Legendary and historic, Alton was founded in 1818 as a bustling river town on the Mississippi on and near the bluffs. The Piasa bird, a Native American bluff painting of a dragon-like creature, became the icon of the community as it grew from village to town. Commercial and industrial growth, fueled by steamboat traffic, made Alton one of the largest communities in Illinois in the early-- 1800s-- far bigger then Chicago. By the 1830's it was the center of national attention when anti-slavery voices awakened. Missouri, directly across the river, was a slave state. The Rev. Elijah Lovejoy, publisher of the Alton Observer, was martyred defending his abolitionist newspaper. The Underground Railroad, secret escape trail for slaves, came directly through the city. So many sought freedom here that scholars call this path the Alton Route. The final and most important Lincoln-Douglas Debate was held in Alton in October 1858. Lincoln had many connections to Alton, one being Senator Lyman Trumbull. Trumbull was author of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery.
The Civil War brought more than 10,000 confederates - all prisoners who were held at the infamous Alton Federal Military Prison. On Rozier Street, families still visit the Confederate Cemetery where 1,354 Southern soldiers lie beneath a towering monument. Alton flourished after the war between the states - steel mills, box manufacturing, shipping and home to the world's largest glass making operation in the world. Beautiful neighborhoods, including Christian Hill and Middletown, sprang up as the city prospered. Many of those Victorian and Federal mansions still stand. In 1918, Alton's most famous son was born: Robert Wadlow. This gentle man became known as "the gentle giant" as he grew to become the world's tallest man. His death in 1940 attracted more than 30,000 mourners and his life-size stature in honor of his towering character and inspiring story. The Alton Museum of History and Art offers terrific exhibits and displays of local cultures and heritage directly across the street from Wadlow's statue.