Heading north to Minneapolis, MN we made an overnight stop in Dubuque, Iowa whose slogan is the “Masterpiece on the Mississippi.” We had found the Stone Cliff Winery in Dubuque on the Harvest Hosts list. Harvest Hosts is an organization that connects member RVers with dry camping locations all over the U. S. After contacting Nan Smith, one of the owners of the winery, and securing a reservation, we made our way there. When we arrived, Nan greeted us warmly, helped us find a great place to park our rig, and also gave us some tips on what to see and do while in town.
Taking Nan’s advice, we went to the Fenelon Place Elevator first. As we soon found out, it is “the world’s steepest, shortest scenic railway.” The two cable cars ferry passengers 189 feet up the side of a steep bluff. Once there, you can see much of the city of Dubuque and the Mississippi River below. It is a spectacular view.
Story goes that Mr. Graves, who was a prominent resident, worked downtown but lived atop the bluff overlooking the city. In 1882, it was routine for businesses to close down for 1.5 hours so that the workers could go home and eat lunch before returning to work in the afternoon. Mr. Graves liked to eat his “dinner” and rest during that break but the buggy ride up the hill to his house took too long. His solution was to construct a steam operated wooden incline railroad up the side of the bluff. On July 25, 1882 he made his first trip on his private elevator. Soon neighbors began asking for rides up and down to work too. After a fire destroyed the cable cars and the rope in 1893, ten of his neighbors banded together to form the Fenelon Place Elevator Co. and they also redesigned the cable car system. They have made several major upgrades to it since then. This elevator is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the cable cars operate from April 1st – November 30th from 8 AM-10 PM.
After our bird’s eye view of Dubuque, we walked around some of the historic parts of the downtown area. Since the city is on the Mississippi River, it was the first town established in Iowa. Julien Dubuque, a Frenchman, was the first European to settle there and the city is named for him. Dubuque was chartered in 1833 and became the center of the growing timber industry. In the 1800s, it was a large urban area. Some of the historic buildings like the Opera House (1890), the Courthouse (1891-1893), and the Town’s Clock showcase the city’s importance and status.
Something that is new are the forty street art murals that have been painted downtown since 2016. Local and internationally acclaimed artists have created these vibrant works of art. Some of the local residents have some misgivings about the fact that they are using the sides of historic buildings as their canvasses but in general most folks really like them.
Another part of the city, the Port of Dubuque, has benefited from a lot investment and new construction projects. The city built a protection levee along the river to guard against flooding which was pervasive and very destructive. On top of the retaining levee, they built a half mile long walkway which has lovely landscaping, sculptures and benches where you can sit and watch the barges moving up and down the river. After dinner, we too strolled down the Riverwalk. There were lots of other folks out enjoying the sights and the weather. We met a lovely couple from Duluth, MN who were there on vacation.
Lining the Riverwalk are some revitalized historic places, like the Shot Tower and Star Brewing, as well as new attractions, such as the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. There is also the impressive Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark.
The Shot Tower originally produced lead shot for muskets during the Civil War. They poured hot lead into the top of the tall structure. As the lead fell to the bottom, it passed through a copper grate, forming droplets, and landed in water at the bottom. Built in 1856, the Shot Tower is one of the oldest surviving structures in Dubuque and it is a National Historic Landmark.
Next to the Shot Tower sits the Dubuque Star Brewery, another site which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Joseph Rhomberg opened the brewery in 1898 and continued selling Dubuque Star beer until Prohibition. It reopened in 1933 and remained in operation until it was forced to close in 1965 after some destructive flooding. Several others tried to revive the brewery but were unsuccessful. The city acquired the property when it began its renovation of the area. Today there are a number of businesses that lease part of the renovated building. One of them was our host, Stone Cliff Winery. While having dinner at the Winery, Nan stopped by to speak to us. She also gave us an impromptu tour of the winery and their lovely facilities which was a real treat for us.
We would be remiss if we did not mention Eagle Park Point which is a short drive from downtown. Established in 1908, this park is located high on a bluff overlooking the river and the dam and locks below. While we were there we did not see any barges pass through the locks but we did enjoy the park and view.
Dubuque is a popular tourist destination and the city hosts 1.5 million visitors annually. After being there for a short time, we can understand why. It has a long and storied past but it has continued to both to preserve and renovate its historic sites while investing in its future at the same time. Dubuque, Iowa proved to be a surprisingly fun place to explore.