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Historic towns of the Upper Mississippi River Valley
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Preface: The East and South typically get most of the credit for charming historic villages and storied rows of antique houses that have survived the wrecking ball or natural calamity. The Betsy Ross House, the Paul Revere House, and “this is where George Washington slept” are all popular historic tourist attractions on the eastern seaboard. The Midwest gets short shrift in this regard yet few know that the Upper Mississippi River Valley was explored and claimed by the French and Spanish as early as the English experience began in Jamestown. While it maybe true that little remains of the original settlements in this region, this hub serves to highlight some of the interesting and charming historic towns and cities of the Upper Mississippi and highlight their intrinsic historic qualities. It should not be interpreted as historic yardstick measuring East versus Midwest.
Alton, Illinois. (Population: 27,865, 2010 census). Founded in 1818 near the confluence of three navigable rivers, the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois, Alton was also a gathering place for pre-Columbian Indians and is well known for the Piasa Bird cliffside mural. A major stopping point on the Underground Railway Alton gained famed as the residence of the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy, who was later lynched by a pro-slavery mob in here1837. Alton was also the location of the last debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 memorialized in Lincoln-Douglas Square, the location of the debate. “Lincoln Slept Here” too (or, at the very least, dined here). The Lincoln Lofts (hotel) is where Abe got some grub and probably boarded during that last round of debates with the “Little Giant”, Stephen Douglas. Later the town used its penitentiary to incarcerate up to 12,000 Confederate prisoners during the Civil War. Alton also has a statue commemorating its famous resident, Robert Wadlow, the tallest recorded man in history. The town’s downtown experienced significant flooding in 1993.
Cahokia, Illinois. (Population: 15,241, 2010 census). Best known or its pre-Columbian Indian mound complex, the largest north of Mexico, Cahokia, Illinois also has an interesting post-Columbian past. Founded in 1699 by the French, the town was built around the fur trade with close connections to Kaskaskia which served as a shipping port down-river, and Fort de Chartres, which provided protection from hostiles, mostly other European powers encroaching in the area. Today, the town is still best known for its Mississipian mound complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The original Indian settlement was probably abandoned around the 13th or 14th century but the earthworks are still well preserved and the highest mound tops 130 feet. The Old Cahokia Courthouse was originally built in 1740. Today’s structure is a faithful reconstruction of the courthouse which existed in 1800 with French Colonial features. The Cahokia region, or the east bank of the Mississippi, was known as the American Bottom of the old Northwest Territory as distinguished from the west bank which was Spanish territory.
Galena, Illinois. (Population: 3,429, 2010 census). Galena sits in the extreme northwest corner of Illinois set beautifully among rolling hills and farmland hemmed in by the Mississippi to the west. Galena gets its name from the mineral, a lead sulfide, which was mined in these parts as early as the 1690s. The present town reinvented itself into a regional artist colony by the nineteen eighties long after the mineral deposits lost their economic importance. Beautiful late nineteenth century brick buildings line Galena’s streets overlooked by stylized period houses on the heights above the main street. Founded in 1824 and chartered in 1841 Galena was originally settled by the French in the 1690s. Famous for its nineteenth century residents, such as Ulysses Grant, and nine Civil War generals, Galena has recently seen a boom in popularity as a retreat for Chicagoans.
Kaskaskia & Prairie du Rocher, Illinois. (Kaskaskia population: 14, 2010 census; Prairie du Rocher population: 604, 2010 census). Both of these old French-settled villages are located in Randolph County in southern Illinois along the Mississippi. Today Kaskaskia has a population of 14 and considered to be the second smallest incorporated town in Illinois. Despite being submerged under nine feet of water during the 1993 floods the small village has a number of interesting historic sites mainly from its French-colonial era. In the eighteenth century Kaskaskia was huge by comparison boasting as many as 7,000 people and a major French colonial establishment in the region. It’s no surprise that Kaskaskia was the territory’s and state’s first capital although only briefly. Kaskaskia was settled as early as 1703 by French Jesuit missionaries. The original state capitol building was destroyed by floods long ago but the village’s heritage is still memorialized by the famous “Liberty Bell of the West” donated by King Louis XV in 1741 for one of the town’s churches. The earthen ramparts of Fort Kaskaskia (c. 1733 - 1763) in nearby Chester are still visible and preserved in the Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site. On July 4, 1778 George Rogers Clark captured Kaskaskia from the British making this battle one of the western-most engagements of the War of Independence. By 1718 Fort de Chartres was built in nearby Prairie de Rocher, which has been rebuilt and restored to its original appearance. If the fort looked anything like it does today the size and the permanence of the structure is impressive. The village of Prairie du Rocher has a number of original structures built in French colonial style which date to the 18th century the oldest being the Meilliere House built in 1735 and the Creole House, c. 1800. Prairie du Rocher was also one of the few towns which escaped significant damage during the 1993 floods.
Nauvoo, Illinois. (Population: 1,149: 2010 census). Nauvoo is best known for its Mormon settlement and history and it was in neighboring Carthage where the Mormon founder and leader, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, were killed in the town’s jail by a lynch mob. The influx of Mormon pioneers in Nauvoo, located on the river, was so rapid that by 1844 the population reached 12,000 almost equal to that of Chicago. The origins of the town are pre-Columbian and it was in this area where the Sauk and Fox had a large settlement called Quashquema. By 1827 whites had moved here and named the town Venus which was changed to Commerce by 1834. Again in 1840 the town was renamed to its present Nauvoo by Joseph Smith who borrowed is from Hebrew scripture. The Mormons, under Brigham Young, fled following Smith’s death and today the town is mostly populated by Roman Catholics. There are a number of Mormon Shrines however such as the rebuilt Temple, the Nauvoo House, where Joseph Smith lived, the Brigham Young House, the Red Brick Store, the Mansion House, and the Smith Family cemetery – all are open to the public. In 1849 Nauvoo was also settled by Icarians, a communalist egalitarian back-woods utopian group headed by the Frenchman Etienne Cabet.
Rock Island, Illinois. (Population: 39,018: 2010 census). Rock Island is still famous today for what it was famous for nearly 200 years ago – namely producing ammunition. Back then it was also a major frontier fort and today the most prominent historical landmark in the city. Located on the largest island in the Mississippi and part of the Quad Cities, Rock Island got its start as a Sauk Indian village, known as Saukenuk. By 1816 the U.S. Army had built FortArmstrong on the island. Today the Black Hawk State Historic Site, named after the Sauk chief, occupies the general area where the original Indian settlement was located. Later FortArmstrong would play a prominent role during the Black Hawk War fought between 1831 and 1832.
Dubuque, Iowa. (Population: 57,637: 2010 census). With eleven Catholic churches it’s no wonder that this small city in northeast Iowa’s nickname is the “Rome of the Mississippi”. Below the steep bluffs is an assortment of church steeples and beautiful late nineteenth century revival buildings. Incorporated in 1833 Dubuque was settled in 1785 by French from Quebec. The settlement became U.S. soil in 1803 as a result of the Louisiana Purchase and similar to Galena, Illinois, downriver, the town was dependent upon the local lead-ore industry. By then it didn’t matter as the stage was set for settlers who were consistently moving west and when Iowa became a territory in 1833 Dubuque was open for settlement. Irish and Germans poured in and this influx of Catholics elevated the city to a Catholic Archdiocese. Today the city is home to five institutions of higher learning and historic buildings doubling as bed and breakfasts although, at its roots, the town is working class. The Old Cable elevator affords great views of the Mississippi as does the Grand River Center along the banks. One of the oldest buildings in the city, the old county jail, built in 1858, is as fine an example of Egyptian revival as any other in the country. It sits on the grounds of the Dubuque County Courthouse.
Fort Madison, Iowa. (Population: 11,051: 2010 census). This small town in southeast Iowa grew up around the namesake fort, named after the country’s fourth president. The original fort no longer stands except for a monument marker but the origins date to 1808 when the United States built its first fort in the Upper Mississippi region to fend off Indian attacks. Between 1812 and 1813 Black Hawk attacked the fort along with British allies during the War of 1812. The fort had to be abandoned because of the hostilities but it wasn’t long after until settlers arrived in the vicinity. Today restoration efforts are still ongoing because of disputes with developers. The town’s downtown Commercial Historic District has a modest but interesting collection of historic buildings dating to the late 19th century. The brownstone Lee County Savings Bank is arguably the finest period example.
Hannibal, Missouri. (Population: 17,916: 2010 census). Best known for its most famous resident, the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens, i.e. Mark Twain, Hannibal is a charming river town which wears its river-born roots well. Many will be surprised that Samuel Clemens was not born here - that happened in the small town of Florida, Missouri but it shouldn’t deter admirers of one of America’s most famous author-critics. The most iconic landmark in this town, settled in 1819, is the simple boyhood home of Samuel Clemens complete with the white fence which gave inspiration to his novel Tom Sawyer. Other themed landmarks include Becky Thatcher’s home. At the outset Hannibal grew modestly but by 1846 it was the state’s third largest city. Most of the attractions in this town run along the lines of places mentioned in the novels, such as Mark Twain Cave which is near the town.
New Madrid, Missouri. (Population: 3,116: 2010 census). Offering front row seats on the Mississippi River at milepost 888, New Madrid, Missouri has an interesting history coupled with a dubious distinction of being the most earthquake prone area east of California. The New Madrid Quake of 1811 measured 8.0 on the Richter Scale. As the name would suggest the town was founded by Spain in 1776 but most of the settlers were Americans, who were allowed as long as they became citizens of Spain. In 1800 with the Treaty of San Ildefonso the area went under French control until 1803 when it was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. For a town of roughly 3,000 there is quite a bit to see such as the antebellum Hunter-Dawson Home (c. 1830). Besides the history of strong earthquakes a Civil War engagement took place here in 1862 as well and the various sites of the battle can be visited by a driving tour.
St. Charles, Missouri. (Population: 65,794, 2010 census). Founded in 1765 St. CharlesMissouri is the third oldest city west of the Mississippi and was the state’s first state capital from 1821 until 1826. Founded by the Frenchmen Louis Blanchette, St. Charles actually sits on the Missouri River but close enough to the confluence of the two river systems to qualify as a Mississippi River town. Spain ruled over St. Charles from 1769 until the area went back under French rule in 1800. St. Charles was the last American outpost visited by Lewis & Clark during their expedition. The city has a beautiful collection of nineteenth century buildings in the St. Charles Historic District including the First Missouri Capitol State Historic Site.
Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. (Population: 4,410, 2010 census). Claiming to be the first European settlement west of the Mississippi in Missouri, Ste. Genevieve, founded by French Canadians in 1735, has a rich collection of historic architecture rivaling any old town of its size in the United States. The historic buildings also reflect the different period architecture that the town has experienced spanning French-colonial, Spanish-colonial, early American Federalist, and antebellum architecture. The Louis Bolduc House-Museum and the Mason Bequette-Ribalt House, both dating from the late eighteenth century, are excellent examples of French Colonial buildings. The John Price House, c. 1804, also known as Old Brick, is a beautiful Federalist style home. The Felix Valle State Historical Site dates to 1818 and also includes the Dr. Benjamin Shaw House (1819) and Bauvais-Amoureux House (1792) a beautiful collection of buildings which interpret the town’s mercantile past.
Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. (Population: 5,911, 2010 census). Billing itself as the “oldest community on the Upper Mississippi” it depends where you define the boundaries of the Upper Mississippi. It’s certainly old and, at the least, Wisconsin’s second oldest city after Green Bay and it has a nice share of historic sites to support such claims. The settlement began as the French fur traders pushed into the area after Marquette and Joliet canoed down the Mississippi in 1673. By 1685 Nicholas Perrot had established a fur trading post in the area. The British came shortly after and by 1763 the area passed into the British hands after the Treaty of Paris was signed. The Americans built Fort Shelby which was burned during the War of 1812 but by 1816 Fort Crawford was constructed. John Jacob Astor also operated a fur trading post here and the rest is left to the many historical sites that interpret the small town’s colorful history.