In the 1880s, Dubuque banker and businessman JK Graves enjoyed returning home for lunch and a quick nap before returning to the business of making money.
However, Mr. Graves had a problem. Although his bank was only a few blocks from his house, those few blocks were separated by a six-foot-high limestone cliff that required an hour and a half in the buggy.
His solution was to build the steepest and shortest railroad in the United States – and possibly the world.
The elevator is 296 feet long to take passengers 189 feet from Fenelon Place to Fourth Street. Even today, the latest version of the Fenelon Place Elevator takes passengers to the top of the cliff for $ 2 each way, offering an affordable ride and great views of Dubuque and the Mississippi Rivers.
As you drive through rolling soybean and corn fields through the Midwestern heartland, you don’t expect much for scenic views unless you appreciate the symmetry of a series of upright, bright green stems that curl easily in the breeze.
The 200-foot tree-lined cliffs overlooking the historic Dubuque skyline, sloping so dramatically towards the Mississippi, were a bit of astonishing. In this part of Iowa, only the wide, slow-flowing river is shallow.
After all, Julien Dubuque was a hardworking guy. As a French-Canadian fur trader, he settled with the Indians in northeast Iowa and began mining the immense lead deposits along the Mississippi. Eventually his eponymous city developed into the first and most important settlement of Iowa.
Buried in the limestone heights that rise above the river at the point where Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois meet, Dubuque – whose history is rich in industry – saw its fortune when large factories flourished only to when in the 1980s Industry and jobs moved south.
But Dubuque had the river. City fathers and citizen leaders realized that reconnecting with their community was their greatest asset.
Today the once industrial riverfront has been reinvented and embraces the scenic beauty of the Mississippi banks. Large sections of the shuttered, sturdy, brick-clad warehouses in the city center have been converted into retro apartments, fashionable restaurants and attractive marketplaces that transform a once grumpy landscape into an idyllic setting.
We were immediately drawn to the Riverwalk, an eight-hundred-foot-long walkway that sits on top of the Dubuque flood wall.
The Riverwalk is littered with a dozen sculptures that change annually and forms the focal point of a picturesque waterfront promenade with the Mississippi as a backdrop.
We found it to be both relaxing and engaging. As we walked the pink and cream stone path, ducks huddled on the bank, seagulls swept across the water looking for their next meal, and several like-minded couples walked hand in hand enjoying the late afternoon breeze.
As dinner time approached, we walked a dozen blocks to Dubuque’s Historic Millwork District. The district used to be the location of the city’s industrial heartbeat. This is an area with an impressive collection of multi-story, brick-clad former mills that have been converted into a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood.
We came across 7 Hills Brewing Co. which is housed in a sprawling 10,000 square foot facility with 20 foot ceilings. The dining area covers more than 4,500 square meters and has German-style tables that can seat up to 20 people and encourage interaction between guests.
As we immersed ourselves in a platter of barbeques, it was hard not to get drawn into the lively conversation as we introduced ourselves at the communal table and toast everything with mugs of home-brewed ales.
The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium – a subsidiary of the Smithsonian Institution – is appropriately located on the former site of the Dubuque Boat & Boiler Works. The nearly 10-acre campus at the southern end of the Riverwalk tells the story of the largest river in the country and features more than a dozen aquariums with giant catfish, sturgeon, turtles and other wildlife from the river and saltwater species from the Gulf of Mexico. With the young faces and hands pressed against the plexiglass panes, it can captivate for hours.
Outside, moored in the harbor behind the aquarium, sat William H. Black, 277 feet long and 25 feet wide, one of the last of the great steam-powered side wheels. Exploring this flashback means stepping into a colorful era of steam powered navigation on the country’s rivers.
If you’re looking for a little bit of interaction with nature and a chance to stretch your legs, The Mines of Spain Recreation Area sits on 1,439 acres of beautiful woodland and prairie land south of Dubuque.
With 25.1 km of hiking trails, it offers a picturesque opportunity to get in touch with the great outdoors and wildlife of the region. You can also visit Julien Dubuque’s resting place and memorial, which sits on a cliff overlooking the Mississippi.
“If you build it, they will come” is one of the iconic lines from moviedom. Twenty minutes outside of Dubuque, in Dyersville, we found the most famous ball field on which “Field of Dreams” – with its sturdy, white clapboard house surrounded by Iowa’s finest corn – was filmed.
Boys and girls, men and women, young and old, big and small played tag, kicked the batter’s box or stood upright on the pitcher’s mound and stared at the batter. In late summer, you can’t help but wander past the outfield and into the cornfield like Ray Liotta’s Shoeless Joe Jackson did in the movie.
Dinner was in the Brazen Open Kitchen. Again, here in the Millwork District, a blackboard announced their menu, which is constantly changing with seasonal gardens and local ingredients.
We went with the pizza, whose crust was thin, light and very flavorful from the ground up, topped with homemade bacon, lettuce, tomato jam, basil mayonnaise, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella.
We then discovered the restored and historic Star Brewery building that anchored the north end of the Riverwalk. After its last frothy brew was made in the 1990s, the stately, brick-clad building now houses the Stone Cliff Winery and tasting room. There is live entertainment on the outdoor terrace at weekends.
The 120-foot gunshot tower can be seen nearby. It was built for lead shot in 1856 and is one of the last remaining scrap towers in the United States.
On our final morning, we drove downtown through a kaleidoscope of 40 murals in the city’s buildings, past the nearly 150-year-old, 108-foot-tall city clock on the opening day of the farmers’ market, which spans more than three blocks near the city Town hall in the heart of the city.
When you went from seller to seller who had gathered to sell homemade or handmade items, it was such a convivial atmosphere. Children stopped to pet well-behaved dogs, couples shared their best asparagus recipes, and vendors explained the benefits of raw honey. It was a neighborhood party for the whole city.
Just a few blocks away, we visited St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, which is home to the fifth largest collection of Tiffany windows in the United States. The amazing luminosity when the morning sun streamed through the windows created an almost radiant effect and made for a quiet stopover in the morning.
Mark Twain once wrote: “Mississippi cities are beautiful, clean, well built, and pleasing to the eye and pleasing to the mind. The Mississippi Valley is as calm as a dreamland, nothing worldly about it … nothing to worry or worry about. “
He could have described Dubuque.