The Piasa Bird
A fearsome monster known as the Piasa (pie-a-saw) once terrorized the Illini Indians near what is now Alton, Illinois. It ate deer at first, but corpses from a war gave it a taste for human flesh. Swooping down, it would snatch victims in its talons and carry them back to a cliffside cave, tearing them apart for dinner. According to one translator, its name meant, "The bird that devours men."
The first white explorers in the area were startled to see a painting of the Piasa on a limestone bluff overlooking the Mississippi. It was had horns, red eyes, fish scales, a long tail, and a snarling, bearded face. The painting didn't last long, however, as the Illini would fire arrows and bullets at it whenever they passed.
The Piasa was essentially forgotten until the 1920s, when two brothers from Alton, Herbert and Orland Forcade, chose a likely cliff and painted what has become the accepted modern version of the Piasa.
That painting was destroyed in 1950 when the road was widened, and subsequent attempts would never last long on the crumbly limestone. So Alton painted a Piasa on steel in 1984 and bolted it to the cliff -- but rust brought it down in 1995 (It 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.
The Piasa painting is never-ending project, requiring frequent maintenance and touch-ups. The people of Alton should be commended for their long-standing commitment to their monster, now a cryptozoological landmark (for those who plan their vacations around such things). The latest Piasa has been outfitted with a parking lot, restrooms, and three different historical markers to explain its history.
The plaques, signs, and monuments make it clear that the large caves behind the painting were not the lair of the Piasa; they were quarried in the early 1900s by the Mississippi Lime Company. But if you have post-trip nightmares about the Piasa Bird, no doubt it'll drag you into one of these before it guts you.
Monsters -- and their legends -- are hard to kill. The Illini supposedly drove the Piasa away in prehistoric times, but 19th century explorers reportedly found a nearby cave filled with human bones, and sightings persist in the area of a giant bird.
As we were driving away from the Piasa we saw a stretch limousine pull up, disgorging a wedding party to pose in front the fearsome monster for wacky photos. Maybe they had some laughs, or maybe they ended up as lunch.