With the loss of factory jobs has come a sharp decline in population. The 2000 census reported 31,000 people living in Alton, a nearly 40 percent decline from the 50,000 who inhabited the city in the 1960s.

Today, Alton is perhaps best known for Fast Eddie's Bon-Air, a sprawling roadhouse that lures day-trippers from St. Louis and beyond with its 99-cent hamburgers and 29-cent shrimp.

Trivia buffs may also recognize Alton as the hometown of Robert Wadlow, whose overactive pituitary gland made him the tallest man ever to walk the earth. When he died in 1940, the 22-year-old Wadlow stood a stupefying 8 feet 11 inches tall. He weighed 439 pounds and wore size 37 shoes.

A statue of Alton native Robert Wadlow, world's tallest man.
Jennifer Silverberg
A statue of Alton native Robert Wadlow, world's tallest man.
Miles Davis' birth home.
Jennifer Silverberg
Miles Davis' birth home.


RFT Photos

Slide Show

Alton is also known as the venue for the seventh and final debate on October 15, 1858, between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. It was here, too, that an angry pro-slavery mob in 1837 shot and killed abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy. Nearly a century later, Alton would give birth to James Earl Ray, the assassin of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The impoverished Ray grew up in a ramshackle home on Alton's Ninth Street and began his life of crime soon after dropping out of school at the age of fifteen. In 1967, Ray escaped from a Missouri prison, and while on the lam many people believe he returned to his hometown to rob the Bank of Alton.

The unknown robbers got away with $27,000, and the day after the heist — July 14, 1967 — Ray journeyed to East St. Louis where he paid cash for a used Plymouth. Nine months later, in April 1968, Ray resurfaced as the chief suspect in King's murder in Memphis.

"I was working as an Alton police detective on the day J. Edgar Hoover fingered him as the killer," recalls Mayor Sandidge. "Our telephone lines just lit up. We had people calling from all over the world wanting to know more about Ray and his ties to Alton."

While Ray remains Alton's most infamous outlaw, the city's ties to crime can be traced almost as far back as the city's founding. In 1833 Illinois opened its first state prison on the riverbank in Alton. The limestone structure was later used to house Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Thousands of rebel soldiers would die in the notoriously unsanitary prison, mostly as a result of smallpox.

In the 1920s Alton took on a reputation as a haven for the infamous Birger and Shelton Brothers gangs. The outfits worked together managing slot machines and running bootlegged liquor in southern Illinois before launching a violent war against each other.

In 1928 ringleader Charlie Birger was the last person to be publicly hanged in Illinois when he went to the gallows for ordering a mob hit. The Shelton Brothers posse, once described by the Saturday Evening Post as "America's Bloodiest Gang," disbanded around the same time key members of its organization went to prison for robbery.

Later, in the 1970s and '80s, Alton became a dumping ground for government snitches in the witness protection program. "They used to put them up at the old Ramada Inn while they searched for permanent housing," recalls Sandidge. "And you know, half those government witnesses are former criminals themselves. One time back in the early 1980s, three of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted were either discovered in Alton or last seen here. You got to wonder: What's the attraction?"

Ghost Town
While riding shotgun in Don Huber's rusty 1993 Buick station wagon, it's easy to get a sense of Alton's rich and animated past. Huber holds elected office as Alton's township supervisor, but the crusty raconteur is perhaps better known as the city's chief historian and organizer of the annual Halloween-night parade. The festival is said to be the oldest Halloween celebration in the country.

"The German heritage societies started it back in 1916 as an attempt to keep kids from tearing shit up on Halloween night. You know, tipping over outhouses and stuff like that," Huber says, as he steers his 1993 Buick along part of the parade's two-mile route. "Now it's probably the biggest event in town. This year we had 90 different entries."

Farther along the riverfront, Huber points to a vacant patch of land that once housed the Illinois Glass Works. "It employed 3,400 people when it closed in 1984," says Huber, who calls the plant's closing "the beginning of the end" for Alton industry. "Every family in town had someone who worked for the glass factory. It used to be that you couldn't even buy a can of beer in this town. Everything was in a bottle, and if you dared to show up to a party with a six-pack of canned beer, they'd make you pour it out."

It's not that Alton has always been economically depressed. High up on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River lies the Fairmount neighborhood, a gated community dating to the early 1900s, back when Alton was said to have more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation. It's in sprawling Fairmount that Alton's factory owners and industry titans built their estates.

Pulling up in front of the largest property in Fairmount, Huber stops his car to relay how the 13,000-square-foot mansion was once the playground of the late John Olin, whose ammunition company continues to employ generations of Altonites. These days the Olin estate is home to alleged huckster J. Lloyd "Coach" Tomer, whose YTB International, Inc. Internet travel company has been called a "gigantic pyramid scheme" by the California attorney general.

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