You can leave your job in the city and go rollin’ on the river this summer. You also can dig the Panama Canal, build your appreciation of LEGOS and pass time at a ballpark – all while playing in Peoria.
The city hugging the Illinois River offers several special events worth the 75-mile drive from Springfield. Most of them are near the river and downtown.
The season is in swing for the Spirit of Peoria paddle-wheeler that plies the Illinois and Mississippi rivers regularly from May to October. Visitors can choose 90-minute sightseeing trips along the Peoria riverbank, themed lunch and dinner cruises, one-day cruises to places like Starved Rock State Park and multi-night excursions to St. Louis and Hannibal, Missouri. Overnight cruisers stay in hotels along the way.
Alice Grady, one of three captains at the helm, says the 90-minute trips are the most popular because they are “short and inexpensive and people want to see what it is all about.” After that, many customers return, she says.
Grady says the boat holds 380 but the ideal cruise is for 275 or fewer. Many come as part of motor coach tours for retirees, but younger couples seeking a quick getaway also enjoy the buffet food, different types of musical entertainment and deck chairs to watch the paddle wheel turn. Children like the build-your-own-sundae Sunday cruises and the Halloween costume one, she says.
After an earlier Peoria-based riverboat moved to Iowa, the Jumer family (of hotel fame) decided to have the Spirit of Peoria built to serve Peoria, according to Grady. That was in 1988, and the boat has been operating ever since.
Another opportunity to explore waterways awaits the curious at the Caterpillar Visitors Center a block away. A special exhibit in the center’s heritage area explores the earth-moving equipment manufacturer’s role in building the Panama Canal and the canal’s 105th anniversary.
“This exhibit tells the CAT story that gets told all the time – that we have a global product that has changed people’s lives in a positive way,” says Lee Fosburgh, archives supervisor and one of the forces behind the canal displays.
Fosburgh notes that the Marion Shovel Company and Bucyrus Company, predecessors to Caterpillar, won contracts to help build the canal so some of the artifacts are from their work starting in 1904.
But once Caterpillar was formed in 1925, its equipment has been used to widen and expand the canal. The latest expansion was in 2016, when contractors used CAT equipment to build a new lock system so larger vessels can pass through.
Peoria visitors can view a scale model of a steam shovel, an authentic serial plate from a Bucyrus machine, a video with original footage of the waterway’s construction and a rare glass plate with the image of President Theodore Roosevelt operating equipment at the site.
A special touch is the display case with a hard hat and an excavated French bottle contributed by a Caterpillar retiree who worked in the Canal Zone in the 1960s.
Next door at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, a special exhibit involving LEGOS runs May 25 to Sept. 2. “The Art of the Brick,” billed as the world’s largest LEGOS art exhibition, features artist Nathan Sawaya’s creations made entirely of the plastic bricks.
Museums in Dallas, Texas, and Genoa, Italy, have recently hosted the show, and Bill Conger, the Peoria museum’s curator of collections and exhibitions, says it is exciting to acquire the display. “This is the largest, most sought after and original of any LEGOS brick exhibit,” he explains.
Conger says Sawaya’s work touches art, science, history and achievement, which are the four pillars of the museum’s mission. Highlights are creations based on famous paintings and a human-scale Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur.
To top off your visit to Peoria, head to Dozer Park in the south part of downtown to cheer on the Peoria Chiefs, a Class A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. The Chiefs play from April to early September and offer promotions on food, giveaways or special events at nearly every game.
Some evenings end with a fireworks display, after which you can head home, satisfied you had a good day of playing in Peoria.
Mary Bohlen of Springfield enjoys traveling and writing about it. She is retired from the University of Illinois Springfield, where she taught journalism for 30 years.