Dubuque is a very old river town in the Midwest – in fact, it’s the oldest city in Iowa. Located on the mighty Mississippi River, on the eastern side of the state, the community was first settled in 1785 by a French Canadian named Julien Dubuque.
Today the Port of Dubuque is the center for river activity. The area was revitalized a few years ago and offers a variety of things to do. There’s a top-notch museum and aquarium, riverboat rides, and a paved walkway.
The views along the Mississippi Riverwalk are wonderful with an occasional barge or river boat passing by, making it a very enjoyable experience. There’s also various pieces of artwork along the path in an exhibit called Art on the River. These sculptures are another compliment to the walk.
At the north end of the Riverwalk is Stone Cliff Winery. You can do some wine tasting there, but it’s also an excellent place to have lunch. The winery is located in the historic Star Brewery building. You’ll want to take time and look at the interesting displays about the building’s past as a brewery.
A great little piece of history near the brewery is the Shot Tower. It dates from 1856 and is one of the last remaining structures of its type in the U.S. What’s a Shot Tower, I wondered? According to sources, they were used to make ammunition for muskets. Molten lead was hoisted to the top of the tower and poured through a grate. The droplets that fell from the grate were relatively uniform in size, and the fall provided enough time for the liquid-metal droplet to form into a sphere before landing in water below. The water cooled the lead to its solid state while keeping the round shape. The shot was then sorted and packed. In recent years, the Dubuque Shot Tower became part of the river front and its restoration plans.
A remarkable collection of Tiffany windows can be seen at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church on Main Street. The church is open during the week, and guides stationed in the sanctuary are welcoming and informative.
At a distance, the light shining through the Tiffany windows makes the colors look rich and velvet-like. You can also walk right up to the windows and appreciate Tiffany’s work up close.
The window pictured on the left, titled The Good Shepard, had been exhibited in a chapel Louis Tiffany designed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Later, after the Exposition closed, the family of Judge D.N. Cooley from Dubuque purchased the window for the church. It was installed during the original construction of 1896.
In addition to the Tiffany windows, visitors can see ornate brass work at the altar and a lovely frieze above the choir loft. The frieze is a replica of the “Singing Children” designed for the Cathedral of Florence, Italy.
The church building itself is worthy of Tiffany windows. It’s a splendid example of Romanesque architecture with its heavy stone walls and round arches. Upon completion, the congregation held a Feast of Dedication service in May of 1897.
While you’re in the downtown area, be sure to visit Cable Car Square and ride the Fourth Street Elevator. It’s been described as the world’s steepest, shortest scenic railway. Back in 1882, local businessman J.K. Graves was looking for a quicker way to get from his bank job at the bottom of the bluffs to the top where he lived. As it was, the trip took half an hour in his horse and buggy to go around the bluff and get from top to bottom or vice versa. Mr. Graves received permission from the City to build an incline railway like he had seen in Europe. A local engineer drew up a design, and the single cable car system was built.
Mr. Grave’s new work-day routine had the gardener letting him up or down the bluff in his cable car as needed, rather than the half-hour buggy ride. Soon his neighbors were meeting him at the elevator and asking for a ride, too. He decided to open the railway to the public and charged five cents a person.
After a series of events, including fires, the Fenelon Elevator Company was formed in 1893. Ten stockholders now owned the system. They installed a new motor to run the elevator and replaced the ropes that held the car with steel cables. Most importantly, they made the track three rails with a fourth bypass in the middle to allow for the operation of two cars. A second story was also added to the operator’s house so neighborhood men could smoke and play cards there without their wives bothering them. Hmm . . .
At the top of the elevator you’ll find a lookout area and some great views of the downtown business district and the Mississippi River. (The building with the gold dome is the 1891 Dubuque County Courthouse.)
It only costs $1.50 to ride the elevator one way. If you have a bicycle with you, it’s $2.00. There’s service eight months of the year, from April 1st through November 30th.
Dubuque offers an inviting blend of nature, history, architecture, and culture. It’s conveniently situated in the southwest corner of what is known as the Tri-State area. Illinois and Wisconsin are both just a few miles away. (Galena, Illinois is an easy 17-mile drive.) You’ll want to plan a visit soon!