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Iowa river towns

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Did You Know … ?

  • The Diamond Lady docked at Bettendorf was America’s first casino riverboat in the modern era (1991).
  • The U.S. Lock and Dam No. 19 at Keokuk was the world’s largest electricity generating plant when built (1913).
  • The Council Bluffs name stems from a council held by Lewis and Clark with area Indians in 1804.
  • President Ronald Reagan began his career in Davenport at WOC, first radio station west of the Mississippi.
  • Walter Sheaffer launched production of his Sheaffer pen in his Fort Madison jewelry store (1913).

Great Places

The Mississippi River forms Iowa’s eastern border, and the Missouri forms about two-thirds of the state’s western border. Important transport arteries both, the rivers’ banks are dotted with cities and towns, many dating from the early decades of 19th century European settlement. Dubuque on the Mississippi is Iowa’s oldest city (1833).

The Mississippi conjures images of paddle wheelers and Mark Twain’s stories of river life. Still a vital highway, nowadays the Mississippi carries 60% of all U.S. grain exports.

The Missouri is remembered as the first leg of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806). The West started here for others, too: Council Bluffs was one launch point for the California and Oregon trails; the Mormons began their push to Utah here (1847), and Council Bluffs was the eastern terminus for the tracks that gave America its first transcontinental railroad (1869).

Many river towns sit on bluffs overlooking the rivers, providing scenic byways for drivers and countryside with turf good for outdoor pursuits. Visitors also may ply the waters, in kayaks or aboard riverboats offering sightseeing, dinner cruises and the like.

All the cities below have historic districts. Several have Iowa-designated cultural districts and/or are among Iowa’s Great Places, meaning sites that received state grants to cultivate the unique qualities of their communities.

  • Sioux City boasts a revitalized downtown and beautiful riverfront. Its Fourth Street Historic District lures visitors with shops and restaurants.
  • Council Bluffs is a fitting home to the Western Historic Trails Center and two railroad museums.
  • Mississippi bluffs tower over McGregor/Marquette, setting of 19th century architecture and an October crafts fair brightened by autumn colors.
  • Dubuque benefits from an investment of more than $400 million in its riverfront revitalization.
  • Clinton, born a lumber town, has a Sawmill Museum.
  • Davenport, part of the Quad Cities Iowa-Illinois metro complex, is the area for music festivals and the River Music Experience museum.
  • Fort Madison is named for the first military fort on the Upper Mississippi. Tourists can see the reconstructed fort.
  • Keokuk offers the best look at the power of the Mississippi when seeing Lock and Dam No. 19 at the Keokuk Power Plant.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Hike the 13.5 miles of trails in the Effigy Mounds National Monument near Marquette, before or after you view the prehistoric Indian burial sites. They are located on more than 2,500 acres of forest and along the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi.
  • Try driving, cycling or roller-skating on Burlington’s Snake Alley, a very curvy block that drops 58 feet over a 275-foot distance. Or, just walk it. Burlington claims Snake Alley is the real crookedest street in the world.
  • Paddle a canoe in secluded backwaters, camp out and spy the birds on the portions of the 240,000-acre Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge that is near McGregor.
  • See demonstrations of oat threshing or an antique tractor pull at the Ag-Rail Festival, held in August in Sioux City, on the Missouri River.
  • Ski and snowboard in Iowa. No kidding. The Sundown Mountain Ski and Snowboard Resort at Dubuque in northeast Iowa promises a 475-foot vertical drop. Take advantage.
  • Tune in at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival in Bettendorf. Or, choose the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in Davenport. Both are summer events, but if the timing is not right, fall back on Davenport’s River Music Experience, with a museum gallery dedicated to local icon Bix Beiderbecke and others from the Quad Cities.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Pursue an interest in the Mormons’ tenure on the Missouri River at the Kanesville Tabernacle, a reconstructed log tabernacle in Council Bluffs. Also in Council Bluffs, the Western Historic Trails Center interprets the Lewis and Clark, the Mormon, California and Oregon trails.
  • Ride the Fenelon Place Elevator, the world’s steepest scenic railway, for the Mississippi River views at Dubuque.
  • Get into the act. Experience a day as a soldier serving with Lewis and Clark, at the Sioux City Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.
  • Make use of the important birding area at the Mines of Spain Recreation Area at Dubuque. The site also offers canoeing, kayaking and cross-country skiing, depending on season.
  • In the Fort Madison area on the Mississippi, sample the wine made at the Christian Herschler Historic District Winery and Stagecoach Stop, or try the apple cider made at the Faeth Farmstead and Orchard Historical District.
  • Choose a scenic byway and start driving. Choices include the River Bluffs Scenic Byway in northeast Iowa and the Grant Woods Scenic Byway a bit south of that. Or the Loess Hills Scenic Byway along the Missouri River.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Mississippi River sightseeing cruises are available in several places. Climb aboard in Clinton, Dubuque or LeClaire. Another idea: See the Mississippi from Davenport’s Channel Cat Water Taxi operating between two Iowa docks and three in Illinois.
  • For the railroad buff, check out these Missouri River sites: the Milwaukee Railroad Shops Historic District in Sioux City, or the Union Pacific Railroad Museum and the RailsWest Railroad Museum and HO Model Railroad, both in Council Bluffs.
  • Shop in the village of East Davenport, a historic Mississippi River neighborhood with cafes, art events and the shopping.
  • Settle in for a performance at the Sioux City Community Theatre or the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre, the latter on the Mississippi.
  • Catch up on some pioneer-days history in the Mississippi’s Quad Cities at the Buffalo Bill Cody Homestead, the Colonel Davenport Historic Home and/or the Dan Nagle Walnut Grove Pioneer Village. Walnut Grove was a stagecoach stop and now has a collection of historic buildings.
  • In Keokuk, climb aboard a retired paddlewheel steamboat, the George M. Verity, now a riverboat museum, open daily in summer. Also, watch the mighty Mississippi flow through Lock and Dam No. 19 at the Keokuk Power Plant — viewed from the city’s Bridge Observation Deck.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Travel Iowa at