State of Wonder

7 Sites To See This Summer
by Jonathan Wright
Photography courtesy of Illinois Office of Tourism, Bahá’í Int'l Community & Alton Regional CVB

In 2007, the Illinois Office of Tourism sponsored a statewide contest to designate the Seven Wonders of Illinois. The state was divided into seven regions, with a winner for each determined by visitors to enjoyillinois.com, the tourism board’s official website.

The eclectic mix of winning wonders may surprise you. Here in the land of Honest Abe, not a single Lincoln-related site appears. While his Springfield tomb and presidential library and museum were finalists in the Central region, both finished behind the lesser-known Allerton Park and its runner-up, the Cozy Dog Drive-In, self-proclaimed birthplace of the corn dog. “Abraham Lincoln apparently doesn’t attract votes like he used to,” joked an Associated Press article upon the unveiling of the winners.

For the purposes of the contest, the Peoria area fell into the Western region, where the Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island bested our own Wildlife Prairie State Park, which claimed second place.

One can spar over the relative merits of the winners—What about the “World’s Largest Catsup Bottle” in Collinsville?—and never come to consensus, but one thing is clear. There is no shortage of beauty and wonder across the Prairie State. Here is a roundup of the winners—five nature sites, a much beloved ballpark and an architecturally lavish temple—the Seven Wonders of Illinois. What would be on your list?

1. Chicago’s Friendly Confines
Wrigley Field, Chicago   
DISTANCE FROM PEORIA: 172 miles

The second-oldest major league ballpark, Wrigley Field was constructed in 1914 (in just six weeks!) at a cost of $250,000. Weeghman Park, as it was first known, was built for the Chicago Whales, a short-lived Federal League team owned by “Lucky Charlie” Weeghman.

After two years, the Whales folded, and the Cubbies took over. It was known as Cubs Park for six years before being renamed after the new owner, chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr., in 1926. From 1921 to 1970, Wrigley Field was also the home of the Chicago Bears, who had relocated from Decatur, and the stadium held the record for the most NFL games played in a single location until 2003.

The signature red marquee at the corner of Clark and Addison that reads “Wrigley Field, Home of Chicago Cubs,” was installed in 1934. The ivy that famously blankets the brick outfield walls was planted three years later as part of a beautification plan. The familiar scoreboard was also constructed in 1937, and, but for a few modern touches, looks just as it did then. Along with Boston’s Fenway Park (the oldest in the majors), it is the only stadium that maintains a manually-operated scoreboard. There were no lights at Wrigley—and thus, no night games—until 1988.

Despite some minor changes, tradition remains at the heart of the 96-year-old ballpark’s charm. Unlike many sports venues, it has not succumbed to the selling of corporate naming rights. New owner Tom Ricketts, who purchased the club from the Tribune Company last year, has committed to preserving the ballpark’s character and maintains that a naming-rights deal is not being considered.

So buy some peanuts and cracker jacks and cheer on the Cubbies, or set up a guided tour of Wrigley Field by calling (773) 404-CUBS. Better yet, fulfill a fantasy and play on the hallowed diamond itself, as groups can now host exclusive events on non-game days. But it’ll cost you—on-field packages start at $50,000. Call (773) 404-4748 for more information. cubs.mlb.com

RUNNER-UP: Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Tour a World War II-era submarine and more than 800 exhibits at the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere.

2. Quiet Contemplation in Chicagoland
Baha’i House of Worship, Wilmette
DISTANCE FROM PEORIA: 181 miles

Nine miles north of the Friendly Confines in the bedroom community of Wilmette stands a striking marvel of architecture—“an ethereal edifice that seems not of this earth,” says Frommer’s, the popular travel guide.

One of just seven Baha’i temples in the world—and the only one in North America—the massive, white concrete dome stretches 20 stories upward to the heavens. Designed by French-Canadian Louis Bourgeois in 1920, the architect did not live to see its completion in 1953. Construction lasted decades because the Baha’i would not accept money from those who weren’t of the faith, and the Great Depression and World War II also caused delays.

The building is unusual in that it is a nonagon—a nine-sided circular shape—an essential characteristic of a Baha’i House of Worship as stipulated by Abdu’l-Bahá, founder of the faith. Its peaceful serenity is intended to reflect the spiritual tenets of the Baha’i—“the oneness of God, the oneness of humanity and the oneness of religion.”

On its exterior, the dome’s ornamental latticework is intertwined with symbols of the world’s great religions and Baha’i verses. Inside the sanctuary, the only decorative symbol consists of the “Greatest Name,” Arabic letters that represent the prayer “Alláh u Abhá” (“God is most glorious”), at the center of the inside of the dome.

Surrounded by rolling hills, fountains and well-kept gardens, the Bahá’í House of Worship is open to people of all faiths for quiet contemplation and appreciation of beauty. Below the auditorium, there is a visitor’s center and bookstore, and guided tours are offered daily. The temple is open every day of the year from 6am to 10pm; the visitor center is open 10am to 5pm.  www.bahai.us/bahai-temple

RUNNER-UP: Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio, Oak Park. The legendary architect developed his Prairie style at this residence, where he lived for two decades.

3. Geologic Beauty in Northern Illinois
Starved Rock State Park, Utica

DISTANCE FROM PEORIA: 78 miles

Located near I-80 and I-39, Starved Rock State Park is one of the most beautiful sites in the Midwest, well known for its 18 distinct sandstone canyons and 15 miles of trails featuring a variety of plants and wildlife. A major tourist attraction, the park recorded over two million visitors last year, and in 2011, it will celebrate its 100th anniversary of becoming the first recreational park in the state. The number-one activity? Hiking, of course!

Starved Rock is one of the most significant places connected with early Native American life in Illinois—more than 5,000 years of human activities are etched into its geology. According to legend, a band of Illiniwek, seeking refuge from attack, were surrounded atop one of these sandstone bluffs and starved to death, giving rise to the name.

Open year-round, each season highlights unique aspects of the park. Its cool canyons and lush foliage offer a refreshing escape from the summer heat, and the park is an “ever-changing paintbox of color” in the fall. Enjoy cross-country skiing and ice climbing in the winter, or visit the park in January for Eagle Watch Weekend. In the spring, the waterfalls come back to life and the wildflowers begin to blossom. Whenever you choose to come, don’t forget your camera!

The historic Starved Rock Lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, is a grand structure of rustic charm, and the park’s state-of-the-art visitors’ center is filled with interactive exhibits and offers guided tours and other programs throughout the year.

Relax and make a weekend out of it—journey up the Illinois River at a leisurely pace of seven miles per hour on the Spirit of Peoria paddle wheeler. Regular two- and three-day excursions are offered from June through October. starvedrockstatepark.org

RUNNER-UP: Illinois Railway Museum, Union. The largest railroad museum in the U.S. features more than 250 railcars and locomotives.

4. A Central Illinois Fairy Tale
Allerton Park and Retreat Center, Monticello

DISTANCE FROM PEORIA: 87 miles

“This may be the single most beautiful place in central Illinois,” exclaims one reviewer on yelp.com. “The real-life setting of a fairy tale,” gushes another. This whimsical setting is easily imagined as a set location for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Just 25 miles from the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, Allerton Park and Retreat Center is truly one of a kind.

Fifteen hundred acres of woodland and prairie meadow surround the English-inspired mansion that was once the home of philanthropist and art collector Robert Henry Allerton. Allerton oversaw his family’s extensive collection of farmland, but his true passion was for art, specifically, the art that he believed was intrinsic to nature itself. Using the landscape as his canvas, he spent nearly half a century sculpting the property and creating the formal gardens which house more than 100 outdoor sculptures he acquired during his world travels.

Allerton gifted his breathtaking estate to the University of Illinois in 1946 for use as “an educational and research center, as a forest and wildlife and plant-life reserve, as an example of landscape architecture, and as a public park.” More than 60 years later, it remains all of these things.

Fourteen miles of interpretive hiking trails wind around both sides of the Sangamon River, which bisects the property. The mansion serves as a conference facility for the university and other groups, while the natural areas are used by various organizations for environmental studies and other activities. It is also a distinctive venue for weddings and other special events.

The majestic Allerton Park is open to the public daily, 8am to sundown, and there is no admission fee, although donations are encouraged to maintain this free—and awe-inspiring—resource. allerton.illinois.edu

RUNNER-UP: Cozy Dog Drive-In, Springfield. This historical eatery on Route 66 claims to be the first place to serve the original corn dog on a stick.

5. History of Western Expansion
Black Hawk State Historic Site, Rock Island

DISTANCE FROM PEORIA: 95 miles

Like Starved Rock, Black Hawk State Historic Site is a rich tapestry of Native American history and natural beauty that was brought to life in its present state as a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Its 200 acres of hardwood forest, rocky bluffs and rugged hills border the Rock River and roll right through southern Rock Island.

The land was first occupied by Native Americans as early as 12,000 years ago. Saukenuk, capital of the Sauk Nation, was established adjacent to the site in the mid-1700s and stood as a thriving center of activity for nearly a century, until American settlers moved into the area and demanded that the Indians leave.

The warrior Black Hawk, for whom the site is named, resisted this encroachment, and after he and his followers were forcibly removed, led an uprising to retake their lost homeland. Nearly two-thirds of his people were killed in the Black Hawk War of 1832, the last Indian war fought east of the Mississippi, notable for the participation of a young Abraham Lincoln. Despite this, “many white Americans admired Black Hawk’s courage,” says Wikipedia, “…and the native leader was elevated to the rank of a folk hero.”

In the late 1800s, a statue of Black Hawk was erected, and the land was set aside as a park. From 1933 to 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps created much of the site as it appears today, constructing six miles of hiking trails, picnic shelters and other trail structures; planting thousands of trees and wildflowers; and beginning work on the lodge.

Enjoy “one of the least-disturbed forests in Illinois” and visit the site’s John Hauberg Museum of Native American Life and Singing Bird Nature Center while you’re here. Black Hawk is open year-round from sunrise to 10pm.  blackhawkpark.org

RUNNER-UP: Wildlife Prairie State Park, Peoria. The 2,000-acre zoological park is home to over 150 animals and 50 different species native to Illinois.

6. Southwest Convergence
Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Byway

DISTANCE FROM PEORIA: 160 miles

Along this 33-mile stretch of byway, where the Missouri, Mississippi and Illinois rivers come together to form a 35,000-acre floodplain, lies the convergence of another sort—that of scenic views, historic heritage and outdoor recreation. The drive begins near the mouth of the Missouri in Hartford and winds northwest through Alton, ending at Pere Marquette State Park, the largest state park in Illinois.

Beneath soaring limestone bluffs that light up at sunset, the byway runs right along the banks of the Mississippi, connecting the area’s historic river towns, each with its own tale to tell. It was here that Father Jacques Marquette, before exploring the area that is now Peoria on his 1673 expedition, discovered a large mural of the Piasa, a birdlike monster in Native American folklore, which gave rise to the regional nickname, “Piasa Country.” The bird’s legend is recounted at the Alton Museum of History and Art, while a modern-day recreation of the mural paints the cliffs near its original location.

Interactive museums, archaeological sites and historic markers present the stories of Native Americans and early pioneers and recount pivotal events of the Civil War era. The National Great Rivers Museum in East Alton showcases the many aspects of the mighty Mississippi River, while Camp River Dubois near Hartford commemorates the point of departure for Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition.

Cyclists will enjoy the 20-mile trail that parallels the byway, and nature photographers and bird watchers will never want to leave! From water sports and river ferries to nature and wildlife experiences, there’s a little something for everyone in Piasa Country. greatriversbyway.com

RUNNER-UP: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Collinsville. The remains of the largest, most sophisticated prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico are preserved here.

7. Southern Illinois’ Playground
Rend Lake, Benton

DISTANCE FROM PEORIA: 249 miles

The array of recreational activities one can enjoy in and around Rend Lake—“Southern Illinois’ playground”—reads like an outdoorsman’s dream. Fishing, swimming, boating, water skiing? Check. Camping, hiking, hunting, bicycling? Ditto.

The 18,900-acre reservoir was built in the late 1960s and early ‘70s to provide a dependable supply of water to nearby counties. Since then, new recreational facilities and the development of a managed fish and wildlife area have helped to make it a paradise for anglers, birders, wildlife photographers and more.

Thirteen miles long and three miles wide, with 162 miles of shoreline, Rend Lake is stocked with sport fish, a popular spot for bass tournaments and recreational boating. With numerous fairways overlooking its scenic namesake, the 27-hole Rend Lake Golf Course ranks among the best public courses in the Midwest, according to Golf Digest. Also part of the Rend Lake Recreation Complex is a state-of-the-art shooting facility with seven trap fields, a sporting clay range, archery range and hunting preserve on its 400 acres.

Go camping, picnicking and horseback riding at Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park, or check into the nearby resort for a plush stay, where you can sample the region’s culinary specialties, including duck, pheasant and goose. Wineries, antique stores, museums, theaters and other shopping destinations are just a short drive away.

Also at Rend Lake is the Southern Illinois Art & Artisans Center, a site of the Illinois State Museum. The 15,000-square-foot facility houses an artisans’ shop and art gallery featuring the art and crafts of more than 850 juried Illinois artisans.

Rend Lake hosts numerous events throughout the summer and year-round, from concerts and fireworks to boat shows, parades and beyond. Call the visitors center at (618) 439-7430 for more information.  rendlake.com

RUNNER-UP: Confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Cairo. Nature, history and outdoor recreation make the southernmost point in the state of Illinois a place to see. a&s

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