Visitors Guide to the Tri-State Area
Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri
Imagine traveling on a vessel downstream on the Mississippi River as you approach the point where the borders of Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri meet. The Mississippi River has already entered the wide preglacial valley that the river has carved out and that can extend from five to fifteen miles and is bordered by hills or bluffs that are made of material that is harder to erode than what once occupied the valley. In some areas the bluffs, which rise to two to three hundred feet, are adjacent to the river, in others they are represented by ridges of hills that can be miles from the river. The area is hospitable as evidence by archeological remains that date back millennia. It is this area that greatriverroad.com considers the beginning of the Middle Mississippi River Valley and encompasses the counties of Lee in Iowa, Hancock, Adams, and Pike in Illinois, and Lewis and Clark in Missouri.
The first significant community a traveler would encounter would be Fort Madison, Iowa. Fort Madison was the first United States military post on the upper Mississippi River. The fort was established in 1808 and was burned down during the War of 1812. A full-scale replica of Old Fort Madison has been erected in Riverview Park at a point near the actual site of the historic fort which visitors can visit and during certain events watch living history demonstrations. Fort Madison became a railroad town and the Old Santa Fe Depot is now a museum complex covering area history. The downtown area has been revitalized Fort Madison’s local architecture has been highlighted in a self-guided tour brochure that covers nearly 100 Victorian-style homes.
A bit further down the river is the town of Nauvoo, Illinois. The town grew up around the residence of a retired Army captain who was friendly with the local tribes and later became known as Commerce when it became the focus of speculators who hoped the town would become a commercial success. But it is its history with the Mormons that has made Nauvoo well known. After Commerce failed to achieve any success, it became all but abandoned and was bought by the Church of the Latter Day Saints in 1839 that was in need of a place to build upon, having been recently evicted from Missouri. The Mormons soon rebuilt the town, renamed it Nauvoo, and it became the rival in population to any in Illinois. The growing political power of the Mormons in Adams County was seen as a threat by the non-Mormon population and soon violence broke out. After the deaths of the Mormon leader Joseph Smith and his brother most Mormons evacuated Nauvoo and began the famous trek to Utah. In recent years the Mormons have returned and have accomplished a restoration process that is unmatched in the Midwest. There are three visitor centers and a large number of restored homes. The Family Living Center complex provides hands-on-experiences include woodworking, weaving, rope making, pottery, and candle making. The complex is free to visit and a must see place for children. There is so much to see in Nauvoo that any visitor wishing to truly investigate the community should allocate at least a half to a full day to do so.
If you take IL-96 south out of Nauvoo you will travel on one of the most scenic sections of the Great River Road in the Middle Mississippi River Valley. This section of the road is one of perhaps a dozen stretches in the Middle Mississippi River Valley that the Mississippi River is actually visible from the Great River Road. This particular stretch is a recommended drive in the fall and has there is a reasonable chance of spotting bald eagles in the winter. At the end of this stretch you’ll reach Hamilton which sits across the river from the better known city of Keokuk.
Keokuk’s existence is owed to two geographical factors. One is Keokuk is located just north of the confluence of the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers. The other is that Keokuk was located just south of the Des Moines Rapids. These rapids, 12 miles long and according to records at the time had an average depth of less than 3 feet, comprised the first major obstacle to river traffic on the Upper Mississippi River. Steamboats and other larger vessels couldn’t pass over this barrier. In addition to trade coming south along the Des Moines River, enterprising men would ferry cargo and passengers in small boats, called lighters, across the rapids. The rapids also made Keokuk one of the major staging points during the Civil War. Men coming from Iowa, northern Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota would embark on steamboats south to the war from Keokuk. Keokuk also became the site of six hospitals for the wounded shipped back north from the fighting. The first designated national cemetery west of the Mississippi River is located in Keokuk. The problem of the rapids was finally solved in 1913 when construction was completed at Keokuk of Lock and Dam #19, the biggest dam on the Upper Mississippi. Completed at the same time was the Keokuk Power Plant, at the time the largest electricity generating plant in the world. The lock and dam created Lake Cooper which completely covers the Des Moines Rapids and is the largest pool in the series of dams with 240 miles of shoreline.
Traveling south of Keokuk on a river boat one would flow past the rural counties of Lewis and Clark in Missouri and Adams in Illinois. A few small communities dot the river bank, many owing their existence to dreams of creating thriving successful cities like St. Louis. Nature lovers will find state parks in this region and there a few historical sites such the Iliniwek Village and the Battle of Athens State Historic Sites. The only ferry that crosses the Mississippi River in this region is located at Canton.
About 45 miles south of Keokuk is the community of Quincy, Illinois. Situated mostly on bluffs that overlook the Mississippi, Quincy is one of the most picturesque communities along the river. One of the first places a visitor to Quincy should go is the Villa Kathrine. This unique example of Mediterranean architecture is located on a bluff with a breath taking view of the Mississippi River and is home to Quincy’s Tourist Information Center. This center will give you all the information about Quincy’s many museums, art centers, and historical sites. The city hosts numerous annual events including architectural walks through Quincy’s many historic districts.
The final county on the journey down river through this region is Pike County, Illinois. Pike County is noted for its rolling hills and scenic vistas and its many rural communities that offer opportunities to see a part of Illinois as it existed in the days of the pioneers. Pike County is also an ideal place for the sportsperson and nature lover. Lake Pittsfield offers boating, camping, and fishing and its 200-acre lake is surrounded by 480 acres of recreational land with picnic facilities and hiking and biking trails. Every fall the county hosts the Pike County Color Drive that provides visitors with the opportunity to see the beauty of rural Pike County bathed in the splendor of autumn. The county seat of Pittsfield has an Abraham Lincoln collection with a unique house tour you take using your car radio.
Like all the regions in the Middle Mississippi River Valley the Tri-State area has a lot to offer it visitors. At regular intervals are real river towns with friendly and gracious people. There are museums, cultural institutions, and historical sites to complement the nature found in the area’s parks and wildlife areas. Unique Bed and Breakfasts can be found in almost any location throughout the region. Unique eateries and shopping districts await to be discovered. Whatever your interest, you’re sure to find it in the Tri-State area of the Middle Mississippi River Valley.