Lansing is a consummate river town, with an economy that has historically, for better or worse, been dependent upon the Mississippi River. Even if the Lansing of today has fewer people making a living from river-related jobs, the Mississippi remains central to the town’s identity.
Tourism information is available through Allamakee County Economic Development (800.824.1424/563.568.2624).
Europeans moved into the area in 1848, just as the Ho Chunk were leaving. Among the first settlers was William Garrison, who hailed from Lansing, Michigan. He did not stick around, but his name for the town did. The following year, Galena transplants John Haney and his son, James, arrived, followed in short order by H.H. Houghton. They built a few mills in Lansing and prospered. Houghton used part of his fortune to build a stone mansion on the side of Mt. Hosmer in 1863 (it is still there).
Lansing was a remote outpost in those early years. Boats passed town just a few times a month and rarely stopped. Communication with the outside world was sporadic in the winter with mail arriving only once a week. Residents had to travel across the frozen Mississippi to Prairie du Chien, which had the nearest railroad. When the ice was not thick enough to walk across, Lansing residents were on their own. The town had a good spot for steamboats to land and eventually became a key supply point for the region; the town grew five-fold in 20 years—from 440 residents in 1854 to 2,280 in 1875.
Just south of nascent Lansing, the town of Columbus also had a bustling boat landing. Columbus was chosen as the first county seat in 1851. When the town was platted in 1852, two acres were set aside for county buildings; nothing was ever built and, when the county seat was moved, Columbus essentially disappeared. A name change in 1857—to Capoli, in honor of the bluff of the same name above town (this bluff was called Cap-a-l’ail by Henry Schoolcraft)—did not save the town.
Lansing residents have been resilient in the face of changing economic fortunes. The town’s initial growth was fueled by a booming trade in shipping grain and the Kerndt brothers (Gustav, Moritz, William, Julius) were part of the reason. They built a warehouse in 1859 and an elevator in 1861; both riverfront structures are still are standing. Fortunes slumped for a while as the wheat harvest declined, but farmers eventually switched to dairy, livestock, and other crops. Local industry received a boost when the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad arrived in 1872; townsfolk threw an exuberant party on May 8 to celebrate the arrival of the first train.
Lansing also profited from the lumber business in the late 1800s; during the peak years of the lumber trade, log rafts floated continuously downriver. As the great northern forests were depleted around the turn of the 20th century, Lansing developed an industry producing pearl buttons from Mississippi River mussels. As the pearl button industry declined in the 1920s, commercial fishing took up the slack. Lansing’s economy today is closely tied to farming, with a boost from the tourist trade.
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The Museum of River History (60 S. Front St.; 563.538.4641) is one of the best executed local history museums along the Mississippi. Housed in the Kerndt & Brothers Elevator, the collection is focused on—get out!—river history. Wow. Displays illustrate the fishing business with tools of the trade for clamming, fish processing, and ice harvesting. Heck, they even have a collection of outboard motors.
If you enjoy panoramic views of the Mississippi River, look no further than Mount Hosmer Park (N. 6th St.; 563.538.4757), a 75-acre bluff-top park that rises 440 feet above the water. It was named after one Harriet Hosmer, a rather well-known sculptor from the East Coast in her day, who was reported to have raced up the hill in record time during a steamboat stop in June 1851.
Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (480 Diagonal St.; 563.538.4664) was founded in 1867 as Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church; Norwegian-language services were offered as late as the 1940s. The current building was completed around 1878. In 1946, the building was expanded when the closed Faegre Prairie Church was moved and attached to the east side (and given a matching brick façade); the art glass windows original to Faegre Prairie Church now adorn the parish hall. If you are here on a Wednesday evening, join them at the church for the Laughter Club, where they practice Laughter Yoga (good for people of all physical abilities); you don’t need to speak Norwegian to participate.
Getting Out on the River
River excursions are offered by Mississippi Explorer Cruises (Main & Front Sts.; 563.586.4444), specialists in tours that focus on wildlife and the environment along the Upper Miss. Tour days, times, and prices from Lansing vary, so call to verify.
S & S Rentals Houseboat Rentals (990 S. Front St.; 800.728.0131/563.538.4454) can equip you with a houseboat to explore the Mississippi River.
Lansing Fish Days (563.538.4641) is the event of the summer social season in Lansing, usually held the second weekend in August; highlights include duck races, granny basketball, and eating lots of fish.
Eating and Drinking
TJ Hunters (377 Main St.; 563.538.4544) serves up Mid-American cuisine on steroids. Check out the monster burgers: 12 ounces of ground beef with toppings to match. The fiesta chicken sandwich is loaded with an entire jalapeno; something to warm your innards on a cold January day. If you’re looking for something more pedestrian, they also serve a range of sandwiches, a few Mexican staples, and standard steak and seafood entrées.
Milty’s Restaurant and Bar (200 Main St.; 563.538.4585) is a festive place, with friendly staff and reliable food. Entrées include the standard range of steaks, pork, and pasta, but Milty’s also offers themed buffets on a regular basis (seafood, Mexican) and a Friday night fish fry. They also have live music on some nights.
You can’t beat the views at River’s Edge Bar and Restaurant (10 S. Front St.; 563.538.4497), where you can get a full breakfast you can afford or dig into a burger or catfish. They also have a good selection of quality beer.
Camping and Cabins
Red Barn Resort and Campground (2609 Main St.; 888.538.4956/563.538.4956; open mid-April thru mid-October) has 117 sites on the western edge of Lansing, most with water and electric; they also offer five RVs for nightly rentals.
Bed and Breakfast
About eight miles west of Lansing, Our Tara Inn (1231 Highway 9; 563.568.2665/563.380.8272; WiFi) sits atop one of the highest points in Iowa; on a clear day you can see Minnesota and Wisconsin. The four rooms and one suite are in a rehabbed, 1896-era barn. Each is well equipped with full bath, coffee maker, microwave, fridge, and satellite TV.
The Scenic Valley Motel (1608 Main St.; 563.538.4245; WiFi) has 12 rooms, some with small refrigerators, and a cabin with microwave, refrigerator, and stove. Rooms are well maintained, clean, but not big.
Milty’s (200 Main St.; 563.538.4585) rents a spacious, unadorned second floor apartment. The 3 bedroom/1 bathroom smoke-free apartment has a big deck, off-street parking, full kitchen, satellite TV, and washer and dryer.
McGarrity’s Inn on Main (203 Main St.; 866.538.9262/563.538.9262; WiFi) is home to four impressively rehabbed, luxury suites; each unit is spacious, beautiful and loaded with amenities like exposed brick walls, wood floors, cable TV, full bath, and kitchenette.
For something completely different, consider a dockside stay in a houseboat with S & S Houseboat Rentals (990 S. Front St.; 800.728.0131/563.538.4454; rentals from mid-May–mid-October; WiFi). The houseboats are comfortable and can rock 6-10 people to sleep, depending on the model.
Murphy’s Cove Bed and Bath (51 N. Front St.; 563.568.6448) offers a fully furnished riverfront house with 3 bedrooms, 1¾ baths, and with amenities like garage parking, a BBQ grill, and cable TV in a new, immaculate house; the views are great, especially from the second floor master bedroom and deck.
Post Office: 383 Main St.; 563.538.4767.
Meehan Memorial Lansing Public Library: 515 Main St.; 563.538.4693.
Heading upriver? Check out New Albin.
Heading downriver? Check out Wexford.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2009,2011