My wife and I usually stick to our predetermined routes while on road trips so that we can keep our two children’s time within the cramped confines of the family car to a minimum.
However, we could not resist taking an unscheduled drive last year during a visit to Pere Marquette State Park when we saw a sign for a free state-operated ferry across the Illinois River to Calhoun County.
We jumped at the opportunity to see the scenery of Calhoun County, located on a peninsula between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. We also thought it would be fun to take our daughter and son, then ages 6 and 1, respectively, on their first ferry ride.
Not far from the river-side restaurants of Grafton, we left scenic Illinois Route 100/Great River Road and joined a line of other vehicles that were boarding one of the barges at the Brussels ferry.
As folks who are seldom on the water, we were amused by the unfamiliar sensation of sitting in a still car while the surrounding river scenery slipped by our open windows. The approximately five-minute ferry ride took us to a long, rural two-lane road that led to Brussels.
On the way through Brussels, we admired some of this town’s many grand old restored buildings. One of these buildings is the two-story Wittmond Hotel, established in 1847. This establishment now serves up family-style dining.
We then drove north on County Highway 1/Illinois River Road through the rolling hills of sparsely populated Calhoun County. At Kampsville, we boarded another state-operated free ferry for a scenic ride back across the river.
Having enjoyed my first experience on these free ferries, I wanted to learn more about them and later contacted their operators at the Illinois Department of Transportation for assistance. District operations engineer Joseph Monroe and operations field technician Todd Dunlap kindly fielded my questions.
Dunlap said ferries have been in use at Kampsville since the 1840s and in Brussels since the late 1800s, starting as private businesses. He said the state purchased the Kampsville ferry in 1941 and the Brussels ferry in the 1960s. The two ferries now run 24 hours a day, seven day a week, weather permitting.
The Kampsville site is served by the 18-car Miss Illinois ferry boat and barge, and the 15-car Kampsville II.
The Brussels site is served by the 18-car Belle of Calhoun and the 15-car Deer Plain. The newly built 21-car Liberty Bell is scheduled to replace the Deer Plain early this year.
Monroe said the Brussels ferry carries an average of 1,400 automobiles per day and Kampsville ferry carries an average of 1,200 per day.
“We probably come close to tripling that (ridership) on select days,” Monroe said. He added that riders may have to wait at least a couple of turns to board during peak times as each ferry boat makes its approximately 15-minute round trip across the river.
Daily ridership increases as tourists check out Calhoun County’s farmers markets and festivals in the summer, and its apple and peach orchards and its colorful foliage in the fall. Bird watchers who are looking for bald eagles along the Illinois River in January and February also utilize the ferries.
“It’s a unique feature and folks in that area are really glad to have the ferries,” Monroe said.
I am also glad the ferries are available now that I have experienced riding across the Illinois River and learning about what Calhoun County has to offer visitors. I plan to return there on a future road trip, one in which a scenic drive will definitely be part of the schedule.
This column and previous entries in the series can be found online at www.facebook.com/RobStroud.DayTripper.
Rob Stroud is a staff writer for the JG-TC. Contact him at email@example.com or 238-6861.