Fort Madison, Iowa, is a bit scruffy, a tad unkempt. There are downtown buildings with peeling paint and a cemetery on the main drag that manages to look haunted in broad daylight. A few cracked sidewalks spill out sandy soil and nurture the occasional robust weed. In essence, Fort Madison is not a beautiful town. Luckily, though, it does have a great personality, a personality that has had nearly two centuries to develop.
In 1808, the trading post and fort established alongside the Mississippi River was the farthest-flung and most tenuously held outpost of the fledgling U.S. government. A stone chimney is the sole remnant of the original fort that was torched by its own garrison as they retreated down the river one night, worn down by the hail of musket balls and arrows unleashed by Blackhawk’s braves.
The town is undergoing a different kind of abandonment now. The Sheaffer Pen Co., created by a local jeweler and once boasting 2,000 local employees, is shutting down its last plant and letting go its last 200 workers.
So if the storefronts don’t gleam and a few businesses look anemic, there’s a common, distressing reason: Fort Madison, like many small towns, is doing its best to survive economically. But survival is in its history. After the garrison left, settlers eventually arrived. Blackhawk himself returned and settled down to a peaceable retirement in the area. Though Sheaffer Pen jobs are leaving, light manufacturing has rooted itself in the outskirts of town, the busy railroad yard still thrums with trains, and a tourism industry, centering on the river front park and an evolving downtown, is being built from the ground up.
The long, broad green swath of grass and asphalt that buffers the Mississippi from downtown is the riverfront park. The Catfish Bend Casino, a faux riverboat decked out with ruffled black smokestacks and a red paddlewheel, anchors one end. Captain Kirk’s Marina, harboring a hodgepodge of fishing and pleasure boats in the day and rock bands at night, marks the other. In between, the park is kind of a town timeline.
A replica fort — a triangle of picket walls intersecting at two-story blockhouses — squats in the park’s center. Re-enactments of fort history are performed through much of the year, bringing it back to life briefly.
Nearby, a complex of classic railroad depots — redbrick and clay-tile roofs — has been converted to other uses. A museum charts the continuing symbiosis of the Santa Fe Railroad and the town. A civic center hosts a ceramics workshop and a gallery with a cavernous space used for art exhibitions. The Flood Museum, dedicated to the devastating flood of 1993, offers a reminder to visitors of the hazards of river life. The locals don’t need a museum — the flood lives in their memories and conversations.
The park also invites some blessed inactivity. Benches tucked beneath shade trees face the river, offering a quiet space to take in the Mississippi and the view beyond. The Illinois side consists of undulating bluffs and densely verdant slopes. The occasional metallic sheen marks a boathouse. A cell-phone tower or two rises in outline to the sky, looking thin and fuzzy, like moth antennae. But things are mostly serene on the opposite shore, on the blue-gray river riffled lightly by the wind, and under the tree on the bench in the quiet expanse of park.
If it’s time to stretch your legs, head for what could be a reincarnation of that long-gone trading post: Faeth’s Cigar Store. Multiple generations of Faeths have dispensed cold beer, pickled eggs, and conversation from behind the store’s bar. But only a few (perhaps unsteady) steps away are counters of hunting knives, handguns, and shotguns. There’s plenty of ammo, too, and a small alcove holds cigars. Nearly as unique and venerable as the store is the current Faeth proprietor, Bill. He’s likely to fill a newcomer’s ear with jokes and local history and show a dog-eared copy of the July 14, 2000, edition of Time from which his gray-bearded visage beams.
If it’s time to further slake your thirst, the Lonely Duck brewpub is the place to go. Gleaming copper brew kettles on the second floor produce the 10 varieties of beer on tap. The pumpkin may take some practice to enjoy, but the pale ale and porter are clear winners.
If it’s time to explore further, Quarry Creek Ranch waits beyond the river bluffs and out on the prairie. Originally populated by one popcorn-fed elk, the surrounding pasture now holds more than 300 elk and bison. A log-cabin store sells outdoor clothing and various knickknacks, but the main business is meat. Elk and bison are supposedly leaner than beef and, consequently, healthier, but they are inarguably tasty and tender. Bison ribeye practically crumbles when cut.
If it’s time to rest and eat, the choice is clear. Stay at the Kingsley Inn and eat at the adjoining restaurant, Alpha’s. The buildings, in a former life, held a cleaners but were transformed into the jewel of downtown in a painstaking brick-by-brick restoration and renamed in honor of the fort’s first commander, Alpha Kingsley.
The inn recreates turn-of-the-century grandeur, with tall beds, Victorian furniture, floral rugs, and embossed wallpaper painted fire-engine red and lacquered to a reflective sheen.
Alpha’s may seem to be a typical steakhouse, where cuts of beef are covered with onions, mushrooms, and gravy. But chef and owner Kumar Wickramasingha creates specials with spices from his native Sri Lanka, using techniques learned in a peripatetic apprenticeship. For example, the recipe for the deep-fried, cornmeal-coated strawberries served with whipped cream and black-raspberry jam comes from New Orleans. The berries are sweet and crunchy and cool and soothing. Much like Fort Madison, they’re a nice reward for looking just below the surface.
On the way
Getting to Fort Madison, Iowa, has its highlights, too. Count on a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Springfield. Add time for side trips, especially Nauvoo. Take state Route 97 to 125. At Beardstown, go north on U.S. 67 to Macomb. Follow U.S. 136 west to state Route 96. Cross the Mississippi at 96/9. You’re there. Drink beer. Have fun.
State Route 96 has been dubbed the Great River Road. For the 12 miles that the road winds between Hamilton and Nauvoo, it shares an appealing symbiosis with the river and finally earns its name. The Mississippi is at times obscured by trees; at other times, the waves lap and the foamy flotsam rests nearly on the shoulder of the road. Take a picnic. Stop. Several overlooks offer parking and tables. The river is wide and changing and worth watching.
Then it’s on to Nauvoo. The town is, of course, worthy of its own article — or, more properly, its own book. In fact, many books have been written about it. But the latest chapter in the town’s history is the rejuvenation of the town’s Mormon past. The old temple was rebuilt in 2002. It’s an impressive structure, made of clean limestone and capped with a towering steeple. The sides are notable for sunbursts featuring somewhat befuddled-looking faces and azure windows in the shape of upside-down five-pointed stars. The Mormon presence doesn’t end there. The town is dotted with brick buildings dating to the town’s heyday in the early 1840s. The visitor center of the Joseph Smith Historic Site is worth a stop. An introductory movie and tours are available.
Also in Nauvoo is Baxter’s Winery. It’s the oldest continuously operated winery in the state, having resumed production shortly after the repeal of Prohibition. The dozen-or-so wines are, well, not bad. Lovers of Missouri wines will find these every bit as good. The winery was also once a place to buy the well-known Nauvoo Blue Cheese. Unfortunately, the cheese factory was bought and moved by a large corporation, and the old factory is set to be bulldozed. The loss of about 60 jobs stings a community the size of Nauvoo. The Baxter family hopes to start production of artisanal blue cheese this summer.
Onward north to Niota, a hiccup in the road. If you’re in the market for a retractable duck blind, there’s one for sale along state Route 96. But if you’re not into shooting your food, stop at Quality Fisheries. The place is small and smells like beached whale, but the refrigerator cases offer smoked carp and catfish, former residents of the Mississippi, a gimpy stone’s throw away. Buy some of the carp, preferably Cajun-style — it’s moist and flavorful. After one bite, you will finally understand why God created carp.
Eat your fish. Wipe your chin. Head a bit farther north and cross some busy railroad tracks. You’re at the foot of the Santa Fe Swing Span Bridge, at 525 feet the world’s largest double-decker swing-span bridge. Watch out for the narrow lanes and bends where the bridge pivots away from terra firma. As you cross the bridge, the view is handsome: broad river to the north, rolling emerald aspect on the Illinois side. It’s free to go, but have a dollar on hand on the return trip.
Carthage: In the mood for more Joseph Smith stuff? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has restored the jail where the church founder and his brother were killed in 1844. A visitor center and gardens are open year-round. On the east edge of town are blocks of once-regal but now eerily decrepit buildings — the old campus of Carl Sandburg College.
Hamilton is where U.S. Route 136 intersects with the Great River Road. It’s here that your transformation from prairie dog to river rat begins. The first sight of Old Man River includes Lock and Dam 19, the largest lock on the Mississippi. The bridge spans 1,200 feet, and the lock is open 24 hours to visitors. It’s an impressive sight.