In the 1880s, Dubuque banker and businessman J.K. Graves liked to return home for his midday meal and a brief nap before returning to the business of making money.
However, Mr. Graves had an issue. Although his bank was only a few blocks from his house, those few blocks were separated by a nearly 200-foot limestone bluff requiring an hour and a half buggy ride.
His solution was to build the steepest and shortest railway in the United States — and possibly the world.
The elevator has a length of 296 feet to carry passengers 189 feet from Fenelon Place to Fourth Street. Today, the current iteration of the Fenelon Place Elevator still carries passengers to the top of the bluff for $2 each way, providing an inexpensive ride and grand views of Dubuque and the Mississippi River.
Driving across the Midwest’s heartland through rolling fields of soybean and corn, one does not expect much in the way of scenic vistas unless, of course, you appreciate the symmetry of row upon row of ram-rod erect, bright green stalks rippled ever so slightly by the breeze.
The 200-foot high tree-lined bluffs overlooking the historic skyline of Dubuque that fall off so dramatically toward the Mississippi River were a bit startling. In this part of Iowa, the only thing flat is the broad, slow-moving river.
By all accounts, Julien Dubuque was an industrious fellow. A French-Canadian fur trader by vocation, he settled amongst the Native Americans in northeast Iowa, and commenced to mining the immense lead deposits along the Mississippi River. Eventually, his eponymous town grew into the first, and a major, settlement of Iowa.
Carved into the limestone heights that rise above the river at the point where Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois meet, Dubuque — whose history is rich with manufacturing — saw its fortunes rise and fall as great factories flourished only to shutter in the ’80s as industry and jobs moved south.
But Dubuque had the river. City fathers and civic leaders realized their greatest asset needed to once again be connected to their community.
Today, its once industrial riverfront has been reinvented, embracing the scenic beauty of the Mississippi banks. Great swaths of shuttered, stout, brick-clad warehouses downtown have been converted into retro apartments, fashionable eateries and engaging marketplaces turning a once morose landscape into an idyllic setting.
We were immediately drawn to the Riverwalk, a half-mile long walkway situated atop Dubuque’s flood wall.
Dotted with a dozen or so annually changing sculptured art works, the Riverwalk is the focal point of a scenic waterfront with the Mississippi as its backdrop.
We found that it is both relaxing and engaging. As we walked the pink and cream stone-paved path, ducks crowded the shore, gulls swept across the waters seeking their next meal and several like-minded couples strolled by hand-in-hand enjoying the late afternoon breezes.
As dinner time approached, we walked a dozen blocks to Dubuque’s Historic Millwork District. The district is formerly the site of the city’s industrial heartbeat. This is an area with an impressive collection of multi-story, brick-clad former mills that have been reclaimed into a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood.
We stumbled upon 7 Hills Brewing Co., located within a sprawling, 10,000-square-foot setting that features 20-foot ceilings. The dining area spans more than 4,500 square feet and features German-style tables that will seat up to 20 people and encourage interaction among guests.
As we delved into a platter of bar bites, it was hard not to be drawn into the vibrant conversations, as we introduced ourselves to the communal table and toasted all with mugs of house-brewed ales.
The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium — a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate — sits, fittingly, on the former site of the Dubuque Boat & Boiler Works. The nearly 10-acre campus, sitting at the south end of the Riverwalk, tells the story of the nation’s largest river 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. Based on the young faces and hands pressed against Plexiglas windows, it can enthrall for hours.
Outdoors, moored in the harbor behind the aquarium, sat the 277-foot long and 85-foot wide William H. Black, one of the last great steam-powered side-wheelers. Exploring this throwback is to enter a colorful era of steam-powered navigation on the nation’s rivers.
If you are seeking a little interaction with nature and a chance to stretch your legs, The Mines of Spain Recreation Area is located on 1,439 acres of beautiful wood and prairie land just south of Dubuque.
With 15.1 miles of trails, it provides a picturesque chance to commune with the great outdoors and the area’s wildlife. You can also visit Julien Dubuque’s resting place and memorial which lies on a cliff facing the Mississippi River.
“If you build it, they will come” is one of moviedom’s iconic lines. Twenty minutes outside of Dubuque, in Dyersville, we found that most famous ballfield where “Field of Dreams” — with its sturdy, white clapboard home surrounded by Iowa’s finest corn — was filmed.
Boys and girls, men and women, young and old, big and small played catch, stepped into the batter’s box or stood tall on the pitcher’s mound staring down the batter. In late summer, you cannot help but wander past the outfield and into the cornfield just as Ray Liotta’s Shoeless Joe Jackson did in the movie.
Dinner was at Brazen Open Kitchen. Again, located in the Millwork District, a chalkboard announced its menu that continually changes with seasonal gardens and locally-sourced ingredients.
We went with the pizza, whose made-from-scratch crust was thin, light and very flavorful, topped with house-cured bacon, lettuce, tomato jam, basil mayo, cherry tomato and mozzarella.
Afterward, we discovered the restored and historic Star Brewery building, anchoring the northend of the Riverwalk. Having produced its last sudsy brew in the ’90s, the stately, brick-clad structure now houses the Stone Cliff Winery and tasting room. On weekends, live entertainment can be found on the outdoor patio.
Nearby, the 120-foot Shot Tower can be seen. Built in 1856 to provide lead shot, it is one of the last remaining shot towers in the United States.
Our final morning, we headed downtown through a kaleidoscope of 40 wall murals dotting the city’s buildings, past the nearly 150-year-old, 108-foot tall Town Clock to the opening day of the farmers’ outdoor market which sprawls over more than three city blocks near City Hall at the heart of the city.
Walking from vendor to vendor that had gathered to sell homegrown or handmade items, there was such a sociable feel. Children stopped to pet well-behaved dogs, couples shared their best recipes for asparagus and merchants explained the benefits of raw honey. It was a neighborhood party for the entire town.
Just a few blocks away, we visited St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, home to the fifth largest collection of Tiffany Windows in the United States. The amazing luminosity as the morning sun streamed through the windows created an almost radiant effect and provided a quiet interlude to the morning.
Mark Twain once wrote, “Mississippi River towns are comely, clean, well built and pleasing to the eye, and cheering to the spirit. The Mississippi Valley is as reposeful as a dreamland, nothing worldly about it ... nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.”
He could have been describing Dubuque.