In 1839, Henry McNeal, one of the first settlers of Hampton (Illinois), moved to a spot further southwest along the Mississippi and began farming. McNeal, along with Alonzo Nourse and Alfred Sanders, platted the village of Watertown in the 1850s and began an advertising campaign to attract industry and residents. Watertown had a stagecoach stop, then the railroad arrived in 1872 and gave the town an economic boost, becoming home for a number of railroad workers and miners. The town didn’t grow much more and thereafter Watertown’s 300 residents lived mostly off farming. East Moline annexed Watertown in 1914. The former town is in the northeast section of East Moline, around the old state hospital.
In 1868, Samuel Heagy and Albert Stoddard formed the Hampton Coal Mining Company and began pulling coal from the bluffs around Hampton (Illinois). The coal, soft in texture, was deposited in discontinuous pockets, making it time-consuming and expensive to mine. The influx of miners led to the founding of the the village of Happy Hollow around 1870. It was not a place of great aesthetic beauty: the mining companies tore up the land in search of coal and built wood homes that were never painted and never expected to last more than a few years. At its peak, Happy Hollow was home for 1000 miners, most of whom were of English, Irish, or Welsh descent; they worked hard, fought plenty, and lived squarely in the midst of poverty. Conflict with management led to a long strike in 1880 that eventually ended in a riot. When the mines closed in the 1880s, residents went elsewhere and traces of the former town faded away. The former village site is now part of East Moline.
NOTE: See the Quad Cities overview for regional information on tourism centers, festivals, and getting around.
Early History Before there was East Moline, there was Watertown and Happy Hollow, but by the time East Moline was platted in 1895, these early villages had vanished and the land was mostly undeveloped swamp. The only signs of “civilization” were a single railroad shack and one house. Rock Islander E.H. Guyer had previously purchased options on the land and was ready to begin a massive public relations campaign to sell land to fulfill his dream of creating an industrial powerhouse of a city. The initial attempt to auction off plots of land, however, was a miserable failure and would have killed the whole venture except for the generosity of two men, Jeremiah Keator and Charles Deere, who stepped forward with enough cash to keep the effort alive. Revitalized, Guyer moved on with his plans and slowly started to attract business and residents. In the early years, East Moline succeeded in attracting industry but housing construction lagged behind. The opening of the Rock Island Railroad yard in neighboring Silvis only exacerbated the housing shortage; it would take several years for East Moline to build enough housing to satisfy demand.
Attractions At the point where 13th Avenue makes a sharp turn to the right, the giant factory on the left is the John Deere Harverstor Works—the factory that builds combines and, unlike its competitors, is still going strong. If you have been paying attention, you will have just read about the John Deere factory tour that is way cool. See the Moline section for more detail.
There are few attractions for travelers in East Moline, but, if you want an excuse to see something, stop at Campbell’s Island State Historic Site (Island Ave.; 309.788.0177). Built to commemorate a skirmish on July 19, 1814, during the War of 1812, in which sixteen people were killed by a group of British allied Sauk and Mesquakie Indians led by Black Hawk. Campbell’s Island has long been a favorite recreation spot for area residents (it still has a marina) and is currently home for many river rats. The monument is nothing special but the views of the river are good and you will probably have the place to yourself.
Welcome to the Quad Cities, where the Mississippi River flows from east to west—to get from Iowa to Illinois you have to go south! The Quad Cities consist of the Iowa cities of Davenport and Bettendorf and the Illinois cities of Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline. Yes, around here “Quad” actually means five. The Quad Cities metro area also includes several smaller river towns, including the villages of Pleasant Valley and Riverdale in Iowa and Hampton, Illinois. And that’s just within the ring formed by Interstates 80 and 280, my choice as the artificial boundary for the region. Sorry LeClaire and Muscatine.
The Mississippi River cuts through the heart of the region—actually, it is the heart of the region. The cities stretch from the river’s banks up and over the bluffs that the Mississippi River excavated thousands of years ago. In the Quad Cities, downtown is literally the part of town that is down the hill. The Mississippi River is the reason that settlers put down their stakes here in the 1830s, and people still flock to its banks to fish, to walk, to gamble, or just to sit and enjoy the view. The Mississippi River unites these disparate cities into a cohesive region.
There are plenty of quality ways to pass the time and the people are among the friendliest you will meet anywhere. I know every guide makes that claim, but I genuinely mean it. So come on down. Explore the cities. Check out a festival or two. Learn about the region’s fascinating history and related stories of American expansion, industrialization, and the shifting economies that continually make and remake cities.
Information for Visitors
Tourist information centers are plentiful in the Quad Cities although hours outside of the summer season are limited. You can call for information (800.747.7800/563.322.3911), surf to their website, or visit one of the visitors centers. Locations include Union Station on the Davenport Riverfront (102 South Harrison St.) and the Moline Visitor Center (Bass Street Landing, 1601 River Dr., Suite 110). The Centennial Bridge Visitor Center (Rock Island: 201 15th St.; 309.277.0937) also has a photo display about the impressive bridge. If you arrive in the area on eastbound Interstate 80, there is an Illinois Welcome Center just after the exit for Illinois Highway 84 (800.452.4368) that has information on the Quad Cities plus a decent overlook of the Mississippi Valley.
Getting on the River
It is easier to get near the river than on the river in the Quad Cities. There are no places to rent a boat in the immediate area, but you do have a few other ways to experience the Mississippi River directly. The best way to get up close and personal with the river is by riding the Channel Cat Water Taxis (details under “Getting Around”). For $6 you can ride all day; they even have room for a few bicycles. If you do a complete loop, the ride will take about an hour.
Another option is taking a ride on the Celebration Belle (Moline: 2501 River Dr.; 800.297.0034/309.764.1952), which offers a variety of your standard tourist-oriented river cruises from Tuesday through Saturday, some with food, some without. Sightseeing cruises usually stick to the ten-mile stretch between the locks. The lunch cruise atmosphere was way too cheesy for my tastes, but the food was better than I expected.
If you’d like to get on the river under your own power, check out Navarro Canoe Company in downtown Rock Island. They make several models of beautiful, functional canoes that you can purchase for your next river journey.
The Quad Cities are festival crazy. Something is happening most every time of year, especially in the summer when it seems there is a festival every weekend. Here are some of the most entertaining.
Bald Eagle Days (Rock Island: QCCA Expo Center, 2621 4th Ave.; 309.794.5338; January, 2nd weekend) in the Quad Cities is part exposition and part eagle watching. The exposition hall has conservation exhibits, animal shows, art, and Native American storytelling and dancing.
The Mississippi River Visitors’ Center (Arsenal Island: 309.794.5338; free) hosts a Bald Eagle Watch on the first few weekends of the new year except the weekend of Bald Eagle Days. The hour-long event includes a presentation on eagle biology, a tour of the Clock Tower, and eagle spotting. Reservations are required.
The St. Patrick’s Day Grand Parade begins in Rock Island and crosses into Davenport via the Centennial Bridge, thus giving the Quad Cities bragging rights as host of the only St. Patrick’s Day Parade that marches in two states, and, I imagine, that crosses a big river in the process (309.324.5000; March, generally the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day).
Motorcycle enthusiasts gather in Davenport on Father’s Day weekend for Sturgis on the River (Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds; 2815 W. Locust; 309.799.7469) to celebrate all things bike-ish with music, shopping, and ultimate fighting.
The Mississippi Valley Fair (Davenport: Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds; 2815 W. Locust; 563.326.5338; late July/early August) is a traditional county fair with traditional fair food like deep-fried mutant chicken breasts on a stick and traditional fair events like trying not to step in fresh cow dung.
The most well-known and best-attended festival is the Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival (Davenport: July/last weekend), named after the renowned cornet player and jazz composer whose legend continued beyond his untimely death at age twenty-eight. The event began in 1971 when musicians from the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Band of New Jersey came to Davenport to play on the fortieth anniversary of his death. When word leaked out that the group was going to jam at the Holiday Inn, two thousand people showed up. Thinking that this was a sign of continuing interest in the legacy of Bix, an annual festival was created. Good thinking. Concerts take place in several locations around town including LeClaire Park on the Davenport riverfront.
In 2017, a music festival called Alternating Currents will replace River Roots Live. The new August festival will expand beyond musical acts to include film screenings, visual art, and comedians at venues around downtown Davenport.
Men in skirts, whirling and twirling about, cradling large heavy objects, grunting and screaming, throwing the objects as far as they can. What is this thing? No, silly, it is not some strange S/M ballet, although it may look like that at times. This is the Celtic Highland Games of the Quad Cities (Davenport: Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds; 2815 W. Locust; 309.794.0449; August/weekend before Labor Day), an annual event where men in kilts gather to compete in games imported from Celtic homelands, like the hammer throw, sheaf toss, and caber toss, all to the background accompaniment of roaming bagpipers. (See pics of the games here.)
The Antique Flattrack Motorcycles Races (Davenport: Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds; 2815 W. Locust; 515.966.9338; August/last Friday of the month) are a throwback to an earlier era. Antique bikes and some antique riders—there is at least one guy in his 80s who competes most years—race around a half-mile dirt track. I was prepared to be bored, but between the roar of the bikes, the potential for bloody wrecks from slipping on the dirt track, and the photo finishes, I found the whole thing pretty damned exciting! And, I didn’t feel the least bit out of place surrounded by a sea of middle-aged, bearded, leather-clad biker-types, except when the guy behind me kept naming off the year and make of every single bike and all I could see was that it had two wheels. (See pics here.)
Mississippi Valley Blues Festival (Davenport, LeClaire Park; 563.322.5837; Labor Day weekend) is a big blues bash on the Davenport riverfront. The festival draws top quality regional and national blues performers and big crowds.
If you are into fast cars, albeit small ones, the Rock Island Grand Prix (Labor Day weekend) is your event. Professional kart drivers (as in go-karts) from near and far zip around the streets of downtown Rock Island for a $25,000 prize. This race is a springboard to NASCAR for many drivers. Seriously. (More pictures are here.)
The Quad Cities have several active theater companies. Your best bet is to consult the arts calendar in the River Cities’ Reader, but the following venues have regular events. The Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse (Rock Island: 1828 3rd Ave.; 309.786.7733) is a dinner theater with a very busy performance schedule throughout the year. The Quad City Music Guild (309.762.6610; summer shows performed Th–Sa 7:30, Su 2p) has been staging musical and dance entertainment in Moline’s Prospect Park Auditorium (16th St. @ 30th Ave.) for over half a century. Call or check their website for a current schedule. Because of limited parking, the Guild operates a shuttle service from South Park Mall (the southeast lot near JCPenney and Denny’s Restaurant) to the auditorium for performances. It’s a Mystery! (563.355.6100) specializes in original comedy/mystery shows that invite audience participation; they perform a few times a year in the Quad Cities.
Local artist Michael Blaser has been fascinated by boats since childhood. His paintings include renderings of historic steamboats on the Mississippi River and the levees where they docked, as well as images of modern towboats. Look for his work around town at places like the Isle of Capri Casino Hotel in Bettendorf.
Sporting Events The QC has a range of professional sports teams to get your adrenaline pumping. The Quad Cities River Bandits (Davenport: Modern Woodmen Park; 209 S. Gaines St.; 563.322.6348; games from April-September), a Class A minor league baseball team affiliated with the Houston Astros, play in one of the most scenic spots for a baseball game—anywhere—at a historic stadium on the Davenport riverfront.
Quad City Steam Wheelers (Moline: i Wireless Center; 1201 River Dr.; 309.797.8500; games from March–July) play arena football, a frantic indoor version of the sport that will keep your attention. The Quad Cities Riverhawks (Moline: Wharton Field House; 1800 20th St.; 866.694.5728; games from January–March) is a professional basketball team in the Premier Basketball League that plays in an atmospheric arena built in 1928.
Getting To and Out of Dodge
I bet you arrived here by car, probably on one of the major Interstates that cross through the area: 80, 88, 74, or 280. If you came on the Iowa Great River Road, you arrived either on US Highway 67 from the north or Iowa Highway 22 from the south. On the Illinois side, the Great River Road from the north is Illinois Highway 84; from the south, it is Illinois Highway 92. If you stay on any of the Great River Road routes, you will pass through the heart of the Quad Cities. If you arrive via Interstate Highway, you will fly right past the fun unless you exit onto one of these routes.
Quad City International Airport, founded as Moline Airport, began regular commercial service in 1926. It is on the southern edge of Moline, near the intersection of Interstates 280 and 74. It is served by four airlines: Allegiant, American, Delta, and United. Access to downtown Moline from the airport is quick, about ten minutes, by taking I-74 westbound. A taxi will cost you $10–$20 to downtown Moline, $20–$30 to downtown Rock Island, and $25–$35 to downtown Davenport or the hotels in Bettendorf. You may have to call for a taxi, as there is not always a queue at the QC Airport. Rates and phone numbers are posted by exit 7, near baggage claim. You can also take a MetroLINK bus (Route #20) for $1 from the airport to downtown Moline.
In Davenport the Ground Transportation Center (300 W. River Dr.) is the bus terminal for Greyhound and Burlington Trailways, as well as the local CitiBus. National bus lines have daily departures to the Iowa cities of Burlington, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Des Moines, plus departures to Omaha, Chicago, and Indianapolis. In Moline, the bus terminal is at Centre Station (1200 River Dr.); busses from here have daily departures to Chicago, Des Moines, and Indianapolis. Specific departure times vary from day to day and change frequently. Call the bus lines or check the Internet for current schedules (Greyhound: 563.326.5127; Burlington Trailways: 563.322.1876).
Honestly, though, if you’re going to be exploring the territory along the River Road, you are better off just renting a car. Bus routes to river towns north of the Quad Cities are ridiculously time consuming, although you may have slightly better luck going south. If you want to rent a car, you can go to the airport, where several national chains have offices (Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz, and National/Alamo). In addition, Avis (800.527.0700), Enterprise (800.736.8222), and Hertz (800.654.3131) have other locations around the Quad Cities; call their reservation lines for details.
The nearest Amtrak station is in Galesburg, IL, about 45 miles south. From Galesburg, you must take a bus to reach the Quad Cities. A line extending Amtrak service to Moline is under construction but isn’t likely to be operational until 2018.
Most every city here uses numbered streets and avenues, which means if you follow 15th Street when you really want 15th Avenue, you may end up in the Mississippi River instead of that brewpub you want to check out. It also means that when you are asking about an address, you need to know which city it is in. Asking for 14th Street isn’t good enough. You need to know that the 14th Street you want is the one in Davenport, not the one in Moline. If that’s not confusing enough, you may notice that streets go perpendicular to the river, except in Davenport where they parallel the river. In most cases, perpendicular to the river means north-south, except for Hampton where perpendicular to the river is nearly east-west, which is the direction streets in Davenport go, even though they parallel the river. I’m sure that clears up the confusion. Maybe this will simplify things. If you are like me and you use the river as a landmark to help navigate around town, remember that the Mississippi flows from east to west through the heart of the Quad Cities, so when you are driving parallel to the river, you are therefore going east or west. It takes some getting used to. I’ve been turned around many times.
Local busses can get you around town fairly well, but you may have a bit of a wait for some connections. Operating hours are very limited, however, especially at night and on weekends. It’s a good idea to call ahead to confirm times and schedules. The bus systems are: Bettendorf Transit (563.344.4085), CitiBus in Davenport (563.888.2151), and the Illinois federation called MetroLINK (309.788.3360). Transfers within the same system are usually free, but transferring busses between may cost a bit extra. You can transfer between MetroLINK and Bettendorf busses at the Centre Station in Moline and between MetroLINK and CitiBus in Rock Island’s Ground Transportation Center or in The District.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day you can zip between cities on both sides of the river on the Channel Cat Water Taxis (800.297.0037/309.788.3360), which operate above Lock and Dam 15. Catch a ride at one of the following stops: 1) Moline Landing (Celebration Belle pier), 2) Isle of Capri in Bettendorf, 3) Village of East Davenport, and 4) John Deere Commons in Moline. An $8 ticket buys you unlimited rides for a single day; pay as you board. You can bring your bike on the boat as long as it is not too crowded.
It is easy to explore the area by bicycle, although steep hills can make for a challenging ride. The bike paths along the river are generally flat and take you past a good cross-section of the communities. Most other attractions are within a short distance of the downtowns, but be prepared to scale those previously mentioned hills along the way. Between April and September, bicycles can be rented at the Visitors’ Centers at Davenport’s Union Station or Moline’s Bass Street Landing. There are many paved bike/pedestrian paths in the Quad Cities. On the Iowa side, the Davenport Riverfront Trail parallels the Mississippi River from Credit Island Park to Bettendorf where it ends at the Isle of Capri Casino. The Duck Creek Recreational Trail is another exceptional trail that runs twelve miles through the heart of area from Davenport’s Emeis Park to Bettendorf’s Duck Creek Park. On the Illinois side, the Mississippi River Trail begins in Sunset Park and goes sixty-five miles to Savanna, Illinois, passing through Moline and East Moline along the way.
Reliable taxi providers include Crosstown Cab (563.381.1000/309.762.6500) and Max’s Cab Company (563.324.9000/309.788.4100); both serve the entire Quad Cities area. Call to arrange a ride. In addition, ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft operate in the region.
I’m really nothing but a big kid, which probably doesn’t surprise those of you who know me. Put me on a cart and wheel me through a big factory with lots of noise and shiny things, and I am giddy and overwhelmed – giddy in a manly kind of way, of course. John Deere did it to me this time, which is not the kind of thing you hear from a city boy very often.
John Deere Harvester Works in East Moline, Illinois is a giant factory – some 25 acres or 1 million square feet under one roof – and the only place in the United States where JD makes the giant 70 series STS combines. You can get a stripped down combine for about $250,000 or fully pimp it out for another $100k. (That’s two weeks in a row I used the word ‘pimp’ in a blog, for those of you keeping score at home.) The technology on these machines has gone crazy. The thing can virtually drive itself. If you get the GPS package, GreenStar, you can enter the dimensions of your field, select a pattern you want to follow, and sit back as the machine does the work for you. The cab has a nice stereo, a fancy computer, a comfy seat, and probably comes with a bottle opener, too. According to the brochure, the 70 series will “Chop, drop, size, and spread”, which will lead to improvements in your residue management. I don’t have any idea what that means, yet I’m impressed, anyway.
I would like to tell you about the manufacturing process, but I was so distracted by the happenings inside the factory – and trying to take pictures – that I didn’t hear much of our guide’s narrative. Here’s what I remember: “Can you hear me OK? Keep your arms and legs inside the cart at all times. Metal press…robot…laser…automated painting…laser…welding…dignitaries touring today, too…laser. Hope you enjoyed the tour.” One thing I remember clearly is that Station 22 is where the fluids are added. I know this because our guide was very excited to point it out to us. At the time I just kinda assumed that he had some special relationship with the fluid world that was not for me to judge. But, Station 22 also happens to be the spot where the future owner of the combine gets to jump into the cab and start it for the very first time. Now that’s the kind of excitement I can relate to. If you’re in the neighborhood, take the Harvester Works tour, then tell me how they actually make a combine. I’ll try to pay attention this time.
Details: Tours are free but you must make a reservation (800.765.9588). Times and availability vary with production schedules but usually take place Monday-Friday only. You can take still photos but no video, and don’t even think of showing up in open-toed shoes.
As long as you’re in the John Deere mood, get yourself to John Deere Commons in downtown Moline, where you can not only see a completed 70 series STS combine, but you can climb into the cab and pretend you are Mr. Douglas from Green Acres, if Mr. Douglas drove a 70 Series STS Combine instead of a beat up, second-hand tractor. By the way, one of the tractors actually used on the show was a John Deere. They’re everywhere! You can read all about the tractors of Green Acres here. Here’s a cool fact I just learned: the actor who played Mr. Douglas, Eddie Albert, was born in Rock Island, which is right next door to Moline. See – it’s karma.
Today’s Bad Decision: Not paying attention to mergers in the hospitality industry. My preferred cheap motel in the Quad Cities was the Excel Inn in Davenport. It’s nothing special. In fact, sometimes it has a slightly repulsive odor. But, it was almost always under $40/night and had free WiFi. All of the other places in that price range lack WiFi. Well, apparently the Excel Inn chain was purchased by Wyndham Hotels and Resorts and is now branded as a Travelodge, so the same badly scented room cost $10/night more. That stinks. I guess it’s time to check out some new lodging options in the Quad Cities.