Take a Walk Through Grafton's Past

The past feels closer here- where once the calliope chimes of steam-powered paddleboats greeted the air- the City of Grafton still stands, a survivor and lodestone of the Great Rivers and Routes region.

Crossing on the Grafton Ferry between Illinois and Missouri, a heavy fog hangs over the immense Mississippi River. During a sunny day you might see the great forested hollows overlooking the Great River Road. White limestone bluffs, carved by the river itself, shine starkly against the feathery green of Midwestern oak and hickory trees, but today is different. Overlooking the enduring Mississippi, you can imagine the industrial bustle, grit, and often lawless nature of Grafton as it was in its earliest days.

Relax on the Mississippi River in Grafton, IL

History Comes to Life

In the 1800’s the river town had developed a devious reputation- a place where one could earn a paycheck, acquire a stiff drink, and perhaps lose an ear at one of the local saloons like The Bloody Bucket. The city had 26 saloons during the Steamboat Era and parades, drinking contests, gambling, and street brawls were common.

Outlaws like Jesse James and his James-Younger Gang purportedly ran amuck in the streets of Grafton, gambling and frequenting the bawdy houses- even allegedly playing cards with the Jersey County Sheriff.

Notable writers from across the country and abroad travelled and were inspired by Grafton- Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Charles Dickens, who visited his friend, local John Russell, editor of the first newspaper in Jersey County.

The hallmark atmosphere of classics like Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” permeate the muddy waters surrounding Grafton. Paddleboats like the Spirit of Peoria and American Queen still meander the great rivers as they have done for nearly 200 years. During the 1800’s, the river towns along the river’s bend formed the largest freshwater port on the Mississippi- an essential artery in the heart of America transporting everything from locally quarried limestone and explosives to textiles, food, and spirits.

Echoes of Grafton’s past can still be felt on a walk through the city. During the day, enjoy one of the city’s adventurous outdoor activities at the Grafton Zipline or Pere Marquette Riding Stables. Go on one of the city’s many guided boat tours. Kayak the rivers or hike the hills of Pere Marquette- the largest State Park in Illinois. Try Grafton’s seasonal activities like bald eagle watching or pick fresh apples and peaches at Eckert’s Farm.

Keep lively company at one of Grafton’s riverfront wineries, taprooms, or restaurants and check out Grafton’s historic downtown buildings- you might even see a ghost. Stay at Pere Marquette Lodge, Aerie’s Resort, the historic Ruebel Hotel, or in one of Grafton’s many unique river houses and experience the authentic American Midwest.

Travel back in time in downtown Grafton with a walking tour. Enjoy the historic sites and architecture throughout Grafton.

Born on the River

A city deposited on the north side of the Mississippi, Grafton, Illinois was founded in 1832 by brothers James and Paris Mason, making it the oldest permanent settlement in Jersey County. James was a prominent grocery businessman from Massachusetts who moved briefly to Edwardsville, Illinois before setting his sights on a ferry business in 1833.

The Mason brothers, along with others, formed the Grafton Manufacturing Co. which specialized in trading and producing goods along the river. The first residents were blue-collar workers- mostly internal migrants from southern and eastern states.

After James Mason’s death in 1834, his brother, Paris, and widow, Sarah, worked diligently platting the town. During the Great Potato Famine of 1845, Grafton saw an influx of Irish and German Catholics who moved to the city for better prospects. At Grafton’s industrial peak in mid-1800, the city boasted more than 10,000 residents. The city grew into a sprawling port complete with factories, distilleries, saloons, shops, churches and a school.

Travel Tip: There are still three ferries operating near Grafton: the Grafton Ferry (seasonal), the Brussels Ferry (year round) and the Golden Eagle Ferry (year round).

The Grove Memorial Park sits in one of Grafton's famous 'hollows'

Into the Hollows

Settlers built into the ‘hollows’: low, wooded indentations carved by time into the cliff-sides leading up from the river. Named after the first settlers and industries in the area, these hollows possess names like Daggett, Mason, Distillery, Jersey, and Baby. Streets in Grafton still possess several of these names.

Take a ride on the Grafton Skytour up Distillery Hollow to Aerie’s Winery located above The Grove Memorial Park- fittingly serving wine and spirits in the same part of the city that once held moonshine stills and breweries.

Limestone quarries in the bluffs surrounding Grafton were a major industry in the city's early days.

Built on Stone

As the population boomed, production in the area soared. At one time, Grafton had five operating limestone quarries.

When southwestern Illinois was under a Paleozoic sea, the remains of crustacean sea creatures dissolved in water to form a limestone layer across most of the region. As a result, areas where the Mississippi River carved into those deposits became perfect for quarrying magnesia limestone- some of the purest limestone in the United States.

Grafton limestone was used to build the Jersey County Court House, First Presbyterian Church of Jerseyville, and the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, as well as many still-standing buildings in Grafton, including the Masonic Lodge, Grafton’s first bank; the Godfrey Building, and the Wharf that fronts the Mississippi.

One of the old quarries was in the same hollow that now is home to Raging Rivers Water Park.

The Masonic Lodge

The Masonic Lodge, located on the corner of Cherry and E. Main St., was built in 1869.

It is currently occupied and functioning under the Grafton Full Moon Masonic Lodge #341. All of the fixtures in the building were hand-hammered at a forge on site.

The Godfrey Building

The Godfrey Building, built by Jacob Godfrey in the 1840’s, sits across the corner from Oak and E. Main St. Godfrey was a tailor and partnered with Henry Eastman to build three general stores in the community.

The Godfrey Building was used as a general store but also served as the town’s Post Office for a time.

The historic Grafton Bank building is now home to River Bank Gifts in downtown Grafton.

Grafton's Bank

Grafton’s Bank, currently River Bank Gifts at 225 E. Main St, was built in 1871.

The Bank served as the first bank in Grafton, as a drug store, and Grafton’s Post Office until the 1960’s. The old vault door to the bank can still be viewed at the Grafton Visitor Center.

The historic Ruebel Hotel remains standing and is a popular lodging spot for visitors to Grafton.

The Ruebel Hotel

In 1884 the Ruebel Hotel was built overlooking the river by Bavarian-born Michael Ruebel and was the largest hotel in Jersey County at the time. You can still lodge in one of the Ruebel’s 32 rooms today.

The burled walnut bar in the hotel- shown at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair- was saved multiple times from floods- carried by concerned residents to safety. The Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1912 and the current structure was built to replace it. The walnut bar still survives.

The Ruebel Hotel is reportedly a haunted location.

The Methodist Church

The Methodist Church of Grafton rests on a hill near the corner of Vine and E. Main St. English and German settlers held services in a warehouse building and at a frame church in Baby Hollow until the brick building was built in 1857.

Before St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was built, the Methodist Church was also used for Roman Catholic services. Irish settlers fleeing tyranny and the Great Potato Famine to work in the Grafton quarries used the church for mass until 1871.

The Wharf and Grafton Lighthouse Park

Originally built of earthwork and wood and later in local stone, the wharf fronting Grafton is now home to Grafton Harbor.

The Grafton Lighthouse and Turtle Sculpture are located on the wharf, and it also serves as a boat launch and landing for the Grafton Ferry.

The Grafton Lighthouse, commemorated in 2007, represents Grafton’s survival after the flood of 1993. The Turtle Sculpture, nicknamed ‘Snapper’, was built in 2020. Along with a frog and catfish, the sculpture celebrates the river and its wild inhabitants.

Lighthouse Park flies the largest American Flag on the river which can easily be seen from the Great River Road.

The Grove Memorial Park

Nestled between North Market and Sycamore Street in Grafton is The Grove Memorial Park, established after the 1993 Great Flood.

Two of Grafton’s Hollows lead up from the park: Distillery, which is home to Aerie’s Winery, and Jersey, which leads to the county seat in Jerseyville. Dr. Gideon Dempsey’s home, garage, and dental office once occupied the area, along with a grove of pecan trees. After all buildings and the grove were destroyed by the 1993 Great Flood, the city built The Grove Memorial Park. It now is a landing for the Grafton Skytour.

Ice Houses

Ice Houses like the one behind the Hilltop guest house at 202 W. Main St. were part of the landscape of Grafton.

They were used to house ice blocks hand-cut from the Mississippi River. The ice was insulated with sawdust. Twenty-inch squares from the unpolluted river were cut and hauled to these buildings for summer use: the price of delivering 100 lbs. of ice at the time was only 50 cents.

Grafton's Schools

The first school in Grafton, a one-room log cabin, was built near the corner of Mulberry and West Main. Mr. Brock, the first schoolmaster taught grades one through eight. The school was rebuilt three times- in 1838, 1858, and 1874 after a devastating fire.

In 1967 the rebuilt building was razed to build yet another school on the site. That building was heavily impacted by the flood of 1993 and finally the school was relocated to Grafton Hills Drive above the flood plain. The stones used to build the wall in front of The Grafton Winery & Brewhaus are from the 1858 stone school.

St. Patrick's Catholic Church

St. Patrick’s Church, located at 11 N. Evans St, was built of local stone on the site where Father Pere Marquette held his first mass in 1673- nearly 200 years prior.

Before its opening, mass had been held in the Methodist Church, in a room over a general store, a quarry hall, and multiple private residences. The Irish and German workers in Grafton celebrated their first mass on December, 8th, 1871 with Father Bourke.

In it's early years, Grafton was a shipbuilding hub.

A Base for Shipwrights

Grafton became a hub for shipbuilding.

The Rippley Boat Co., Fleak Ship Co., and the 1928 Grafton Boat Works, currently The Loading Dock Bar and Restaurant, built barges, steam towboats, ferries, lifeboats, and the “Freiman Skiff”- renowned across the country.

The original buildings housing the Rippley Boat Co. and Fleak Ship Co. no longer stand but were located on the wharf near The Loading Dock.

Much of Grafton's history has been washed away over the years from river flooding. The city is located at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

The River Reclaims

Much of Grafton’s history has been washed away by the mighty river. Large floods in 1844, 1973, and 1993 destroyed much of Grafton’s downtown. 1993’s flood severely crippled Grafton’s population, destroying 22 historic and residential properties. Many residents fled and never returned- a population of 10,000 has reduced today to less than 700.

Grafton is well known for enduring these natural disasters and, though it has been a long and difficult road, the city’s inhabitants are determined to preserve their riverside home.

After each consecutive flood, residents have rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt- as the river rises and falls, the town does so alongside it.
Mark Twain once said of the Mississippi, “Ten thousand river commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream”

The City of Grafton is a testament to that truth- a historic river-town whose legacy perseveres at the confluence of the Great Rivers.

About the Author

Kayla Howland

Kayla Howland is a local writer and artist who lives in Alton, IL with her Cairn Terrier, Ripley. She enjoys fiction and non-fiction writing, graphic design, painting, drawing and photography. Kayla is a graduate of Southwestern High School and Lewis & Clark Community College. She has worked doing freelance graphic design, photography and commissioned paintings since 2012.