I am not a spur of the moment type of person. I generally have my day planned even if it only means I plan to do nothing. So when the Great Hunter suggested a spur of the moment motorcycle ride to Grafton (my favorite place) via the ferry for lunch, my initial reaction was “no.” But then, I had to remind myself there was nothing pressing I had to do and nowhere to go (at least until 5 p.m.) so, why not?
Unfortunately, once we got to the Grafton Ferry Landing, we discovered the ferry only runs Thursday-Sunday. Bummer. We were about halfway between St. Charles and West Alton. Our choices to get to Grafton were to go back to St. Charles and take the Golden Eagle Ferry and Brussels ferries through Calhoun County or drive the ten miles to West Alton to cross the river and then drive the fifteen miles west to Grafton. That would have put our spur-of-the-moment luncheon outing at another two hours. So instead, we decided to stop in the little town of Portage Des Sioux and have lunch at the only open restaurant, “Froges.”
Portage, as it is called, was one of my main hangouts when I worked for the Sheriff’s Department. Being halfway between St. Charles and West Alton (a distance of about twenty-five miles), it was often the place I made a pitstop to, well, make a pitstop. There was a small market on the corner that was a gathering place to grab a cup of coffee and sit down with the locals and catch up with what was going on in town.
The name “Portage des Sioux” was given to the city as it is the most narrow area between the two rivers, the Mississippi River on the north and the Missouri River on the south. In the early 1800s, the Sioux Indians, in an effort to escape from their pursuers, found it faster to “portage” their canoes overland between the rivers than to paddle the long distance to the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
Portage, whose population is only about 300, is often the victim of the flooding of the Mississippi River. The floods of 1973, 1993, 2011 and most recently 2019, result in water covering a large portion of the city and often cutting its residents off from St. Charles in the west and Alton in the east. (West Alton which is directly across the river from Alton, doesn’t count as the flood of 1993 almost completely destroyed that town leaving virtually no commerce there.)
One of the most poignant examples of the flooding in Portage is the Our Lady of the River Shrine. During flooding, she stands alone, surrounded by water on all sides.
Each year during the summer, Portage hosts the “Blessing of the Fleet.” The Parish Priest from the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Portage stands at the foot of the shrine and blesses the hundreds of decorated boats that float by.
The first pleasure Boat Blessing materialized as a result of a flood that threatened Portage des Sioux in the early 1950’s. The towns’ parish, headed by Rev. Edward Schlattmann, prayed together to the Virgin Mary for the town of Portage des Sioux to be spared from the perils of the raising waters. They together coined a name for the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Rivers. As history records, the flooding waters parted and traveled just above and below the river town without entering it. To pay tribute to their Lady, the town people and parishioners, Schlattmann and local businessmen and local boatmen formulated plans for the first religious fiberglass statue. Blessing of the Fleet