With Day 8 dwindling, the end of my trip was also quickly coming to a close. I was back in the St. Louis area, after driving all the way to New Mexico. Just 36 hours earlier, I was in Colorado. I was tired, my hotel reservation was waiting, and I had to catch a very early flight in the morning, taking me home.
But none of that seemed to matter, as I pondered what to do with the final few hours of my vacation. As I sat in the parking lot of the Sonic, off I-70 in O’Fallon, I searched the map for options. Should I drive back down into St. Louis for another look at the arch? Or, drive up to Hannibal, Missouri for an overdose of Mark Twain nostalgia? None of it sounded very exciting. Then, I remembered something I had read in one of my favorite travel books, Road Trip USA. Calhoun County, Illinois, was supposed to be a real treat. To my surprise, I was just a few miles from one of the ferries that connected the Kingdom of Calhoun with the outside world.
Calhoun County is just a few minutes away from the sprawl of St. Louis, but it’s a different world altogether. The county is a peninsula, surrounded on the west and south sides by the Mississippi River, and on the east by the Illinois River. Only about 17 miles of land attaches it to the rest of the state of Illinois, and just one bridge connects it to the outside world (crossing the Illinois River on the northeastern side of the county). The easiest way in and out, is by ferry. All those geographical challenges may seem like disadvantages, but instead, they have helped preserve Calhoun County as a living example of times past.
Riding a ferry across the Mississippi River might end up being your favorite part of the trip. It’s a strange sensation: you drive onto the flat deck of the ferry boat and turn off your car, then start to drift across the river. The boat rocks, and so does your car. Mississippi River water splashes up onto your windshield. For a moment, you have a view of the country’s mightiest river, that you can’t get from any bridge.
The Golden Eagle Ferry is one of two pay ferries that serve Calhoun County. The Golden Eagle connects O’Fallon, Missouri with the southern tip of Calhoun County, while the Winfield Ferry crosses the Mississippi near Winfield, Missouri. Two other ferries are operated by the Illinois Department of Transportation, and are free. Those ferries both cross the Illinois River, serving Kampsville (northeast Calhoun County) and the southeastern tip of the peninsula. The state-run ferries operate 24 hours a day, while the pay ferries have varying hours (see this website for the schedule).
Once you reach the Illinois side of the ferry route, you drive off the boat and immediately, the road goes uphill. I had no idea where I was going, so I simply picked roads that “felt right”. All of the county’s two-lane (but no center line) paved roads seem to wind aimlessly through the hills of Calhoun County, passing by rolling farmland, weathered barns, and ancient farmhouses. At the southern end of the county, you will see some newly-built homes, but those quickly disappear as you explore.
Calhoun County has four small towns. The first one I came upon is Brussels, a town settled by German immigrants in 1822.
St. Mary’s Church was built in 1863, more than a decade before Brussels’ town boundaries were established. You’ll find it on Main Street…
… right across from the friendly Red & White grocery store.
The further you drive, the more great old buildings you’ll see.
Most of the roads have no name signs or directional arrows. You’ll have to rely on your inner compass, and the occasional sign pointing to the next ferry stop.
After passing the turnoff for the Winfield Ferry, I ended up in downtown Batchtown, Illinois, where an absolutely pointless flashing red light keeps traffic under control. After Batchtown, I headed east, then north, once again trusting that my sense of direction would eventually lead me to the county’s only bridge.
Hardin: Joe Page Bridge
The Joe Page Bridge holds two distinctions: it is the longest bridge in Illinois (1,728 feet long), and its center span is the longest vertical lift span in the world (308 feet, 9 inches long). The bridge crosses the Illinois River, connecting Calhoun and Greene Counties. It also carries the Great River Road.
The town of Hardin has a few small businesses, but don’t expect a shopping mall or Olive Garden. Hardin is charming and tiny, just like all the other Calhoun County towns.
The sky had been grey all day, but as the day ended, it was starting to get even darker. I said goodbye to the Kingdom of Calhoun, and headed down the Great River Road, towards St. Louis.
Note: This trip was first published in 2008.