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The city of Dubuque proclaims it boldly on a billboard along its gateway — Home of The American River. 

But it is how this northeast Iowa city and the surrounding region embrace the Mississippi River that makes it worth the 70-mile drive from the Quad-Cities for a day of exploring. From its museums and parks to its scenic river and valley views, historic riverfront restorations and even a nearby water ferry, the river is the common denominator for work, play and relaxation. 

This week's Big Story is the second in a series on the great Mississippi River treasure that flows through and connects the Quad-Cities. Throughout the summer, Quad-City Times reporters are retracing the paths of Times photographers Kevin Schmidt and Andy Abeyta and Times reporter Jack Cullen. The trio spent last summer traveling the Mississippi and shooting thousands of photographs along the eastern Iowa border from New Albin down to Keokuk.

Here's a look at some of the highlights those traveling the Great River Road will find in Dubuque and upstream to Guttenberg.  

National River Museum

No visit to Iowa's oldest city, is complete without a stop at Dubuque's National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. Founded in 2003 by the Dubuque County Historical Society, the museum attracts between 200,000 and 250,000 visitors annually. 

"We're the largest river museum telling the story of the Mississippi River and its watershed," said Wendy Scardino, the museum's marketing and communications director. "We have over 200 species of different animals and over 2,000 animals." 

The three-building complex and its William M. Black Dredge Museum lead visitors on a fascinating tour of the Mississippi's wildlife and marine life. Visitors learn of the challenges and outside influences affecting the creatures that depend on the waterway as well as other surprises from the river's Minnesota headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico.

Starting off your tour at the Mississippi River Center (called the PaddleWheel building), a map of the Mississippi River is carved into the tile to demonstrate its path.

The museum and aquarium are part of a $400 million America’s River riverfront development project — the Port of Dubuque — that transformed the city's riverfront. The project also delivered the Diamond Jo Casino, Grand Harbor Resort, a conference center and other amenities on the riverfront.

"We tell people we are part museum, part aquarium and part science center," Scardino said, adding that the project transformed the former Dubuque Boat & Boiler Works.

"A typical visit is three to four hours," she said, suggesting visitors reserve another hour to enjoy this summer's traveling exhibit, 'DaVinci: The Exhibition.'

The exhibits and the huge tanks and terrariums explore the river's wildlife; from the backwater marshes inhabited by soft shell turtles and bufflehead ducks to the flooded forest's bass, walleye and wood ducks. In the bayou, you may find yourself eye-to-eye with a 57-year-old alligator and the alligator snapping turtle that share an enclosure. And you can get even closer, because some tanks are open, permitting visitors to touch live sturgeon, crawfish and stingrays.  

Guests also can witness the museum's conservation efforts, including breeding projects with Wyoming toads and Laotian Newts and partnerships in propagating freshwater mussels and Logperch.

"We're one of eight U.S. facilities breeding Wyoming toads to be released back in the wild (in Wyoming) once a year," she said. "People might wonder why it is important. But amphibians are a great indicator of environmental changes."  

Other museum features include a giant Space Wall with a photograph of the river from space, a Wetlab and the RiverWorks Splash Zone, where kids get hands-on water fun.

Tabletop exhibits show the impact of flooding and erosion on the watershed. "We try to teach them and give awareness of the choices we make and how they impact the environment," Scardino said. 

Owned by the Dubuque County Historical Society, the museum also gives a nod to the history with its First River People and Hall of Fame exhibits. It also contains a boat house, the floating Logsdon Sand & Gravel Barge and William M. Black Dredge Boat. Inside what once was the Dubuque Boat freight house, historic artifacts include a birch bark canoe and an ice cutter used to remove chunks of frozen Mississippi River for refrigeration.

Much of the historical society's collection also is displayed among the more than 41,00 historic items.

The Shot Tower

Not far from the museum, the historic Dubuque Shot Tower offers a history lesson that reaches back to Civil War days. Standing 120-feet, 5 inches tall, it is one of the nation's few remaining shot towers and the only one west of the Mississippi.

The tower was used to produce lead shot from 1856 to 1858. To make the ammunition, workers climbed to the top and hoisted up melted lead from the tower's base. The lead then was poured through screens of different gauges, tumbling into vats of water below, where it would cool into lead balls.  

It next served as a fire watchtower for the Standard Lumber Co. from the late 1880s until the company was destroyed in a 1911 lumberyard fire. The blaze destroyed the original wooden stairs, leaving no access to the interior for maintenance and repairs.

But in 2006, Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol declared the Year of the Shot Tower on its sesquicentennial.  As part of a rehabilitation project, an archaeological survey of the tower discovered the well in which lead shot once was dropped and cooled. The project also included interior and exterior repairs, a new roof, door and windows.

Today, it stands as a landmark.

Eagle Point Park

Dubuque residents and visitors alike can thank a noted eastern park specialist for planting the idea for this city park with its spectacular tri-state views of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. 

On a 1907 visit, Charles M. Robinson told his hosts, "I have never seen a place where the Almighty has done more and mankind less, than Dubuque." 

While hurtful words to the residents, they inspired Judge Oliver Shiras, one of the city's leading citizens, into action. Shiras chaired a citizens committee in 1908 whose work led to the creation of the 164-acre park. 

With assistance from the Dubuque's Women's Club, 100 acres were purchased in 1908 and deeded to the city. Since then, another 17 parcels have been purchased or donated. Streetcars delivered visitors to the park, beginning in 1912.

It overlooks Lock & Dam 11 and now is a popular spot for families to gather, hike, bicycle and enjoy the panoramic views.

Its landscaping and architecture can be credited to Park Superintendent Alfred Caldwell, who in the 1930s, helped land a $200,000 Works Progress Administration, or WPA, grant. The money was used to build Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired buildings, pavilions and gardens. The (Judge Oliver) Shiras Memorial shelter honors him from an area with particularly stunning views.

Near the park entrance sits the Mathias Ham Historic Site, now owned by the Dubuque County Historical Society. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it contains Iowa's oldest log cabin, the Humke Schoolhouse from Centralia, and a granary — used in its day to hold threshed grain.

Schmid Innovation Center

Not far from the scenic riverviews is a project also helping to keep Dubuque's history alive. Once home to the largest producer of windows, doors, blinds and millwork in the nation, the Dubuque Millwork District is converting former factory buildings into new uses, including housing, office, art galleries, retail and commercial spaces. 

Among the renovations is the $32 million Schmid Innovation Center, a mixed-use center restored and re-purposed by Gronen Properties Restoration, owned by John Gronen and Mary Mulgrew Gronen. Located downtown at 900 Jackson St., it houses the restoration company's offices, among others, and the 72-unit CARADCO Lofts. 

John Gronen said the project converted six buildings of the former CARADCO (short for Carr, Adams and Collier) and the adjacent Farley & Loetscher. "They were the world's largest door and sash manufacturer," he said. 

Farley & Loetscher shut down in the late 1950s. CARADCO sold in 1971 and was relocated in 1976 to Rantoul, Illinois. Jeld-Wen, the last millwork company to occupy a building in the district, closed in 2014.

"It had various other uses over the years," he said of the CARADCO property, which spans a city block.

Gronen said planning for the major restoration began in 2006, and work began in 2011. The project occupies six factories that date back to the 1860s and early 1900s.   

Mary Gronen said the project took off when they partnered with the late Dick Schmid and his wife, Carrie Schmid, philanthropists who helped create the Innovation Center. Through their generosity, 12 non-profit organizations operate rent-free in the Millwork Collective within the center.  

"We're in the first phase of a 15- to 20-year project," John Gronen said.

Multiple developers are working to re-invent the entire 17-block historic district. 

Mines of Spain

If natural history is more your interest, the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area is a must-see.

Sprawling over 1,400 acres on the southern edge of Dubuque, the park has rugged, wooded bluff land, wetlands, creeks, native prairies and cropland along the Mississippi. It is a popular draw among hikers, canoeists, kayakers and those out for a leisurely drive. There is no camping allowed.  

Dedicated in 1981, the Mines of Spain was acquired by the state with the assistance of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation to protect and preserve this piece of Iowa's heritage. It was designated a National Historical Landmark in 1993.

Throughout the park, historical markers tell the story of Dubuque's namesake Julien Dubuque, who arrived in the region in 1785, as well as of the area's first inhabitants, the Mesquakie Indians. In fact, their village was located at the mouth of Catfish Creek, where canoeists and kayakers today access the Mississippi.

The area was named Mines of Spain after Julien Dubuque received a land grant from the Governor of Spain, whose country then owned the land. The grant allowed him to work the land for mining. In 1803, the Mines of Spain became part of the United States under the Louisiana Purchase.

In 1810, Julien Dubuque died and was buried with tribal honors by the Mesquakie on a high bluff overlooking the river. The Julien Dubuque Monument, built in 1897, sits above the Mississippi and is a park landmark, marking his grave. 

The park also is home to the E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center, which offers visitor information as well as displays and exhibits about the region's history and the park's natural features. 

Guttenberg, Iowa 

Continue on up the Great River Road, and the town of Guttenberg will provide its own river views as well as glimpses into the operations at Lock & Dam 10.

Settled in the 1850s by German immigrants, the town has more than 100 buildings made from the limestone of the river's bluffs. Originally, French explorers named it Prairie La Porte, French for door to the prairie.   

With the Mississippi at its front door, Guttenberg's main street is a collection of retail, antique shops, small restaurants and a marina, popular in the summer months. The town also is home to a two-mile river walk as well an actual lockmaster house that now is a heritage museum.

Cassville Ferry, Wisconsin-Iowa

Head back downriver a few miles and you'll find the Pride of Cassville Car Ferry, named for the Wisconsin town it calls home. 

On the Iowa side, the ferry lands about five miles from Millville in the middle of the country.  

The ferry began its runs for the season Memorial Day weekend — a few weeks later than normal because of high waters, said Harold Pollock, of Cassville, one of the ferry's deckhands. 

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the Pride of Cassville runs seven days a week. Before Memorial Day and after Labor Day, the schedule is reduced to Friday, Saturday and Sunday. 

According to Pollock, the ferry runs whenever it has a fare. "If one motorcycle comes in, we don't wait. We run because we don't know how long we'll wait until the next passenger."  

Pollock, who assists the passengers and shares the service's history, said the ferry began in the 1800s as a way to transport produce and horses to a cannery in Cassville. While it  faded over the years, the ferry service claims to be the oldest of its kind still operating in Wisconsin. 

In 1988, Cassville bought a boat from the Tower Rock Ferry Service in Batchtown, Ill. and renamed it the Charlie D for former Cassville Mayor Charlie Dietrich, who led the effort to bring the car ferry back. That boat operated until 2011 when Cassville had The Pride of Cassville built by Skipperliner in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, for about $1.8 million, Pollock said. 

Fares range from $2 for people walking on (no vehicle) and bicyclists; to $8 for motorcycles; $15 for cars; and $30 for RVs or vehicles pulling a boat. A ride takes 12 to 15 minutes. Visitors will find a call box at both sites to alert the pilot house. 

Pollock, who has worked the ferry for 13 years, couldn't "take a wild guess" at the number of passengers it transports. "But on nice weekends, it's common to fill the ferry."