Ottawa is a little over an hour southwest of Chicago via interstates 55 and 80. The best approach is to leave I-80 at route 71 and follow that road southwest into town; at the intersection with route 6 you can see on both sides of the road a sort of hilly, strip-mined wasteland.
There are a number of such abandoned coal mines in the Ottawa area, but the town's primary foundation is sand, both physically and economically. A thick layer of yellowish Saint Peter sandstone underlies much of Illinois, but in most places it's buried hundreds of feet deep. Around Ottawa it lies near the surface--right under the shale and coal--and even emerges in places to form sheer cliffs. It's a crumbly, incompetent sort of rock that when broken up produces silica sand of exceptional purity. The silica is used to make windowpanes, beer bottles, and abrasive cleaners, among other things.
The Edmund B. Thornton Park--on Boyce Memorial Drive, at the west end of town--has as its centerpiece what the local chamber of commerce calls the world's largest sandbox. It is big, but it's nothing compared to the pit across the road, where Thornton--grandfather of the executive and philanthropist who organized the Effigy Tumuli--began mining silica sand in 1900. He founded the Ottawa Silica Company, whose processing plant (now owned by another company) perches atop a cliff overlooking what has become a 120-foot-deep, 190-acre hole. Some 40 million tons of sand came out of there. Over the years it's naturally filled in with water; there's a small overlook on Boyce Memorial Drive where you can pull off the road and enjoy the sunset over the marshy pit. Nearby is the Old 4978, a 1920s steam locomotive, tender, and caboose combo donated to the LaSalle County Historical Society by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (for a tour call the society at 815-667-4861). The road is named after W.D. Boyce of Ottawa, founder of the Boy Scouts of America, who lies buried in the cemetery where the road meets the Illinois River.
Large tracts of land along the north bank of the Illinois have been mined either for silica or for coal, but the bluff that now makes up Buffalo Rock State Park was spared; it became a state park after first serving as a home for a religious sect and then as a tuberculosis sanatorium. It's a wooded aerie with picnic tables, a baseball field, and a short hiking trail along the bluff's top that offers fine views of the river below. There's a real live buffalo in a pen, too. The park's a couple of miles west of Ottawa off Dee Bennett Road (815-433-2220). Of course, firearms and off-road-vehicle fans can ply their hobbies at the nearby Buffalo Pit and Range (815-433-2471).
Outdoor recreation is the main reason most people visit the Ottawa area, and the ne plus ultra of the region's numerous parks is Starved Rock State Park (815-667-4726), on the south side of the river. Its 2,630 wooded acres are dissected by a number of abrupt, steep-walled canyons whose walls drip with springs and bloom with liverworts, mosses, and ferns. The riverfront bluffs support an entirely different flora of drought-tolerant pine and cedar and provide expansive views of river traffic. Starved Rock, a striated sandstone point overlooking one of the Army Corps of Engineers' navigation dams, has a long history--it was the site of one of the first French colonial forts in the midwest. The rock's name derives from a semilegendary battle between the Illinois and Pottawatomie Indians--early settlers reported that the latter laid siege to the Illinois on the bluff and forced their death by starvation.
The state park is equipped with lovely hiking trails, a boat launch, a visitor's center, and the gigantic Starved Rock Lodge (815-667-4211). This Civilian Conservation Corps project of rough-hewn timbers has that rustic national-park feel; the huge lounge is decorated with Indian-style artwork and a massive stone fireplace. The rooms are modern, though, as are the indoor pool and sauna. The freestanding cabins remain rustic. There's a campground, too, but it lacks the lodge's dramatic bluff-top view.
South of the park the tributaries of the Vermilion River have carved more canyons into the sandstone. One of them is preserved in Matthiessen State Park (815-667-4868), once the estate of a LaSalle industrialist. The deep canyon is as lovely as any in Starved Rock State Park, but unlike those it's largely managed to remain a local secret. The park has been outfitted with miles of hiking and cross-country skiing trails and a bow hunters' range (not open to the general public). See it before the persistent rumors that Department of Conservation budget cuts will force seasonal closures come true.
The Vermilion River is said to provide the state's best white-water canoeing, but it's not for beginners, and those skilled enough to run its rapids have probably already heard of it. For a more placid experience, try drifting down the Fox River from upstream of Ottawa. The folks at Ayers Landing campground in Wedron (815-434-2233) will rent you a canoe and drive you upstream so you can make the leisurely float back.
West of Utica you can float for a few miles on the old Illinois and Michigan Canal, the 19th-century waterway that linked the Chicago and Illinois rivers. The old towpath--the path along the canal's bank traveled by mules towing boats--has been turned into a recreational trail; the 15 miles from Ottawa west to LaSalle have been surfaced with crushed stone to make a fine biking surface. On June 13 and 14 the National Multiple Sclerosis Society is sponsoring a fund-raising bike tour (distance ranges from 62 to 150 miles over two days) along the canal to Starved Rock (312-922-6677 or 800-922-0484).
The modern successor to the I&M Canal is the Illinois Waterway, which is what the Army Corps of Engineers renamed the Illinois River when they dammed it up. One of the river's several lock-and-dam units is at Starved Rock. On the north side of the river, the corps operates the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center (815-667-4054), where you can watch towboats and barges (or, more commonly, cabin cruisers and bass boats) being raised or lowered in the lock and study exhibits depicting the waterway's history, including a real pilothouse from a sunken towboat. The center's open daily from 9 to 5, 9 to 8 after Memorial Day. Tours of the lock and dam are offered Saturday and Sunday through August at 11:30, 1, and 3.
The nearby canal town of Utica has turned the sole remaining stone canalside warehouse into the LaSalle County Historical Museum (Mill and Canal streets, 815-667-4861). The restored building is chock full of vintage clothing, tools, housewares, duck decoys, and lots more, including an 1860 cast of Lincoln's face and hands; Wild Bill Hickok's brother once taught in the one-room schoolhouse outside. During the summer there are occasional tours of a working blacksmith's shop across the street.
Utica, with its new streetlights and brick sidewalks, is making an effort to make itself respectable and attract more tourists. Two worthwhile shops to visit there are the Clark Street Studio and Village Pottery (409 S. Clark St., 815-667-4098), where Joseph Plankenhorn makes and sells pottery from the practical to the whimsical, and Four Feathers (122 Mill St., 815-667-4499), where you can browse amid Native American artwork from ancient pottery to contemporary paintings. Duffy's Tavern (Mill and Canal streets, 815-667-4324, serves good sandwiches amid an eclectic assortment of antiques. The Burgoo Festival (October 11) is the town's big shindig; the eponymous dish is a big pot of mixed vegetables and game, supposedly favored by pioneers, who cooked it long enough to forget that they had no refrigeration. The festival more or less coincides with the height of fall colors at Starved Rock (call the LaSalle County Historical Museum for info).
Ottawa itself does not have a whole lot to show for its rich history. The aqueduct that carried the Illinois and Michigan Canal over the Fox River remains, but it's broken-down and entirely high and dry. The path the canal took through town--in a raised bed, so that boats in the canal actually floated higher than the roofs of houses--is a grassy ditch. Some elaborate 19th-century houses and public buildings remain, most notably the carefully restored Reddick Mansion (100 W. Lafayette, 815-433-0084). This Italianate fantasy of red brick and cream limestone, built in the 1850s by a state senator and founder of the local glass industry, is occupied mainly by offices. Several rooms on the first floor, though, are open to view.
The Reddick Mansion fronts Washington Park, at Lafayette and Columbus streets, where the first great debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas took place on August 21, 1858; they argued for three hours on the subject of the introduction of slavery into new western states. The park is pleasant but unspectacular; the actual spot of the debate is marked by a large boulder.
Ottawa does have a number of good restaurants. The Row House Cafe (728 Columbus St., 815-433-2233, open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 to 3) is a bright coffeehouse in a block of old redbrick town houses that could have been transplanted from Lincoln Park. So could the eminently affordable food, in fact, which runs to salads, dressed-up croissants, and muffins. The coffee's good, too--no small thing to ask in a town where the water has such a high mineral content.
Ottawa's gourmets dine at Ristorante Graffiti (1409 LaSalle St., 815-433-9066, open Monday through Saturday from 5 to 10 PM), a fine northern Italian restaurant in a dim but airy room reminiscent of a desert cantina. Contemporary art bumps up against old Italian maps on the whitewashed walls. The food is excellent: well-seasoned, filling but not overpowering. The menu changes according to what's available at the market that morning.
For a heartier, more down-home atmosphere, try Hank's (Route 71 N, 815-433-2540), a sprawling restaurant in a white barn on a hill one mile northeast of town. It's big, dark, and lively, appropriate for anything from a big family feast to an intimate dinner for two. The menu is extensive, but it concentrates on steak, chicken, Italian specialties, and seafood. The salad bar is ample, and there's a good selection of wines. It's open Monday through Saturday 4:30 to 10 PM, Sunday 10 to 2 and 3:30 to 9.
For Sunday brunch I recommend the Kickapoo Klub (815-433-0275), on Dee Bennett Road at Starved Rock Marina. (It's also open for other meals, 11:30 to 9 Sunday through Thursday and 11:30 to 10 Friday and Saturday.) The all-you-can-eat spread ($8.95) features almost every imaginable breakfast food, and the view's just as good. The restaurant's wall of windows looks onto the river panorama, and you can see everything from a bit of the Effigy Tumuli to the cliffs of Starved Rock. Just to the west is the old four-story Sulphur Springs Hotel, a square stone castle, and just in front of that along the river is what's left of Old Kaskaskia, which was a large Illinois Indian village during French colonial times; its remains were recently purchased by the state after an acrimonious controversy over plans to build vacation homes on the land.
On a warm summer afternoon there's no better place to stop in Ottawa than the Silverfross Root Beer Stand (301 W. Norris Dr., 815-434-5577). It's a drive-in, but you won't want to miss the 50s-diner interior with its black-and-white tile floor and walls full of James Dean, Elvis, and other period paraphernalia. It's been that way since 1959. The frothy homemade root beer is the best in town.
Ottawa is serviced by a number of standard-issue motels, including the Ottawa Inn (3000 Columbus St., 815-434-3400) and the Super 8 (500 E. Etna Road, 815-434-2888). But they don't have the character of Annie Tique's Inn, a railroad hotel built in 1917 in Marseilles, the next town east along the river (378 Main St., 815-795-5848). The place hasn't changed much since then (except for the TVs and waterbeds)--it still has gleaming dark woodwork, some antiques, and washbasins in the smallish rooms. Most of the rooms have been converted to apartments (Marseilles doesn't see much tourist traffic), and the thin walls and lack of carpeting mean nights here can get noisy.
If you stay at Annie Tique's, have breakfast at Flo's Family Restaurant across the street (329 Main St., 815-795-4422); it's a sociable, rural sort of diner where the coffee never stops flowing.