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Mississippi flooding takes a toll on small businesses along the Great River Road

Mississippi river is starting to recede at flooded Chautauqua

A resident of Chautauqua, Illinois, on the flooded Mississippi, talks about life on the river and how his families deals with flooding that is into its second month.
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A resident of Chautauqua, Illinois, on the flooded Mississippi, talks about life on the river and how his families deals with flooding that is into its second month.

Flooding from the Mississippi River forced the Illinois Department of Transportation on May 3 to close the Great River Road from Madison County to Pike County, causing inconvenience for commuters and tourists who usually take the route.

For those who own small businesses along scenic Illinois 100, the closure will mean multiple weeks of lost revenue.

“That’s been the biggest factor in terms of patronization — when they closed the River Road,” said Chris Spanton, an employee at the riverfront Grafton Pub in Grafton. “We always anticipate flooding, but this year it’s been extraordinary.”

Most of Grafton’s businesses had closed this month because of flooding from the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, but the Grafton Pub, housed in a historic building, has stayed open, despite 3 feet of water in its basement and the flooding of its outdoor bar.

“As long as we’ve got working facilities, we’ll stay open,” said Spanton, referring to the bar’s elevated restrooms. “That’s the key.”

Business has significantly slowed down due to the flooding, however. Live bands booked to perform throughout this month had to cancel, as the stage disappeared beneath multiple feet of water on Tuesday.

“Usually this time of year, this whole place is rocking,” Spanton said.

The National Weather Service forecast predicts that the river levels in Grafton will be back down to 24 feet by Saturday, May 25. Last week, Mayor Rick Eberlin said that’s a level at which businesses can operate.

The outdoor bar at the Grafton Pub in Illinois was completely underwater Tuesday. The venue canceled several live music acts they’d had planned for the month.

For businesses in tourist towns like Grafton, profits come from those who stop by while touring the River Road.

Blair Smith, who owns the Elsah General Store in Elsah, which sells nostalgic vintage soda and local food and trinkets, said the flooding has put a stop to the usual influx of visitors, who come from as far as Northern Illinois and Arkansas.

“A significant portion of our business is tourists,” Smith said Monday. “When the River Road is closed, it’s too much effort for them to try and take the back roads, so they don’t even bother.”

That was the case for Connie and Gary Davis, who own the Green Tree Inn, a popular bed and breakfast in Elsah. Gary said Monday that the inn lost several bookings due to the flooding. Though the town feels the effects of flooding almost every spring, this year was one of the worst they’ve experienced in the nearly seven years they’ve owned the inn.

“It’s just been the perfect storm,” he said. “Anything that could go wrong, did. We work really hard, but there’s not a damn thing you can do about the weather.”

When a bride and groom who had planned to have their wedding at the inn’s newly erected gazebo canceled last week after flooding shut down the septic system, Connie said it was a “huge hit.” The couple expected at least 100 visitors.

“It was going to be the biggest wedding we’ve had here,” she said. “As a small business person, it’s very disheartening.”

The Davises said they constantly monitor the National Weather Service’s flood projection graphs, waiting for the water levels to go back down. This was the first year the flooding has shut down their plumbing, the first time they’ve had to put money into the inn and the first time they’ve had to dip into savings.

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Chautaqua residents use a john boat to make their way to their home. Mississippi river levels are receding in the small community located on the river road north of Alton. About 12 households are forced to boat back and forth to their homes when the water is at the current levels. Derik Holtmann

When they bought the property, the Davises were told flooding only affects the business about “25 years or so,” Connie said. At the time, that was true, but in the years since they’ve been the owners, they’ve seen eight of Elsah’s top 20 floods.

Predicting when they’ll be able to reopen is as difficult as predicting the weather, they said.

Katy Vankirk, a co-owner of Morrison’s Irish Bar in Alton, which has been closed for weeks due to flooding, said one particularly painful side effect of having to close is that some recently hired employees won’t get paid.

“That’s what really hurts,” she said. “We knew there was going to be flooding, but this level is not typical and it makes a big difference.”

Vankirk said that someone is constantly at the bar, watching the pumps 24/7 to make sure they continue working. The owners, employees and sometimes even friends and family take a turn. An air mattress is available for those who have to work the night shift.

“It’s a game,” she said of the river forecast. “You have to decide what to do based on what might happen.”

But Vankirk said the support from the community during this closure has been “incredible.”

“People keep saying, ‘We’ll all be going to Morrison’s as soon as it opens,’” she said. “It’s humbling. I can’t say enough good things about the locals here.”

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The Mississippi river is starting to recede on the Great River Road at Chautaqua, Illinois. Residents along the Mississippi river have been dealing with flooding for over a month now. Derik Holtmann

And in Grafton, Spanton said the pub has been running entirely on the support of local patrons. The city of Grafton has talked about organizing a “flood party” when the riverfront businesses finally open. Most businesses, she said, are hoping they’ll be open by Memorial Day weekend.

This weekend, the Grafton Winery, which stayed open throughout the flooding, will go forth with plans for its annual Blues Festival that includes classic St. Louis blues bands and food trucks.

“They find a way here,” Spanton said of patrons. “Everybody helps everybody.”

Hana Muslic has been a public safety reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat since August 2018, covering everything from crime and courts to accidents, fires and natural disasters. She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and her previous work can be found in The Lincoln Journal-Star and The Kansas City Star.