You may not know much more about Pere Marquette State Park than the spectacular colors of the trees in the fall and the eagles that migrate here in the winter.
Those are the Jersey County park’s two biggest draws, says Scott Isringhausen, the urban fishing coordinator for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He works out of the park and leads eagle watching tours there during the winter.
During the summer, the fields and roadsides burst with colorful wildflowers, and in the spring, less-obvious mushrooms poke out of the ground to lure mushroom hunters.
“There’s really something all year-round,” he says.
Pere Marquette became a state park in 1932 after locals raised the money to buy the land and the state matched it. Workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps built its lodge, campsites and roads. At more than 8,000 acres, it is the largest state park in Illinois. There’s RV camping here, horseback riding, rustic campsites with cabins and lodges as well as the spectacular 1930s-era lodge with a restaurant and guest rooms. Its nearby bluffs are home to the legend of the Piasa bird, which supposedly ate up men and canoes.
It’s also the place to see more than 460 species of plants, 234 species of birds and about 100 reptile, amphibian and mammal species.
“I only saw two Piasa birds,” Isringhausen joked.
He took us on a tour of some of the hidden and not-so-hidden highlights of the park.
Slow down along Highway 100 on the east end of the park and look up. There, you’ll see a cross that’s more than 7 feet tall and made from a solid piece of dolomite stone. Two flights of steps, also made of dolomite, lead to the cross. The cross was dedicated here on Sept. 1, 1929, to commemorate the likely spot where the Rev. Jacques Marquette, mapmaker Louis Jolliet and five crewmen landed in August 1673. They were the first Europeans in Illinois and came here on a mission to find a way down the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
Nearby, they spotted two pointed monsters on the cliffs “which had first made us afraid and upon which the boldest savages dare not rest their eyes,” Marquette wrote in his journal.
About 20 miles south of the spot in Alton, a re-creation of a piasa bird painting keeps watch from a bluff.
The cross isn’t the only tribute to Marquette: a statue of Marquette stands in front of the stone lodge at the park. He’s memorialized in the names of many towns and places touched by his explorations, including Marquette University in Milwaukee, and a beach, state park and river in Michigan.
If hiking and camping aren’t your thing, you can lounge or play a game on a giant chess set in front of the magnificent 700-ton stone fireplace at the stone lodge, another product of the CCC. The lodge opened in 1941 and includes a 50-foot vaulted ceiling supported by large fir and cypress poles. CCC workers also made the metal door handles, locks and massive chandeliers. A painting of Pere Marquette and other explorers in his boat decorates a recess above the opening of the fireplace. The lodge includes an indoor swimming pool, restaurant and hotel-style rooms, as well as separate cabins across from the lodge. The lodge and restaurant host events such as a wine club, a mystery dinner theater and food festivals. (pmlodge.net/category/events)
Why do the Mississippi and Illinois rivers generally flow east at this point? That’s because the earth pressed together and folded here more than 200 million years ago, and you can see evidence of this in the jutting rocks along the Goat Cliff trail just north of the visitors center.
The feature has been called the Lincoln Fold and the Cap au Gres Faulted Flexure, which stretches about 60 miles from eastern Missouri to Grafton. It’s easier to see the jutting, angled rocks during winter, but you can spot them any time along the trail.
Look for a round, metal U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey marker embedded in the rock face at the trail. Water seeps from the bedrock at the base of the cliff in a spot known as Twin Springs.
A log cabin at one end of a visitor parking lot dating from the late 1800s was used as a corn crib for decades until the 1940s, when it became a nature center for park visitors. The Rev. George M. Link was the park’s first naturalist, and he tended to more than 1,000 volumes of books as well as natural history artifacts and records of birds and wildflowers, according to a guide to the park written by Richard C. Keating.
The cabin was eventually used as a park office and closed to the public in 1997, when a new stone visitors center opened.
Now, it’s used for storage, and a state conservation officer has an office here. In recent years the park built a pond in front of the cabin, which is fed by a nearby spring.
People lived in the area as early as 12,000 years ago, alongside mastodons and giant sloths. Those who lived here during the Middle Woodland period, about 4,000 years ago, built thousands of burial mounds, including dozens within the park boundaries. Isringhausen calls the park a sister city or suburb of the mound city of Cahokia, about 45 miles southeast of the park.
Some Pere Marquette mounds are more obvious: Twin Mounds and nearby McAdams Peak have Civilian Conservation Corps lookout shelters built on top of them. Other mounds are less obvious, and the park doesn’t advertise their locations. “If you see a mound that looks like it’s out of place, it probably is,” says Isringhausen.
McAdams Peak stands 372 feet above the Illinois River and offers sweeping views of the valley and Calhoun County across the river. On clear days you can see St. Louis and the Gateway Arch. The peak is named for William McAdams, a 19th century archaeologist who removed 100 American Indian skeletons from the peak and gave them to the Smithsonian.
His son, John, was the publisher of the Alton Telegraph and worked with the state to establish Pere Marquette as a park.
During the Cold War, the United States worried about attacks from Soviet Russia, so they built about 300 bases across the country that could launch missiles. It was called Project Nike, named after the Greek goddess of victory.
Several sites were built in the area, including in Pacific, Marine, Ill., Belleville and within the boundaries of Pere Marquette State Park.
In a 1959 editorial, the Post-Dispatch objected to its construction: “The Nike areas will soon be surrounded by seven-foot barbed-wire fencing to shut them away from park visitors. The forbidden areas will be out of keeping with the recreational purposes of Pere Marquette which invite people to wander where the spirit leads them.”
The sites were deactivated by the 1970s, and nature has mostly reclaimed the 26-acre site at Pere Marquette. All that’s visible to the public are a few concrete slab foundations of the barracks and guard shack, all behind chain-link fencing.
Drive north on Highway 100 between the RV campground and park entrance and you’ll pass a charming white carpenter Gothic-style church with a stone foundation. It was built in 1876, next to a pre-existing graveyard. It’s the Hartford Methodist Church, which had a congregation that first started meeting in the 1850s, according to the guide by Keating. The building and the graveyard are now surrounded by the park. The church was used for weddings until a few years ago.