DUBUQUE, Iowa—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.
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.