious cooked breakfast. On various days, ours include blueberry and pineapple pancakes, baked eggs, freshly baked biscuits, Spanish eggs – YUMMY! Connie even gets up extra early to make sure that we get our breakfast before heading out to photograph the bald eagles.
After serving the food, she sits down for a chat, telling us about the history of the village and the challenges of keeping the character of the village alive as time moves on.
Then it is out into the freezing cold morning to look for bald eagles along the mighty Mississippi River.
We plan on coming back to this delightful place in every season.
IF YOU GO
The Village of Elsah is located 11 miles north of Alton, IL, 4 miles south of Grafton, IL on the Great River Road (IL-100). The closest airport is Lambert-St. Louis International Airport in St Louis, MO.
The Green Tree Inn ( Tel. 618-374-2821).
There are no restaurants in Elsah. The closest ones can be found in Grafton (The Grafton Winery and Brewhaus with its second floor deck overlooking the River; The Aerie’s Winery high on a hill with an outdoor deck and fabulous views of the River).
For more photographs, go to www.allegriaphotos.com; click on Recent Additions, Elsah, Illinois.