ALTON, Ill. — What is more terrifying than a flying dragon, with a human face, that lifts people off the ground and takes them back to its nest?
This is what was drawn on the bluffs high above the Mississippi. How the image first got there is still a mystery but the legend of the mural has been passed down for hundreds of years.
Many people have passed by the modern-day painting of the Piasa Bird displayed in Alton, Illinois at the edge of the Mississippi River, but not as many have stopped to read the plaque there that explains the folklore.
In 1673 Jacques Marquette reported he and fellow french explorer Louis Jolliet discovered a painting of what was probably two “water monsters” on the bluffs of the Mississippi River near present-day Alton.
By 1700 those pictographic creatures were no longer visible. In 1836 novelist John Russell described an image cut into the bluff of a legendary dragon-like creature with wings. According to Russell, the creature was called Piasa, “the bird that devours men.”
European explorers were startled to see a painting of the Piasa on a limestone bluff overlooking the Mississippi when they came to the area. The painting didn’t last long, as the Illini would fire arrows and bullets at it whenever they passed.
When the year 1920s rolled around, two brothers repainted a modern-day version of the creature, but the cliff was then destroyed in the 1950s after the road was widened and Alton lost its mascot again.
That was until a metal version of the Piasa bird was placed on the rock. Alton painted a Piasa on steel in 1984 and bolted it to the cliff, but the bird was evicted from its perch in 1995. The metal creature now terrifies visitors at a high school football field.
The cliff stood vacant for a couple of years until another Alton resident, Dave Stevens, repainted the Piasa on the bluff in 1999. His work is the most impressive yet, 22 feet high and 48 feet long.
Today the Piasa is a never-ending project where it has to routinely have touch-ups on paint. But where the painting rests, there is a parking lot that is the starting point for bike trails around the wooded area.
Maybe avid cyclists have seen something hunting them in the woods.