Visitors to Grafton can now take in a unique view of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers and its bluffs, all while dangling high above the trees.
The bonus: Wine awaits at the top.
After months of delays because of near-record spring flooding, the Grafton SkyTour aerial lift opened for business Nov. 1. Officials gave it the ribbon-cutting treatment Friday.
The lift gives visitors a quiet, breezy ride from a parking lot at the base near the river off Main Street up to Aerie’s Resort on the bluff. The resort includes a winery, restaurant, zip line and cottages.
As owners Jeff and Sandy Lorton added more attractions to the resort, they needed more space for guests to park. When Jeff Lorton approached city leaders four years ago with the idea for the lift, reaction was mixed.
“There were some people who thought it was a great idea, and some who thought it was a little bit crazy,” Mayor Rick Eberlin told the crowd of about two dozen who came for the opening. “If you’re talking about Jeff, he is a little bit crazy, and he dreams big.”
The lift has enclosed gondolas as well as open-air chairs. Some parts, such as the drive and return terminal, came from Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The chairs, cables and towers are new. Owners partnered with SkyTrans Manufacturing and SkyFair Inc. of New Hampshire to develop the lift. There is only one other like it in North America, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
The lower parking lot, which the Lortons expanded with the addition of some city land, has about 500 spaces. In the spring, the resort will start a shuttle service to carry visitors to 10 stops around town.
The lift was supposed to open last spring, but the river had its own plan. At one point, more than 3 feet of water stood in the ticket office off Main Street.
The Lortons, both 66, are all too familiar with river power. Their hog farm in Hardin, Missouri, flooded in 1993. They bought the Ruebel Hotel in Grafton and restored it, and then bought and began developing the resort in 1998. They wanted a place for their four children and 14 grandchildren to work, Jeff Lorton said. Their oldest son, JD Lorton, is the resort’s director of operations. Four grandchildren work there now.
“Everything you see here, my father’s built,” JD Lorton said as he stood outside the lift terminal at the top, a leaf blower strapped to his back. He noted that more than 1.5 million vehicles travel through the town of about 600 residents each year. “Tourism is the industry here,” he said. “You might as well not fight it.”
The ride, which takes about 15 minutes, will help extend the tourism season, he said; visitors who come in the winter to watch eagles can get a view of them from the lift.
Renee Burgess of Grafton came to try out the lift Friday with her son, Jesse Cole, 25, and their friend, Jacob Major, 24. She works as a server at Grafton’s Fin Inn.
“Our business has picked up for sure since the SkyTour opened,” she said. “When this stops running at 6, at 6:15, 6:30, we get this huge rush.” She also works at the Ruebel Hotel and said visitors will take the SkyTour and then stay the night.
Sandy Lorton delights in the view of the rivers, though they’ve caused her family so much stress. “It’s the most beautiful view,” she said. “You can’t dwell on it because things happen for a reason.”
Photo: Seeing Grafton from above
Riders check out the Grafton SkyTour aerial lift in Grafton during their grand opening on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. The attraction takes visitors 300 feet into the air in either open air chair lifts or enclosed gondolas.
Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, firstname.lastname@example.org