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Tipped off about Dubuque by a reader, the Getaway Guys paid it a visit, even though Neil thought Iowa was near California. A Mississippi River town 180 miles from Chicago, Dubuque is a mere 15 miles beyond Galena, Ill., (a perennial Chicagoan haunt) and well worth the extra distance.
Incorporated in 1833 (lead mining and smelting being its raison d’etre) and conveniently adjacent to an early major thoroughfare (the Mississippi), Dubuque’s 19th century architecture and scenic setting is surprisingly delightful. Not surprising (for an early 19th century community), Dubuque’s streets are a bit of a hodge-podge and sometimes difficult to navigate because of “one-way” restrictions. As one resident said, “You get used to it, but I still have nightmares about going the wrong way.”
In addition to its more pleasant features and a remarkable plenitude of surviving 19th century dwellings, Dubuque has two absolute must-see attractions: the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in the port district (undergoing a major redevelopment), and Eagle Point Park (a fantastic Works Projects Administration project) north of town. The NMRMA has outstanding outdoor and indoor exhibits depicting the natural history of the Mississippi and its development as a font of natural resources and a means of transportation. Alan was astounded by the size of some of the wildlife in the aquarium, from crocodiles to sturgeons. And his interest was piqued (literally) when attacked by a red-winged blackbird while touring the outdoor exhibits. This facility has wonderful, hands-on learning displays for children, and a very well-informed and helpful staff.
After visiting the NMRMA, the Guys strolled along Dubuque’s levy. The district has many new wonders, including a casino. There is a convention center (new), public sculpture, a historic shot tower (c.1840s) and a restored brewery (c.1890s). The shot tower produced lead shot of varying sizes and the former Star Brewery is now a focal point for dining and nightlife. The Guys took in the latter for a wine tasting in the Stone Creek Winery and dinner later at the Star Restaurant (nice atmosphere and service, ordinary fare, though pricey, per Alan).
Remarkably well-preserved, Eagle Point Park is a drop-dead example of WPA planning and execution.
Utilizing the Point’s topographical features to best advantage, landscape architect Alfred Caldwell (1903-1998) transformed an earlier (1909) public park into an outdoor museum of Prairie School architecture by adopting/adapting Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature style with stunning results. Had the Guys not known better, they might have imagined themselves in a very hilly Oak Park, Ill. The stonework of Caldwell’s buildings, especially the “Bridge Complex,” is intriguing and its design creates surprising vistas at every turn. Like other WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps projects of the era, there are limestone council rings and a remarkable fish pond, hewn out of the rocks in the park’s northeast corner.
Near the park is the restored Mathias Ham House, an antebellum Italian-Villa style mansion (1839-1857). A guide there conducted a tour that featured an informed account of what 19th-century life was like. On the tour, two sisters appeared to be utterly bewildered by what they saw and heard. In response to a question about proper period eating habits (what single food item was eaten by hand?), the younger thought perhaps pizza. The answer was bread, which neither Guy knew, either. Nearby is a relocated 1833 log cabin, is supposedly the oldest extant structure in Iowa.
The Ham House and log cabin are not the only old dwellings in Dubuque. There must be hundreds. The Dubuque Old House Enthusiasts list 100, and many are open annually for tours. Additionally, atop Dubuque’s bluffs are five higher-education campuses beautifully sited. To scale the bluffs the Guys rode the Fenelon Place Elevator from Cable Square at Fourth and Bluff Streets. This cable car is supposedly the shortest and steepest railroad in the world. (Neil made Alan sit on the downward side, just in case the cable broke.) For surviving, their reward was a panoramic view of Dubuque and the Mississippi beyond.
In the downtown district a surprising number of historically significant buildings have been preserved and restored. At Eighth and Iowa is the Grand Opera House (1890), which features six major Broadway productions annually, and at Tenth and Main is the Old County Jail (1857-58), which appears vaguely Egyptian and reminded Neil of New York City’s notorious “Tombs” prison. Over on Thirteenth and Central is Dubuque’s Old City Hall (1857), a copy of Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Back at Tenth and Main (next to Dubuque’s “Tombs”) is the County Courthouse (1891), a Second Empire pile faithfully maintained externally, but disappointing internally because of dropped ceilings and an obnoxious elevator stuck under its central dome.
Dubuque offers more to do and see than one might think, but after a day and a half the Guys headed home. Hungry, they drove (crawled) through downtown Galena, but gave up (tourist hordes and no parking). However, they toured Ulysses S. Grant’s home (uphill), an interesting and well-maintained site administered by the State of Illinois. Later they found culinary respite in Stockton, Ill., (a town apparently devoted to contemporary log structures) where they satisfied their hunger at Antny’s, a contemporary Adirondack structure complete with remarkable handmade furniture made by its owner – and good food.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.