Visitors Guide to
Jersey County, Illinois
"Where Yesterday Meets Today"
Set in a valley along the Mississippi River between Alton
and Grafton, Elsah is often called the "town that time forgot."
Despite its old-fashioned character, Elsah is actually younger than most towns
in the region by at least twenty years.
Addison Greene became Elsah’s first settler in 1847 when he built a log cabin
and a riverboat landing. Greene made his living by chopping and selling firewood
to the steamboats plying the Mississippi River. The low ground encountered when
you first enter Elsah was the site of the riverboat harbor and a residence at
the corner of Elm and LaSalle streets encapsulates Greene’s original cabin.
In 1852 James Semple, a local lawyer, prominent
politician, and general during the Black Hawk War, bought the valley from James
Paris of Grafton. In 1853 he founded the town and offered free lots to anyone
who built houses with stone from his quarry. It is believed that he named Elsah
after Aisla Craig, the last outcropping his family saw as they departed Scotland
for America. Although Elsah has been described as the "New England of the
Midwest," the village is not a New England prototype derived from 18th century
colonial styles. Rather the architecture found in Elsah demonstrates 19th
century styles and fashions including Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Mansard,
Italianate, Salt Box, and Gambrel. Visitors can pick up Elsah: A Historic Guidebook by Charles B. Hosmer,
Jr. and Paul O. Williams, which includes the history and details of the
principal buildings as well as a suggested walking tour, at the
Village of Elsah
Museum (open Fridays - Sundays, 1 pm - 4 pm, April - October.) In 1973 the
entire town was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Elsah prospered as the main shipping point for the
agricultural goods produced by the farmers of Jersey County. The town's
importance diminished with the coming of the railroad, later being revitalized
when Principia College was established in the 1930's.
Elsah remained a quiet
sleepy village until the opening of the Great River Road in 1964. Elsah is not a
"museum village" but rather a community whose homes are privately owned
and not open to the public. Visitors wishing to visit these homes should check
the Calendar for information
on the annual house tour in December. Today, Elsah provides visitors with a unique look into
America’s past, with its narrow streets, limestone and brick houses, and beautiful
gardens. Its autumn colors and
close proximity to Bald Eagle watching
locations make it a popular destination. Visitors planning on extended stays
should ask the two Bed & Breakfasts
in town for special seasonal packages. Elsah's location on the
Vadalabene Bike Trail makes it a popular stop for bikers enjoying the Great
River Road in any season.