Shortly after my return from the Cape I made the trip back to St. Louis to visit Arch. On the itinerary was a return to the Piasa Caves in Alton, I. It would be our second trip, the first being woefully ill-equipped (we forgot flashlights and were unable to penetrate beyond the point of daylight, I fell in a swamp, managed to kick myself in the chest, etc).
For those unfamiliar with the story of the Piasa, it was essentially a Native American dragon/griffin/chimera-type creature that lived in a cave overlooking the Mississippi, and would occasionally leave its den in search of human prey. It was ultimately defeated, and a large petroglyph was painted on the cliff face to commemorate the event. It was noted by early explorers, and the Indians would routinely take potshots at the painting after trading for firearms, which no doubt had an adverse affect on the image quality.
The entire rock face was eventually removed by strip miners and an anglicized version of the Piasa, looking more like a European-style monster, was painted in its stead. The Piasa has since been refurbished time and time again, no doubt moving further away from its original appearance.
While there were once naturally-occuring caves in the cliff face, they were expanded and all but destroyed by mining operations some time ago, resulting in something like an odd cross between a solution cave and a quarry.
The Piasa’s bone cave (the secret lair in which its victims met their fate) is rumored to still exist here, but I was unable to locate it, and honestly wasn’t expecting to. Something else I was unable to locate – which I’m relatively certain does exist – are unusual natural stairway formations that are supposed to be located near the Piasa Caves. They’re said to resemble cut stairs, but start and stop at random locations, leading nowhere.
The area around the caves had changed considerably in recent years. When we first visited we found only an overgrown gravel parking lot to greet us, with no attempt made to bar entry to the caves. However, the caves have since become a full-fledged city park, complete with bathroom facilities and interpretive displays outlining the legend of the Piasa.
The main entrance has also been fenced off, though large gaps on either side still allow easy entry. The city of Alton most likely recognized the fact that people were going to get in one way or another, and chose not to make a serious attempt at gating the caves. Additional, natural entrances further back were left completely open, and another quarry nearby was also open, but we found it flooded and uninviting.
The actual interior was not unlike other quarries I’ve visited, and sadly did not extend far beyond the reach of daylight. While the caves are an interesting place to visit, the idea of the Piasa Caves and the stories associated with them are far more interesting than the caves themselves.
Before returning home to St. Charles we made it a point to locate Robert Wadlow, Alton’s most famous resident (and world’s tallest man), so that we could get our pictures taken with him.
Special thanks to my super-secret informant, who was kind enough to provide me with additional materials relating to the status of the Ozark Greenways burnt bridge, including an invaluable image of the bridge prior to its destruction and an in-progress image of its reconstruction. The new bridge will have a concrete deck and is designed to be thoroughly fireproof.
My partner in crime, Zen Master, confirmed this courtesy of a recent bike trip on the Greenway, and informs me that construction of the new bridge is nearly complete. I look forward to seeing the results when I return home from the Canyon. For now here's some concept art of the finished bridge, which you may have seen featured in your local papers:
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