For the first year in its history as a visitors attraction, historic Nauvoo has been toured by 200,000 people, a dramatic increase over previous years.

In this sesquicentennial year, commemorating the 1846 exodus of the Saints, the visitation milestone is a clear indication that "the city of Joseph" holds a more prominent place than ever in the public consciousness.The 200,000th visitor for 1996, Lillian VanDenburgh, of Whiteside, Va., arrived Oct. 5 at 12:30 p.m. at the Church's visitors center, according to Don and Betty Ulmer, public affairs missionaries.

Elder Mark G. Ricks, visitors center director, greeted her and presented her with gifts to celebrate the occasion: a miniature horseshoe and a steel ring or "prairie diamond" - both forged in Nauvoo's restored blacksmith shop - and a brick commemorating the sesquicentennial, produced on site in Nauvoo's old-fashioned kiln.

A management consultant for International Profits Associates based in Chicago, Ill., Miss VanDenburgh came to Nauvoo on the recommendation of a client.

"I was surprised and delighted by what I found here," she said. "I've been on the road for some time, and this is just what I needed to give me a lift before I headed home."

After touring the visitors center, she planned to stay long enough, even if it took two days, to see all the restored homes and other sites.

This year's increase in visitation continues a trend.

"Last year the number of visitors to Nauvoo's restored area increased by 27.5 percent over 1994," Elder Ricks said. "With this 200,000th visitor, we are currently running nearly 50 percent ahead of 1995. We certainly should reach 220,000 visitors by the end of the year, which qualifies us as a major tourist attraction for western Illinois."

Visitation is figured by counting the people who come through the visitors center, Elder Ricks said, acknowledging that the 200,000 figure is conservative when considering all the visitors to Nauvoo.

"We don't count the ones who just go to the historic sites," he said, adding that visitors on tour and school buses often tour only the sites without coming into the visitors center.

Surveys filled out at the center indicate that about 45 percent of the visitors are not members of the Church, Elder Ulmer said.

Founded in 1839 by Joseph Smith as the headquarters of the Church, Nauvoo was inhabited by the Saints for only seven years, yet became a boom town by the time they were driven out by mob persecution 150 years ago. Overnight, it was virtually abandoned and left for others to occupy.

In 1937, some descendants of the original Nauvoo inhabitants began buying back their ancestors' properties. Among them was Dr. J. Leroy Kimball, a Salt Lake City physician, who purchased the home of Heber C. Kimball, his great-grandfather.

In 1962, the Church formed a non-profit corporation, Nauvoo Restoration Inc. with Dr. Kimball as its first president. Through the years the organization acquired about 1,000 acres and carefully restored or reconstructed buildings of the 1840s.

Today, 25 sites are maintained, including historic homes, businesses and demonstration areas. Among other attractions, visitors can tour the restored Cultural Hall, Seventies Hall, Print Shop, Brigham Young Home, Heber C. Kimball Home, and gunsmith Jonathan Browning's shop. They also can see demonstrations of blacksmith work, brickmaking and 19th Century-style printing.

Remodeled in 1990, the visitors center includes a scale model of the Nauvoo Temple and a detailed, 15-by-15-foot model of Nauvoo in 1846. Just outside is the Nauvoo Monument to Women and gardens.

A registry in the center allows descendants of Nauvoo residents to find where their ancestors lived.

Among the attractions is a nightly musical, "Nauvoo Rendezvous" put on by some of the missionary couples who labor in Nauvoo. In the summer season, an additional production, "Nauvoo Adventure" is presented by college-age Latter-day Saints. And the "City of Joseph" pageant, which observed its 20th season this year, continues to draw visitors from many parts of the country.

In recent years, BYU has offered a Semester in Nauvoo program for its students.

The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints owns and conducts tours of some Nauvoo sites of historic importance, including the Mansion House and the Smith family homestead which includes the graves of Joseph, Emma and Hyrum Smith.