The Great River Road

Old Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy—by any name the mighty Mississippi cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape.

The Quad Cities

Straddling the Mississippi at its confluence with the Rock River, the Quad Cities—Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa—encompass an enormous sprawl of some 400,000 residents. While much of the cityscape is dominated by heavy industry, particularly on the Iowa side, points of interest are sprinkled throughout.

Along the river at the heart of the Quad Cities, adjacent to downtown Rock Island, is the former namesake of that city, now called Arsenal Island for the U.S. Army facility based there. Despite the look of the gatehouse at the southern entrance, the island is open to the public; besides an arsenal museum and Civil War cemeteries, there’s a very good Corps of Engineers visitors center (daily, free) on the island right next to Lock and Dam No. 15, where the operation of the locks can be seen from a penny-pitch away.

The first railroad bridge over the Mississippi linked Rock Island and Davenport in 1856. The railroad was promptly sued by a steamboat company whose craft was mortally attracted to the bridge piers. The plaintiffs argued that bridges violated their navigation rights; the defense lawyer’s elegantly simple—and successful—rebuttal was that a person has as much right to cross a river as to travel upon it. That lawyer was Abraham Lincoln. Today the railroad crosses the river on the upper deck of the old iron Government Bridge, which swings open for the tows entering the locks; cars crossing between Rock Island and Davenport can ride the humming lower deck or take the modern concrete highway span below the dam.

If you come to the Quad Cities looking for a slice of old-fashioned, Middle American humdrum, you’re in for a surprise: one of the oldest and most impressive municipal art museums stands at the heart of unassuming Davenport. The Figge Art Museum (225 W. 2nd St., 563/326-7804, closed Mon., $7), overlooking the Mississippi, is housed in a beautiful glass gem designed by noted British architect David Chipperfield. The museum shows off the University of Iowa’s fine collection of painting and sculpture, including an excellent assembly of WPA era art and Frank Lloyd Wright furniture, and stages events and educational activities. Another intriguing cultural enterprise is just up the street, where the River Music Experience (129 N. Main St., 563/326-1333, closed Sun., free) is an interactive museum exploring the many different sorts of music that have grown up along the Mississippi River. Frequent, usually-free, live concerts are held on the plaza outside and in the Redstone Room nightclub.

Davenport celebrates the music legacy of native son and cornetist Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke with the annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, held at the end of July. A statue of Bix stands along the river, next to wonderful, old (circa-1930) but thoughtfully modernized Modern Woodmen Park, where the Quad Cities River Bandits (563/324-3000, tickets $5-13) play their home games. In a nod to the nearby Field of Dreams, before games the home team players run out from a corn field planted down the left field foul line.

Quad Cities Practicalities

In downtown Davenport, the only large Mississippi River city not cut off from Ol’ Muddy by a flood wall, look to the historic downtown area around the River Music Experience, where you’ll find several good brewpubs and cafés. Away from downtown Davenport, off I-80 exit 292, the original Machine Shed Restaurant (7250 Northwest Blvd., 563/391-2427) draws families from near and far for its huge portions of roast pork and other Midwest faves (like the famously good pies).

In downtown Moline, a half dozen blocks along 5th Avenue between I-74 and 14th Street hold everything from the unexpectedly excellent French-infused Vietnamese fare of Le Mekong (1606 5th Ave., 309/797-8660) to the extraordinary Lagomarcino’s (1422 5th Ave., 309/764-1814), a candy store and soda fountain that serves drinks like phosphates in a setting virtually unchanged since it opened in 1908. Order a hot fudge sundae—it’s made with homemade fudge and ice cream.

Rock Island’s old downtown, 2nd Avenue, has experienced something of a revival with the appearance of a riverboat casino a block away; one pleasant result is “the District,” centered on the 2nd Avenue pedestrian mall. One great place hereabouts is the Blue Cat Brew Pub (113 18th St., 309/788-8247) along the riverside, where salads, seafood, and desserts go way beyond your average pub fare, and the beers range from traditional lagers and ales to more esoteric concoctions (orange coriander hefe weiss, anyone?).

For a truly regional diner experience, make your way to a Maid-Rite Diner (2036 16th St., Moline, 309/764-1196). A strictly upper-Midwest phenomenon whose faded logo, “Since 1926,” can often be seen on old brick buildings or historic commercial storefronts as far away as Minnesota, the local Maid-Rites are unusually bright and polished, and they come heartily recommended.


Corps of Engineers visitors center

Modern Woodmen Park (209 S Gaines St.)

River Music Experience (129 N. Main St.)

Figge Art Museum (225 W. 2nd St.)

Government Bridge