You'd think it would be easy to say where a river begins and ends. Just listen: The Mississippi rises in Minnesota's Lake Itasca and empties 2,350 miles to the south in the Gulf of Mexico. It sounds so authoritative, so final. But--and I've said this many times before--a statement of facts scarcely ever tells the truth.
The Mississippi is not America's greatest river because it is the longest or because it drains the most square miles or because it carries the heaviest traffic. The truth is that it's the greatest because it figures so in our lore. Our reverence for it borders on the mythological. Its banks are enlarged by our imaginations.The section of the Mississippi nearest Chicago forms a loose crescent of some 100 miles between the Quad-Cities on the south and Dubuque on the north. It's a region flush with forest trails blazed centuries ago by native tribes, with farms so pretty they've become movie stars, and with larger-than-life legends who left something of their sojourns behind for us to see.
But it all starts with the river.
These days, at least five bridges cross the Mississippi in the Quad-Cities, and if we give them a thought at all, it's probably to evaluate their aesthetics. We have to work at understanding what life must have been like in the time before bridges united both banks of this great river. The Mississippi in the old days must have posed a psychological as well as a geographic divide between East and West--possibly one disturbing enough to have figured in the Black Hawk War of 1832.
The Fox and the Sauk had settled both sides of this part of the Mississippi in the mid-1700s, so successfully, in fact, that some claim the 7,000 people living here then constituted the largest settlement of native tribes in North America. The village of Saukenuk, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Rock Rivers in what is now Rock Island's city limits, was, in effect, the capital. After a treaty, and European settlers, pushed the tribes entirely to the west bank of the Mississippi, the aging Sauk warrior Black Hawk led 1,000 men, women and children in an ill-fated battle to regain the east-bank land.
A five-story mural of him presides impassively over downtown Rock Island, and his statue overlooks the Rock River from a bluff in the Black Hawk Forest that was once his home. The state historic site has a small history museum and wooded hiking trails.
Sixteen years after the Black Hawk War, a different battle was under way in Moline, the town next door to Rock Island. Blacksmith John Deere had invented the self-scouring plow, and he was helping farmers prevail over the prairie with plows made at the factory he had opened in Moline. Today, you can trace the history of the industrial revolution in sowing and reaping at the 14,000-square-foot John Deere Pavilion. One of the oldest displays is the sled-like rotary-drop corn planter, a wood-and-iron contraption from 1884. Among the newest is a high-tech combine that can harvest 12 rows at a time, orchestrated from a two-story-high air-conditioned cab. You can climb a flight of stairs to try out the driver's seat, which is surrounded by enough switches, gauges and buttons to rival a cockpit.
On Arsenal Island, in the Mississippi River, traces of the Civil War remain in the Confederate Cemetery, from the time when the island served as a Union prison camp. Also from that era is a crumbling water reservoir, no longer in use. Elsewhere on the island, you can find lots of guns and rifles displayed in the Rock Island Arsenal Museum; drive by a replica of one of Ft. Armstrong's blockhouses, as it would have looked in 1816; visit the Rock Island National Cemetery; tour the lock and dam at the Mississippi River Visitor Center; or, with prior approval (Arsenal Island is government property), cycle the island's 5 miles of paved trails along the park-like riverfront.
In fact, altogether, the Quad-Cities boasts 65 miles of parks, natural areas and paved bicycle trails on both the Illinois and Iowa sides. Cyclists can ferry from one bank to the other by catching the Channel Cat water taxi at one of four landings.
People who'd rather spend time on the river, rather than beside it, can ride the Celebration Belle riverboat from its dock in Moline or board one of three floating casinos.
Moving north of the Quad-Cities, the Mississippi is hemmed by the Great River Road, or I should say roads, because each state, each bank, has its own route that passes farms and woodlands and small towns as it follows the river.
On the Iowa side, the community of LeClaire, just out of the Quad-Cities, has a driving tour of the mid-19th Century homes of riverboat pilots. Before locks and dams were built on the river, the Upper Rapids, between LeClaire and Davenport, were dangerous to navigate. Only expert pilots could guide the boats safely through them.
From LeClaire, you can take country roads for the short drive along the Cody Trail to the Buffalo Bill Cody Homestead. The original stone structure was built in 1847 by the father of the Wild West star.
At Bellevue, you can eat lunch, dinner or Sunday brunch, or spend the night in what reputedly is Iowa's oldest gristmill. The 1843 wood-frame Potter's Mill, on the National Register of Historic Places, is painted barn red on the outside and decorated with quilts in the dining room.
Bellevue is also the starting point of the Grant Wood Scenic Byway, which follows about 60 miles of country roads on its way west through the towns of Andrew, Maquoketa, Wyoming and Anamosa. The route follows the kind of scenery that the Depression-era artist interpreted in paint, and can be extended to Stone City, which holds a June art festival (this year, June 8).
Twenty-five miles west of Dubuque, a brief drive through Dyersville leads to the Lansing family farm and baseball diamond, made famous in the 1989 movie "Field of Dreams." You can bring bat and ball, or borrow them on site, and take a swing or two on the field.
One of the most interesting places to cross the Mississippi along the 100-mile stretch between the Quad-Cities and Dubuque is at Sabula, where the road at times seems to transform cars into hovercraft, skimming low islands before crossing an honest-to-goodness bridge into Illinois at Savanna.
Just north of Savanna, the bluffs of Mississippi Palisades State Park have several lookout points that provide an eagle's-eye view of the river valley below. Hiking trails, 13 miles of them, in the 2,500-acre park follow the forested cliff tops and explore wooded ravines. But the park road that passes picnic tables and campsites makes for a scenic drive in itself.
Farther north, once you reach downtown Galena, you can take the Stagecoach Trail east for 40 miles of rolling farmland through Scales Mound, Apple River and Warren to Lena. The route was first used in the 1800s by mule teams to transport ore from Galena's lead mines to market in Chicago.
Galena and Dubuque
Galena's historic and photogenic Main Street had a cameo role in the movie "Field of Dreams." If you take the hour-long walking tour that's conducted by the historical society, the guide will point out which buildings appeared in the film and show you old photos of how others have changed, or remained the same, over the years. There's the parking garage that was once a drive-through liquor store, the bakery that was once a bank. And the first door to the south of 120 Main, in the old Coatsworth building, in days gone by would have been the entrance to the Grant family's leather store, where Ulysses S. worked before he became a Union general and later the 18th president.
Those who want to learn more about Grant can visit an exhibit about his presidency at the Old Market House, a block off Main Street, or tour the Ulysses S. Grant Home, on a hilltop several blocks east of downtown.
Main Street itself is under reconstruction, a project that unexpectedly unearthed the remains of some old cisterns. But the broken pavement hasn't disrupted the boutique and antique shopping scene that's half a dozen blocks long. People who want to see more of this former steamboat and mining town, without climbing the stairways that connect Main Street with those on higher ground, can take a narrated trolley ride.
Back across the Mississippi River, in Dubuque, there are more hills to climb, particularly by way of the Fenlon Place Elevator, which lays claim to being the world's shortest steep-incline railway at only 296 feet long. It has been operating since 1882 and is part of downtown Dubuque's Cable Car Square, a pod of boutique shops in the historic row houses at Bluff and 4th Streets.
It's not far from the $188 million riverfront complex at the Port of Dubuque that, when completed, will add a conference center and a new museum to the river walk, casino, Spirit of Dubuque paddlewheel excursion boat, water park and resort that already are open.
The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium will be centered in a new building, scheduled to open June 28. Indoors, aquarium habitats and live animals such as alligators and otters will re-create ecosystems peculiar to the Mississippi River. Outdoors, visitors can observe a small wetland, watch boat-launching demonstrations or spend the night aboard the William M. Black, a former dredge boat listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Interactive exhibits will allow the curious to operate locks and dams, change the flow of a river or pilot a barge.
They're saying that this museum, associated with the Smithsonian Institution, was established as the Mississippi River's national interpretive center and that the new development, called America's River, is the only place along the Mississippi's entire length to focus historical, environmental, educational and recreational activities solely on the river.
And that's important. But all of the places mentioned here are evidence that the Mississippi is a place broader than its banks, a region that enfolds battlegrounds and bike paths, gift shops and family farms, scenic drives, old legends and collective dreams.
Somewhere in its course, the river that once divided half a continent widened its influence to unite a nation.
IF YOU GO
The Mississippi River is about a three-hour drive west of Chicago. Speediest routes are by way of Interstate Highway 88 to the Quad-Cities or by way of Interstate Highway 90 and U.S. 20 to Galena and Dubuque.
Quad-Cities: The monastery completed in 1917 for the Carmelite Sisters is now a AAA Four-Diamond hotel on the National Register of Historic Places. Large, homey rooms at The Abbey in Bettendorf, Iowa, range $99-$129. (800-438-7535; or www.theabbeyhotel.com). The 1871 home built of native stone, with wrap-around porch, sits atop a knoll overlooking the Mississippi River. Antique-filled rooms at Fulton's Landing in Davenport, Iowa, range $75-$125. (563-322-4069; or www.fultonslanding.com)
Dubuque: A brand new family-style resort right on the Mississippi River waterfront also has an indoor water park with chutes and slides. Rooms and suites at the Grand Harbor Resort & Waterpark have mini-refrigerators, microwave ovens and coffeemakers, and the $99-$239 rate includes tickets to the water park. (866-690-4006; www.grandharborresort.com)
Galena: It's hard to beat the history of a hotel where Abraham Lincoln gave a speech from the balcony. Rooms and suites at the De Soto House Hotel are all decorated differently and range $125-$250 during summer. (800-343-6562; or check out www.desotohouse.com)
Quad-Cities: The 32nd annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival and 100th Birthday Anniversary, July 24-27, includes 11 bands playing in four outdoor venues in Davenport, Iowa.
Stone City: The Grant Wood Art Festival, June 8.
Galena: The 36th annual June Tour of Historic Galena Homes, June 14-15, includes four structures around town and the Jo Daviess County Historical Society building.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Iowa Tourism Office: 888-472-6035; www.traveliowa.com
Illinois Tourism: 800-226-6632; www.enjoyillinois.com
Quad-Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau: 800-747-7800; www.visitquadcities.com
Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce: 800-798-8844; www.traveldubuque.com
Galena/Jo Daviess County Convention & Visitors Bureau: 877-464-2536; www.galena.org
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Beyond our Mississippi: 10 more favorites in each state
1) Amana Colonies--Seven villages founded as a religious commune by German-speaking settlers in the mid-1800s, with more than a score of historic buildings and trade and craft demonstrations to see. At and around Amana.
2) Bridges of Madison County--Five of the original 19 covered bridges, built between 1871 and 1921, are still standing. Before the novel and film "The Bridges of Madison County" made them famous, they were upstaged by the birthplace of John Wayne. In and around Winterset.
3) Effigy Mounds--Almost 200 prehistoric earthen mounds, built by Eastern Woodland Indians, are in this national monument. Thirty-one are in the shape of mammals, birds and reptiles. Near Marquette.
4) Farm stuff--The Midwest Old Threshers Heritage Museum displays antique farm equipment, and the town holds the Old Threshers Reunion at the end of August. In Mt. Pleasant.
5) Glenn Miller--The bandleader whose music helped define the Big Band sound grew up in the home that has been restored to its original 1904 style. It has become a museum and rallying point for a music festival every June. In Clarinda.
6) Going Dutch--A collection of 21 historical buildings, some more than 140 years old, has been moved to and restored for touring at Pella (6) Historical Village. The town is known for its Dutch heritage and architecture and holds a Tulip Festival every spring.
7) Grant Wood--Sights pertaining to the Depression-era artist are scattered across Iowa. The house made famous in "American Gothic" is at Eldon.
Elsewhere: An art gallery shows a short film about his life, in Anamosa. Every June, they hold a festival at the setting of one of his farm landscapes in Stone City. And the Grant Wood Scenic Byway follows Iowa Highway 64 from Anamosa to Maquoketa and Iowa Highway 62 from Maquoketa to Bellevue.
8) Herbert Hoover--His presidential library and museum is in West Branch.
9) Hobos--They say this is the world's only Hobo Museum. The National Hobo Convention, a tradition that is over 100 years old, is held in August. In Britt.
10) Iowa Great Lakes--A chain of five glacier-carved lakes, plus an unconnected sixth, are the launching point for water sports and a slew of land-based amusements. At and around Spirit Lake.
1) Abraham Lincoln--Before he became president, Lincoln really got around Illinois. A plaque in Lincoln Trail Homestead Park marks the spot where his family's cabin once stood, near Decatur. The New Salem State Historic Site re-creates the era when Lincoln worked as a postmaster and surveyor in New Salem. When he was elected to the Illinois House, he conducted state business in the Federal-style building that once served as the statehouse when the state capital was in Vandalia. To celebrate the moving of the capital from Vandalia to Springfield, he dined at what has become the Lincoln Long Nine Museum in Athens. The site of Lincoln's famed "House Divided" speech, his home and his 117-foot-tall granite tomb are in Springfield (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text).
2) Amish Country--The Old Order Amish still go by horse and buggy around Arcola.
3) Cahokia Mounds--The 100-foot-high Monks Mound, reputedly the largest prehistoric earthen mound in the Americas, is the highlight at this state historic site of what was once a city that flourished for 700 years, until the civilization that built it vanished in the 1400s. At Collinsville.
4) Ft. de Chartres--The stone fort in the state historic site was built by French colonialists in 1753 and still has its original powder magazine. At Prairie du Rocher.
5) Garden of the Gods--The eroded bluffs and rock formations of this recreation area in the Shawnee National Forest date back 200 million years. Near Harrisburg.
6) Lewis and Clark--The new Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center features a replica of the keel boat their expedition would have used and tells how the explorers spent 181 days in Illinois stockpiling supplies and recruiting the Corps of Discovery. In Hartford.
7) Mormon History--The Joseph Smith Historic Center includes the homestead and gravesites of the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo.
8) Route 66--America's Mother Road begins in Chicago (8) and passes old-time diners, drive-ins and filling stations on its way through Illinois headed for St. Louis and on to L.A., just like in the song.
9) Spoon River--The waters made famous in Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology" leave Spoon Lake to join the Illinois River, flowing through Knox and Fulton Counties. Masters' home stands in Lewistown. The Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive crisscrosses the river between London Mills and Waterford, with an organized drive taking place in October.
10) Starved Rock--Nestled in a forest of oak and cedar along the Illinois River, 18 canyons formed by glacial meltwater flow with waterfalls and hikers in this state park near Utica.