EAST PEORIA — “Justin and Darcie.”

“Ethan + Savannah.”

“Jarrod & Tracie.”

The names go on and on and on, marking hundreds of padlocks attached to the fencing around the gazebo at Riverfront Park in East Peoria. This is the local tie to a scattered global phenomenal known as love locks, a gesture of commitment (often at a river) by couples.

Many of the names have been scratched on with a nail. Some have been scribbled in marker. A few have been professionally inscribed.

Some carry further messages, such as “TLA” and “4ever.” One says “thanks,” while another sports a heart. One even has a Batman symbol.

The locks run every color, heavy with black and silver. Some look new and pricey; others appear old and rusty. Though a few are combination locks, most have keyholes.

The keyholes (as well as the keys) are part of a tradition that quietly began far away and long ago, according to ABC News.

Near the onset of World War I in the Serbian town of Vrnjacka Banja, a schoolmistress fell for a local soldier. They pledged their love on a bridge across the Vrnjacka River just before he left to fight the Germans. While gone, he found and married a new love, never to return — and prompting the schoolmistress to die of heartache. The woeful tale inspired young couples to avoid the same fate by making an act of commitment: writing their names on padlocks and affixing them to the same bridge, flinging the keys into the water below.

The practice got a 21st century revival from Federico Moccia's 2006 Italian bestseller “Ho Voglia di Te” (“I Want You”), which features a young couple attaching a lock to Rome's Milvian Bridge as a sign of eternal love, according to The Guardian. But, according to CNN, the ritual really caught fire in Paris at the Pont des Arts, a Napoleonic pedestrian bridge across the River Seine. To the bridge, couples would attach locks as a symbol of their commitment, some scratched with messages; often, they’d consummate the gesture by flinging a lock’s key into the waterway below.

But in time there, the act turned from romantic to problematic.The bridge eventually carried more than 700,000 locks, with a combined weight equal to that of 20 elephants. So, to stop the span from collapsing, the city in 2015 snipped off every lock.

Meanwhile, the practice spread worldwide, often embraced as tourism lures and sometimes involving local twists.

In Taiwan, locks — there known as “wish locks” — are attached to an overpass above a Taipei train station. According to legend (and the Taipei Times), the magnetic field generated by passing trains accumulates in the locks and fulfills lovers’ wishes.  

And in Uruguay, locks are affixed to a fence surrounding a Montevideo fountain, according to Inspiringtravelers.com. As a plaque there explains, “The legend of this young fountain tells us that if a lock with the initials of two people in love is placed in it, they will return together to the fountain and their love will be forever locked."

The gesture also has dotted the United States in recent years, according to Wikipedia. In Canfield, Ohio, visitors to the Canfield Fairgrounds are encouraged to add locks to a 12-foot steel-cage rooster. In Las Vegas, outside a half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, guests place lovers' locks along a fenced walkway.

Love locks started appearing about five years ago around the gazebo at Riverfront Park in East Peoria. Robert Cole, the city’s director of buildings and inspections, isn’t sure what started or drove the accumulation of locks.

“We just know they’ve shown up,” Cole says. “And now there are hundreds of them.”

Three belong to Marie and Dewey Roe. Wed in 2012, the Rome couple faced a challenge.

“I have some health issues,” says Marie Roe, 47. “We didn’t know how things would turn out.”

Dewey Roe, 48, had seen the love locks in East Peoria. He thought such a gesture would galvanize their marriage during the health scare.

A professional sign maker, he crafted nameplates for three locks. Two carry each of their names and their wedding date; the third states, “A Mighty God” and “Ephesians 5:22-33.” The Scripture cites biblical directives regarding marriage, including, “Each one of you (husbands) also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”

Marie Roe says, “We have a deep faith. ... The third lock represents God. The two locks are held together with the strength of the Lord.”

In March 2018 near the gazebo, as their pastor blessed the locks and the couple, the pair snapped the locks onto the fence, then tossed the keys into the river.

“We thought it was very romantic,” she says.

As for the continued proliferation of locks, East Peoria has no official position. None is obscene or objectionable, and City Hall has heard no complaints. Quietly, the love locks have become a landmark.

However, though love may last forever, the locks won’t.

Cole, the city's inspections director, recently began plans to find funding to repair and refurbish that area of the Riverfront Walk. As part of that effort, the fencing would be sandblasted and repainted — and in the process, the locks would have to be removed.

The project isn't imminent and might not happen for five years, Cole said. But before snipping off locks, the city would make announcements to give couples a chance to retrieve their locks.

And, perhaps, buy new ones.

PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at pluciano@pjstar.com