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.

Guttenberg

Atop the bluffs, tidy frame farmhouses dot the landscape, with white barns, silos, and farmland aroma accompanying US-18 and US-52 as they loop inland south toward Guttenberg (pop. 1,873), another postcard-pretty old river town whose downtown lines the Mississippi. In fact, it’s one of the few Mississippi riverfronts where the river itself is not hidden away behind levees. A long, green riverside park, just a quick two blocks east of the main highway, makes the downtown area a particularly pleasant place to stroll.

Guttenberg is indeed named in honor of Johannes Gutenberg, 15th-century inventor of printing from moveable type. Local legend has it that an official of French descent purposely added the extra “t” after German residents won a vote to change the town’s name from the original Prairie la Porte. Germanic surnames still predominate in the local phone book, and the two main streets, which run perpendicular to the Mississippi, are named Schiller and Goethe.

On the north side of town, the GRR takes an up-close look at the prairie’s geological underpinnings as it cuts down to the river’s edge. From the downtown area, it’s a quick walk upriver to the concrete walls of Lock and Dam No. 10. Besides giving a sense of the massive engineering that attempts to tame the Mississippi, the locks are also home to an aquarium that offers a quick biology lesson through displays of live specimens of many of the river’s fish and invertebrate species.

There are great views to be had in the first few miles of Iowa’s GRR route south of Guttenberg. About 10 well-signed miles south of Guttenberg, you can take the Cassville ferry across the Mississippi from Millville and visit the unique Dickeyville Grotto, or stay on the Iowa side and cruise through the Germanic eye-blink towns that dot the rolling uplands between Guttenberg and Dubuque. Midway along, tiny Balltown in particular is worth a stop to sample the food and decor at Breitbach’s (563 Balltown Rd., 563/552-2220), a bar and restaurant that’s so old President Millard Fillmore issued the permit allowing it to open.

 

Guttenberg

Lock and Dam No. 10.

Breitbach’s (563 Balltown Rd.)

Balltown