NOTE: See the Quad Cities overview for regional information on tourism centers, festivals, and getting around.
In 1833, the Illinois legislature created Rock Island County with the county seat to be located at a city called Stephenson (read about the early county seat battle here). In 1841, the name was changed to Rock Island, and the new town expanded by annexing territory that included the neighboring town of Farnhamsburg.
Following consolidation in 1841, Rock Island grew into a transportation and manufacturing center. The first railroad reached town in 1854, just as steamboat traffic peaked at 175 landings every month. Charles Buford founded the Buford Plow Company in the mid-1800s, kicking off farm implement manufacturing in the region, arguably the most important industry in the Quad Cities. By the 1870s, Rock Island was the center of three big railroads that connected the city to markets from New York to San Francisco, while the Mississippi River ensured access to markets from Minneapolis to New Orleans. The growth of the railroad business in Rock Island was helped by the construction of a railroad bridge in 1856.
In the early twentieth century, Rock Island was more or less ruled by a mobster named John Looney, who cultivated a culture of fear and corruption that dominated the city. The city’s reputation was so foul that when future-President Woodrow Wilson visited the region in April 1912, he moved the location of his speech from raucous Rock Island to mild-mannered Moline.
Voted one of the Seven Wonders of Illinois, Black Hawk State Historic Site (1510 46th Ave.; 309.788.0177) is one part historic site and two parts park. For the history part, the modest Hauberg Indian Museum (309.788.9536), located inside the impressive lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, has dioramas displaying Sauk and Mesquakie life in the eighteenth century. To explore the park, just walk around. A wide range of wildflowers add a dramatic touch to the landscape between mid-April and mid-May. Black Hawk Prairie is west of the lodge, a small area set aside to replicate the type of tallgrass prairie that once dominated the landscape here.
When it comes to the architecture devoted to memorializing the dead, few places have impressed me more than Chippiannock Cemetery (12th St. @ 29th Ave.; 309.788.6622). You are welcome to stop at the office and pick up a map, but wandering aimlessly can be very rewarding. Most of the older sections will be on your left as you enter the cemetery and then to the right and up the hill. The markers are a testament to the incredible carving skills of stone masons: a cloth draped delicately on a marker, a perfectly chiseled anvil, a chalice support by tree limbs. Colonel Davenport and his family are buried here; their graves are marked by a simple obelisk near the top of the hill. Also interred here is lumber baron Frederick Weyerhaeuser. Perhaps the most remarkable memorial, though, is dedicated to siblings Eddie and Josie Dimich, who were five and nine years old, respectively, when they died from diphtheria on the same evening in 1878. The children had a devoted pet dog, a Newfoundland, who used to follow the children everywhere. After the children died the dog would make the short walk from home to the cemetery every day until he himself died, or so the story goes. Regardless, when the dog died, the children’s father commissioned a stone carver to create an image of the dog and had it placed next to his children’s graves.
As long as you’re in the neighborhood, pay a visit to a local institution—Boetje’s Mustard (2736 12th St.; 309.788.4352; Tours June–September by appointment), just across the street from the cemetery. Boetje’s (pronounced “boat-geez”) is a small manufacturer of award-winning stone-ground mustard, using a recipe unchanged since Fred Herman Boetje made the first batch in the late 1880s. Tours include an overview of the mustard-making process, but, as they are a small operation, please call in advance to arrange a tour at a time that is convenient for them.
Sunset Park (Between 18th Ave. & 31st Ave.; 309.732.2000) is a good place to stop for a picnic and to take in some river views. In winter, I have spotted several bald eagles here.
The Centennial Bridge Visitors Center (201 15th St.; 309.277.0937) has the standard visitor center shtick like brochures plus displays about the construction of the Centennial Bridge and other Mississippi River bridges in the Quad Cities.
MidCoast Fine Arts Left Bank Gallery (1629 2nd Ave.; 309.732.1354) has a decent collection of work created by local artists for viewing or for purchase. Quad Cities Arts (1715 2nd Ave.; 309.793.1213) is a more impressive gallery, however. Housed in the 1920s-era London Building, this is part gallery space and part retail space that shines the light on the work of local and regional artists. The quality is consistently high and you can find something in virtually any price range. If you are only going to visit one of these galleries, visit Quad Cities Arts. How about one more arty place? If the garage door is open, which is more likely to happen early or late in the day during the summer, feel free to wander over and watch glass artist Mark Fowler at work at the Liquid Fire Studio (200 24th St.; 309.269.8668).
Quad City Botanical Center (2525 4th Ave.; 309.794.0991) offers quiet spaces to enjoy in its tropical house and small outdoor gardens.
Augustana College has a few sites worth visiting. The Augustana College Art Museum (Centennial Hall, 3703 7th Ave.; 309.794.7231) houses an impressive collection of art in temporary exhibits in the upper and lower lobbies, as well as pieces from their permanent collection in a lower level gallery. The Fryxell Geology Museum (Swenson Hall; 309.794.7318) may be modest in size, but it makes a big impression with its collection of fossils and rocks. The fossil of a Tylosaurus Proriger, a sixteen-foot-long eel-like reptile, will either impress or scare the heck out of you. Look for it on the rear wall. The back corner of the museum has a display showing off the fluorescent quality of several different minerals; pull the black curtain around you for a fun light show. The museum is in Swenson Hall on the heart of the campus, near the admissions office and the planetarium.
The City of Rock Island published a driving tour that highlights sights around town that were tied to its infamous mobster. You can download a copy of the John Looney Legend Tour, or you pick up a free copy at the Rock Island Public Library or City Hall. Some of the more notorious sites include Looney’s Roost (2012 16th Avenue), the Looney mansion (1635 20th Street), and the house of his lawyer, Frank Kelly, across the street (1703 20th Street). Even if you opt to skip the tour, the brochure is an interesting read for the Looney history.
Jumer’s Casino (Illinois Highway 92 @ Interstate 280; 800.477.7747/309.793.4200) opened a new land-based facility in December 2008. The art deco-inspired casino has a spacious forty-two thousand square feet of gaming space, with over eleven hundred slot machines and twenty-four gaming tables, plus a hotel and restaurants.
The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum (700 22nd St.; 309.788.0806; free) opened a facility in Rock Island in 2012 in the historic First Church of Christ Scientist building. The Karpeles Library manages 12 museums across the country; the exhibits at the Rock Island museum change about three times a year. In the first few months since they opened, they have exhibited manuscripts that highlighted the works of Mark Twain and Charles Darwin.
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Eating and Drinking
Looking for a laid-back place to try out a new beer or enjoy your favorite craft beer? Check out Radicle Effect Brewerks (1340-31st St.; 309.283.7605), where you’ll find an impressive (and constantly changing) selection of craft beers from the country.
Theo’s Java Club (213 17th St.; 309.788.5282) draws a diverse crowd for its coffee, snacks, soup, sandwiches, and free WiFi. Bring cash; Theo’s does not accept credit cards.
Lee’s on 14th Avenue (4128 14th Ave.; 309.788.4181) is a friendly little diner where you can fill up without breaking the bank.
Mama Compton’s (1715 2nd Ave.; 309.786.6262) will make you feel like you are eating at your grandmother’s house, which is the point. They craft sandwiches from bread baked in-house and create flavorlful salads. On my first visit, I forgot to add a condiment to my turkey sandwich, but the marble rye bread was so flavorful and moist, I didn’t miss the mayo. They also have ice cream—very good ice cream.
Blue Cat Brew Pub (113 18th St.; 309.788.8247) has an extensive menu of affordable, consistently pleasing comfort food-leaning favorites. I adore the meatloaf and brisket. The Blue Cat is also my favorite place in the Quad Cities to pass the time drinking craft beers and chatting with friends.
Jim’s Rib Haven (531 24th St.; 309.786.8084) serves up good, hearty barbecue dishes like sandwich platters and saucy rib platters.
Atlante Trattoria (140 18th St.; 309.788.2805) is a great place to grab a freshly prepared, light meal at a reasonable price.
La Rancharita (4118 14th Ave.; 309.794.1648) is another quality Mexican restaurant with quality, affordable food, and good service; it can be very busy on weekend evenings.
There is one campground in Rock Island. KOA Rock Island/Quad Cities (2311 78th Ave. West; 800.787.0605/309.787.0665) is south of I-80 and east of Iowa Highway 92 and has 147 cramped sites and eight cabins.
There are two bed-and-breakfasts in Rock Island neighborhoods. The Victorian Inn (702 20th St.; 800.728.7068/309.788.7068) is a cozy bed-and-breakfast with beautiful Fleming tapestries in the dining room; it is located in the Broadway neighborhood. Top O’ the Morning (1505 19th Ave.; 309.786.3513) is a bluff-top B&B in a prairie-style mansion built in 1912 as summer home for Hiram Cable, the one-time president of the Rock Island Railroad; they cater to married couples only.
Heading upriver? Check out Arsenal Island.
Heading downriver? Check out Andalusia.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2009