Small Towns Across Illinois (Roadtrip Day 03)

For most of the journey from Salem, Illinois, to St. Louis, this was the view out the window:


Literally, endless, endless fields. Most of the towns we passed through were little more than a  collection of houses, a commercial business or two, and then more fields.


As we came to Carlyle, Illinois (known for its man-made lake, the largest in Illinois), I noticed this odd suspension bridge about 100 feet from the highway, spanning the Kaskaskia River. Despite its immense design, it was strangely only about four feet wide, and didn’t seem to lead anywhere in particular.


As it turns out, it is known as the General Dean Suspension Bridge, and from 1861 to 1920, was the primary means of crossing the river. Countless travelers crossed it by foot, horseback, covered wagon, and finally, by car over six decades. Finally, it was replaced by a more modern bridge along the US-50 path, and was abandoned. Having fallen into disrepair, it was saved in 1951 when it was converted to a pedestrian bridge.


Downstream, a group of teenagers were shooting at fish with some serious-looking crossbows (not something I regularly encounter on the East River).


Though most of the towns we passed through in Illinois were very small and nearly deserted, there were still a lot of interesting details to find.


A beautiful bank in downtown Carlyle:


I especially like the neon sign – with clock!


Another great neon sign – this one in Breese, Illinois (one town west of Carlyle):


One thing I love about older signs is how humble they often are. For example, the Trenton House Restaurant: Good Food. Great? Excellent? No, but it is good.


Another great sign for a place that appears to be out of business in Trenton:


A very patriotic building:


At one of US-50’s 90-degree turns, we came across what has to be the prettiest small town along the route through Illinois: a little town called Lebanon (apparently pronounced by residents as Leba-nun).


Madison Street, the main drag just a block from US-50, is bricked (note the marks from a rail line which used to pass through town) and lined with beautiful historic buildings and globed streetlights.


Lebanon might not be the number one small-town tourist destination in the state (it was basically deserted as we walked through, with every store closed), but you’d never know it from the condition of the buildings.


A corner restaurant:


My favorite shop in Lebanon was this magic parlor…


Looking through the window, it’s exactly the sort of intimate magic shop directors often ask us to scout for (and NYC has none of, sadly). I mean, they’ve got a coffee can full of magic wands!


Great window display:


Worn hard-wood floors are a requirement for any good magic shop:


We didn’t see it, but Lebanon is also home to the historic Mermaid House Hotel, built in 1830 by Captain Lyman Adams and named for the mythical creatures he claimed to have seen at sea. Charles Dickens stayed at the Mermaid House Hotel in 1842, and later wrote in his book American Notes: “We lay at the little inn at which we had halted in the afternoon. In point of cleanliness and comfort it would have suffered by no comparison with any English alehouse, of a homely kind, in England.”

Shortly after Lebanon, US-50 merges with Interstate-64 for the rest of the trip into St. Louis…but not before we saw this beautiful pond covered in yellow flowers and lily pads:


And then we saw it in the distance: the arch!


St. Louis next!


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  1. My sister used to live in Belleville and we traveled there many times from SC. You can imagine that we got TIRED of the interstate route so we used to “take the back roads” as my kids called it. Some really good memories there. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hey Scout, you’re in my neck of the woods. If you get a chance go to Grant’s Farm run by Anheiser (not sure if it was sold to the foreign interests with the beer company). It used to be free, and it’s been a great tourist destination since I was little (EONS ago). The zoo is one of the best in the country, and the last time I checked, free as well. The Arch will cost you, and it might be crowded, so if you’re claustrophic, prepare for tight quarters at the top of the arch. The view is awesome though.

    When you come back you should swing south of St. Louis down to Chester, IL. Chester is home of Popeye, and there is Fort Kaskaskia and Mary’s Covered Bridge the only one of its kind left in Southern IL. The setting is beautiful, and makes for a great picnic spot. My siblings and I spent many an afternoon picnic there with our grandmother who always brought Oreos for our dessert.

    Here’s the tourism link if you’ve not planned to far ahead.

  3. Scout – I love that you appreciated the neon signs in Carlyle, Breese and Trenton. That is my family’s stomping grounds. My grandma lived across the street from the Trenton House until about 10 years ago (needless to say, many a family meal was shared there), then she moved to Carlyle, where I took her to the 1st National Bank to do her banking. Also, my family had our reunion in the Knotty Pine’s banquet room last summer! Great stuff!

    Hope you enjoyed your trip through St. Louis….safe travels!


  4. Hey Scout, when in St. Louis be sure to hit Ted Drewes on the old Rt. 66 in South St. Louis for frozen custard (oh, and Gus’s Pretzels, spittin’ distance from the A-B brewery).

  5. Awesome post! Would love to be on the trip. It must really, really be a buzz to see the arch after all that flatland!

  6. Just wanted to say how thoroughly I’m enjoying your road trip posts. I love your blog in general, but this trip is making me itch something fierce for an airstream trailer and a few weeks free. This brooklyn girl is jealous… Keep it coming!

  7. Scout, When my wife and I did our road trip from Calgary to Jacksonville Beach FL we stopped in St. Louis for an oil change and car check. We had a great day around the arch. Hope you do too. Love the posts, keep it up.

  8. I’m jealous…. Keep up the good work. When you get to St. Louis, see if the LaClede’s Landing area still have good photo worthy buildings. It’s a small area which wasn’t razed when they built the arch, and houses some of St. Louis’s nightlife….

  9. I grew up in Lebanon & spent a lot of time at Carlisle Lake. It looks like you stopped by Lebanon on the second Sunday of a July. Friday and Saturday of that weekend, they hold a big blow out called the Firemen’s Picnic. It is to raise money for the volunteer fire department. Parades, beer wagon, bands, poker tables, food, rides, etc.

  10. Argh! So close! If you took Highway 161 from Centralia to Interstate 64 you could have seen a little more magic.

  11. I went to High School in Breese, IL, and worked in Trenton…I remember eating at Trenton House soooooooo many times! And my little sister lives in Lebanon! So cool to see it on here!

  12. This joker will not be obtaining yet another 4 decades, I believe.

  13. I’m jealous…. Keep up the good work. When you get to St. Louis, see if the LaClede’s Landing area still have good photo worthy buildings. It’s a small area which wasn’t razed when they built the arch, and houses some of St. Louis’s nightlife….

  14. My best friend lives in Lebanon, I’ve been there too!!! 🙂 It’s such an adorable town I was so excited to see your post about it!!!