NOTE: See the Quad Cities overview for regional information on tourism centers, festivals, and getting around.
After winning the count seat battle with Rockingham, Davenport became a key port-of-call for steamboats; by 1857, it counted nearly sixteen hundred annual steamboat landings. Goods transported up the Mississippi River supplied not only the immediate residents of the area but also farmers living in the fertile plains to the west. Davenport quickly grew into a regional commercial hub.
The arrival of thousands of Germans in the 1840s also gave Davenport a big boost. Most of the immigrants were political refugees from Schleswig-Holstein. They were wary of intimate church-state relations, largely because of the corruption they witnessed in that relationship in their homeland. When they arrived in America, they created private schools that were purely secular—a radical idea at the time. Many Germans were also deeply opposed to slavery and actively supported John Brown in his abolitionist pursuits. The Germans also brought with them a penchant for drinking and dancing on Sundays, something that the more staid Americans did not approve of. Egad! No wonder tensions were often high between the German immigrants and the second generation American families of Davenport.
Davenport also attracted a large number of immigrants from Ireland. Around 13% of Davenport’s residents claim Irish ancestry. The greatest number arrived during the years around the Great Hunger (An Ghorta Mhóir), or the Great Famine. Many of the new citizens emigrated from County Clare, ordinary folks who were looking for a shot at a better life. They settled throughout Davenport but clustered around 3rd and Division Streets and in the neighborhoods around St. Mary’s Catholic Church and Sacred Heart Cathedral.
Many of those Irish immigrants helped build the first bridge across the Mississippi River in the 1850s and the earliest railroads. Some descendants of those early Irish immigrants achieved considerable success. Patrick Walsh, who was born in Davenport in 1855 on St. Patrick’s Day, landed several contracts to build railroads in the region; he went on to found a construction company whose name is still attached to many projects around the world. Michael Gannon was a prominent lawyer and politician. Fred Sharon made his mark as the long-time publisher of the Iowa Catholic Messenger, but he also had a hand in founding the local branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
As Davenport began to unify after the Civil War, it expressed its rebellious side. In 1884, the State of Iowa enacted an early version of Prohibition, but Davenport officials fought enforcement of the law within their boundaries. As Iowa continued to tinker with different enforcement mechanisms over the next thirty years, Davenport resisted at every step, ensuring that its residents lived in one of the few places in Iowa were alcohol could be purchased legally. Most of the taverns were confined to a four square block district called Bucktown where the fun continued until sunrise at its one hundred fifty bars, forty-two brothels, gambling halls, and boxing rings. Bucktown inspired Davenport’s Bishop Henry Cosgrove to call his home town “the wickedest in the nation.” Nothing like showing a little home town pride.
After remarkable growth in the nineteenth century, Davenport’s thirty-five thousand residents had reason to feel good about their town. The twentieth century, however, would be marked by continuing boom and bust periods. In the aftermath of World War I, Davenport residents looked for new leadership. In the 1920 municipal election, Davenport voters turned over city government to the Socialist Party, giving them the mayor’s office and a majority on the city council. In-fighting ended their reign after only two years, however. The relationship between the mayor and the socialist aldermen became so poor that three aldermen bugged the mayor’s office in an attempt to spy on him.
Davenport is included in these products:
Founded in 1851 to serve the logging industry, the Village of East Davenport (known locally as the East Village) was annexed by Davenport in 1856. The historic district has a collection of nineteenth century buildings that are now home to shops, restaurants, and bars. The neighborhood also hosts several festivals during the summer. Lindsay Park (south side of 11th Street) is the site where Black Hawk camped before signing the Treaty of 1836 that ceded most of Iowa to the U.S. government and where artist George Catlin painted his portrait. The park has a good view of the river and is a nice spot for a picnic; free parking is available along 11th Street.
The Isabel Bloom Production Studio (736 Federal St.; 800.273.5436/563.336.3766) makes sculptures out of cast concrete that are very popular with collectors. Even though I am not a fan of the pop-culture sentimentality of the figurines, I am awed by the production process—each figure is handcrafted and goes through a rigorous quality control process. Guided tours of the production facility take about an hour; advance reservations are required. They also have showrooms in East Davenport and Moline.
The Davenport Skybridge is hard to miss; it’s that angular glass structure that stretches six hundred feet and seems meant to deposit people at the casino’s front door. Yes, that one. The views from the bridge are very good, especially on the south end. At night, the bridge is lit up in a variety of rotating colors. It’s kinda cool, actually.
Near the entrance to the Skybridge, the River Music Experience is a unique Davenport attraction (aka the RME: 129 W. 2nd St.; 877.326.1333/563.326.1333). Go in. Now. The museum is on the second floor. The River Music Experience is best experienced by listening, appropriately enough, at one of eight stations. Each station highlights a Mississippi River port-of-call, describing the styles of music emanating from that area and the musicians who made it famous. Don’t rush here. Take your time; listen and enjoy. While the museum has a heavy dose of jazz and blues, as one would expect, other styles of music receive ample attention, as well. If you are an aspiring musician and happen to be between eight and eighteen years old, the RME hosts Rock Camp several times during the summer, two weeks of intense training to kick start your rock star career. The RME is also home to the best live music venue in the Quad Cities—the Redstone Room.
Just west of the RME on 2nd Street is the Figge Art Museum (225 W. 2nd St.; 563.326.7804), the large glass structure that looks something like a fragile towboat. Most of the exhibits turn over frequently, so you’ll want to make regular visits to see what’s new. Some of the highlights among the permanent exhibits include a colorful collection of Haitian art, paintings by native Midwesterner artists Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, and the Grant Wood Gallery.
Five blocks further west is the German American Heritage Center (712 W. 2nd St.; 563.322.8844). Many of the early immigrants to this area were Germans who were escaping political upheaval and economic collapse at home. At the German American History Center, you can read about the various waves of German immigration and their influence on the Quad Cities (and much of the United States).
If you’re interested in the history of the Irish in the area, there’s a memorial to the Irish immigrants downtown (2nd and Harrison Sts.). There’s also a Celtic cross on the campus of St. Ambrose University just north of the athletic fields. And don’t forget to check out the only bi-state St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the country (see the Quad Cities Overview).
St. Anthony Catholic Church (417 Main St.; 563.322.3303) was the first Catholic parish in Davenport and is one of the oldest churches in Iowa. The original church was built in 1838 by Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, with support from Antoine LeClaire; that building is currently the parish religious education center. Because of an onslaught of migration to Davenport, a bigger church was needed. The new building was completed in 1853 and is still in use. The sanctuary is only open to the public about thirty minutes before a mass (Sa 5p; Su 7a, 8:30a, 10a, 11:30a); otherwise, call ahead to schedule a tour of the interior.
The Palmer College of Chiropractic has a surprising number of sites to visit and experience. I love this place! The founders were fascinating, quirky people, and the college today wears its eccentricities with pride. Highligts include the Palmer Museum of Chiropractic History in Vickie Ann Palmer Hall (formerly Lyceum Hall, 115 W. 7th St.; 563.884.5245). In 1895, Daniel David Palmer popped the back of one Harvey Lillard at his office in downtown Davenport, thus performing the first known chiropractic adjustment. In 1906 D.D. Palmer was jailed for twenty-three days for practicing medicine without a license, an event that recurred across the country and launched a movement to legitimize the profession of chiropractic. Museum displays are scattered about the building, but you will find most of them in the basement and first floor lobby. In the basement, there is a display case with a variety of animal skeletons, another case describing the historical context when chiropractic emerged, and a giant clam shell. In the first floor lobby, there is a replica of the office used by D.D. Palmer plus an exhibit commemorating the centennial of the profession of chiropractic that includes adjustment tables from every decade.
One block north is the Palmer Mansion (8th & Main Streets; 563.884.5404), a fine example of what happens when eccentricity is blessed with wealth. The porch has a number of curiosities, including a built-in pipe organ that still works, stunning examples of forbidden stitch embroidery, a room made to resemble the big tent at a circus, and a chair whose legs are made from genuine elephant feet.
If that’s not enough eccentricity for you, B.J. Palmer had a thing for collecting bones; he used them as teaching aids. Starting with a handful of skeletons he acquired from his father, he accumulated thousands of samples, many of which are disturbingly contorted and deformed. These bones form the Palmer Osteological Collection; pieces are available for viewing in scattered locations around the campus. Apart from the displays in the Palmer Museum, the most accessible display cases are in the basement of the David D. Palmer Health Sciences Library (Main Street near Palmer Drive; 563.884.5896 for reference desk).
Back toward the river, the Bucktown Center for the Arts (225 E. 2nd St.; 563.324.1005) is an arts incubator housed in a nineteenth-century commercial building. The center is located in the once-infamous entertainment district that was essentially closed by the federal government in 1918 when, in an attempt to protect its war-time workforce (from vice, presumably) it ordered the closure of all saloons and “bawdy houses” within a half-mile of the Rock Island Arsenal. The Arts Center houses a collection of shops filled with works created by local visual artists. The quality is generally high and the prices reasonable.
Don’t forget to make time to relax and enjoy the riverfront, as long as its not underwater. LeClaire Park has a bandshell and is the site of many summer festivals. Next door is Modern Woodmen Park, a baseball stadium completed in 1931 and home to the minor league Quad Cities River Bandits; watching a game here just might restore your faith in baseball. On the other side of the bridge is a skate park. The paved walking/bicycling path extends westward to Credit Island Park and eastward to the Isle of Capri Casino in Bettendorf.
The Putnam Museum (1717 W. 12th St.; 800.435.3701/563.324.1933) hosts several excellent exhibits on the region’s natural and cultural history. River, Prairie, and People covers the region’s history, from pre-colonial times to the present. Black Earth/Big River is an interactive exhibit about the ecology of the Mississippi River valley. The museum also has an IMAX theater with rotating shows.
Credit Island Park (2500 W. River Dr; 563.326.7812), the site of an early French trading post, is a good spot to rest your feet and great for people watching, too. It is also home to one of the area’s more unusual attractions: the nearly life-size wooden sculptures created by artist Thom Gleich that were inspired by the characters from Seurat’s painting, A Sunday on La Grande Jette.
Nahant Preserve, Education, and Recreation Area (4220 S. Wapello Ave.; 563.326.7766) is a 513-acre preserve created on the site of a former shooting range. A cooperative effort between public and private agencies helped to remove hazardous amounts of lead and restore the marsh. The preserve has a couple of short walking trails and viewing platforms good for bird-watching, especially during migration season.
Davenport’s Rhythm City Casino (7077 Elmore Ave.; 844.852.4386/563.328.8000) has a new land-based home as of June 2016 at the intersection of Interstates 74 and 80. The 285,000 square foot complex includes about 800 slot machines and 35 gaming tables.
Eating and Drinking
Get your java fix at Redband Coffee Company (329 E. 4th St. and 110 W. 13th St.; 563.823.1107), which has re-purposed a couple of cool old buildings to serve its house-roasted coffees, pastries, and breakfast sandwiches.
Chocolate Manor (110 E. 2nd St.; 866.810.2699/563.355.6600) is a family-run boutique chocolatier. Their hand made products include gorgeous truffles, sinful dark chocolates, and luscious chocolate-covered fruits. Stop in, sample, and stock up.
If you’re in the mood to sip some locally-brewed craft beer, the small tasting room at Great River Brewery (332 E. 2nd St.; 563.323.5210) is a good choice.
11th Street Precinct Bar and Grill (2108 E. 11th St.; 563.324.9545) serves sandwiches and pizza. Check out the pork tenderloin sandwich, which violates all kinds of Midwestern cooking rules by not being breaded and fried.
Boozies Bar & Grill (114 ½ W. 3rd St.; 563.328.2929) consistently gets props for its burgers, especially the namesake Boozie Burger topped with bacon, a trio of cheeses, and just about anything else you could want. If you are not in the mood for a burger, they have an assortment of other pub-inspired sandwiches and entrees.
Harris Pizza has two locations in Davenport, one on the west side (1601 W. 3rd St.; 563.326.3551) and another on the east side (524 E. Locust St.; 563. 322.2411).
Greatest Grains (1600 N. Harrison; 563.323.7521) is a small grocery store that specializes in health-food products, including a wide selection of organic foods. They also have a decent selection of inexpensive prepared foods like sandwiches, wraps, soups, and salads.
Front Street Brewery (208 E. River Dr.; 563.322.1569) serves up a range of salads, sandwiches, and above average pub-grub entrees. My personal favorite is the Porterhouse Pork Chop.
Exotic Thai (2303 E. 53rd St.; 563.344.0909) is a bit out of the way but well worth the trip. They serve very good Thai dishes in an attractive setting.
Farm-to-table has come to the Quad Cities, and those tables come with a very good view. Fresh Deli by Nostalgia Farms (421 W. River Dr.; 563.424.4561) opened in spring 2012 in the Freighthouse building along the Davenport riverfront. The food is locally-sourced, made from scratch, tasty, and reasonably priced. Every table comes with a view of the river, especially ones on the large patio. Fill your shopping basket on Saturdays at the adjacent farmers market, then rest in the deli and fill your belly!
Davenport has two campgrounds: Interstate RV Park (8448 Fairmount St.; 888.387.6573/563.386.7292), just north of I-80 at Northwest Blvd., has ninety-eight sites for RVs. Lakeside RV Park & Campground (11279 140th St.; 563.381.3413) is opposite town at I-280 and Iowa Highway 22; it has 22 sites.
The Casa Loma Inn & Suites (6014 N. Brady St.; 888.386.1293/563.386.1290), located amongst the chain motels on Brady near Interstate 80. The log and stone décor is cute and the 35 rooms are clean and spacious.
Bed and Breakfast
The Beiderbecke Inn (532 W. 7th St.; 866.300.8858/563.323.0047) is a handsome bed-and-breakfast in the house built by the grandparents of Bix Beiderbecke; all four rooms have a private bath. The Mississippi Room has a balcony and a nice view.
- Main Post Office: 933 W. 2nd St.; 563.323.0306.
- Davenport Public Library—Main Branch: 321 Main St.; 563.326.7832.
Heading upriver? Check out Bettendorf.
Heading downriver? Check out Buffalo.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2009