Mathias Ham was an early lead miner in the region—too early, in fact. His first attempt to make money involved organizing a group of 50 miners and taking them, illegally, across the Mississippi into Indian lands. They were eventually forced out by federal troops. After the Black Hawk War, mining opened up and Mathias Ham moved in, legally, and got rich. Over the years, however, he lost most of his money on unsuccessful business ventures, such as the failed town of Eagle Point. When he died, his mansion was his last remaining asset. That house is now the Mathias Ham House Historic Site (2241 Lincoln Ave.; 563.557.9545). Constructed of native limestone, the house looks solid and imposing from the outside but the interior has an understated elegance. Docents in period costume will guide you around the house after a ten-minute video narrated by local celebrity Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek: Voyager fame. The house is stocked with period furnishings (but few are original to the house), and the guides do a fine job of explaining their functions.
Just around the corner from the Ham House, Eagle Point Park (2601 Shiras Ave.; 563.589.4238) was created in 1909 and underwent considerable renovation during the Depression thanks to a grant from the Works Progress Administration. If the buildings remind you of Frank Lloyd Wright, it is because the superintendent who designed them, Alfred Caldwell, was a big fan of Wright’s Prairie School. Besides the impressive buildings, the park has great views of the river and Lock and Dam #11 and no shortage of places to picnic. The park is open to auto traffic from May through October. The rest of the year, take Shiras Avenue up the hill to Eagle Point Drive and follow it around the top of the bluff to a parking lot, then walk into the park.
Lock and Dam #11 (11 Lime St.; 563.582.1204) has a viewing platform where you can watch boats locking through. At the opposite end of the levee, A.Y. McDonald Park (Hawthorn St.; 563.589.4238), home of the Catfish Festival, has a paved walking path next to the river and picnic tables; it is also an excellent viewing spot for bald eagles in the winter.
Miller-Riverview Park (2 Admiral Sheehy Dr.; 563.589.4238) is situated next to the Mississippi River and the greyhound race track on Hamm Island. It has a Vietnam War Memorial, good views of the river, and a few spots for a picnic, but it is primarily a campground. The Q Casino (1855 Greyhound Park Dr.; 800.373.3647) has over 1,000 slot machines and 16 gaming tables in 30,000 square feet.
Port of Dubuque
The Port of Dubuque, also known as Ice Harbor, has undergone a substantial makeover in recent years. It has several places you might wish to pass the time. Parking is free and plentiful.
The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium (350 E. 3rd St.; 563.557.9545), an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, is one of the best museums along the Mississippi River. Indoor exhibits include displays of aquatic life native to Mississippi River environments (check out the unreal fish in the Main Channel display—sturgeon, blue catfish, paddlefish, and don’t even get me started on the alligator gar), a cool flyover perspective of the Mississippi River from the headwaters to the delta, the history of river navigation, two theaters, and a collection of river-related art. Upstairs, you can virtually pilot a tow (using a computer simulation) and visit the National Rivers Hall of Fame. If that’s not enough, step outside and tour the William Black, an old dredge that also doubles as a bed-and-breakfast, and a wetland ecosystem.
The Diamond Jo Casino (301 Bell St.; 563.690.4800) has 36,000 square feet of gaming space with 1000 slot machines and 20 gaming tables. The complex also has a concert venue, the Mississippi Moon Bar (563.690.2100), a 30-lane bowling alley, and several places to eat. The Grand Harbor Resort has an indoor waterpark (350 Bell; 563.690.4000), plus restaurants and hotel rooms. At the Stone Cliff Winery (600 Star Brewery Dr.; 563.583.6100), housed in the historic Dubuque Star Brewery building, settle in and sample some wine. Across the railroad trestle from the winery is the Old Shot Tower (Riverfront between E. 4th and E. 6th Streets), built in 1856, it is one of the few remaining structures that was used to manufacture lead shot. Molten lead was hauled to the top and poured through a series of screens that shaped the lead into pellets; a water bath at the bottom cooled and hardened them.
Lower Main Street is the heart of the original (1833) commercial district. Reborn in recent years, Lower Main has several sites to explore, plus good shopping and eating.
The Town Clock originally sat atop the John Bell and Company store in the 1860s; it was hailed as the most accurate town clock in America. In 1971, the 13-ton clock was placed on a pedestal and surrounded by a plaza; it’s a popular place for events in the summer.
The standout Dubuque County Courthouse (720 Central Ave.) is a masterful, if over-the-top, Beaux Arts building designed by Fridolin Heer. Completed in 1891, the building was constructed with gray Indiana limestone, red brick, and terra cotta; the exterior is marked by intricate brick work, steeples, Grecian pediments, statues, and a 190-foot-tall tower with a 14-foot bronze statue of Justice atop it. The gilt dome is a recent addition, completed in the 1980s.
The Main Post Office (350 West 6th St., 563.582.3674) has two Depression-era murals by Bertrand Adams and William Bunn, both of whom were influenced by Iowa native son Grant Wood.
The downtown area has several historic churches worth a visit. Visiting them on weekends will take some advance planning, though. If you only have time to visit one church, head to St. Luke’s United Methodist Church (1199 Main St.; 563.582.4543); founded in 1833, it is home to the oldest congregation in Iowa. The current Romanesque church was completed in 1897 and is an exquisite, beautiful, sublime, stunning temple to God that is home to dozens of Tiffany art glass windows, including five very large and resplendent ones. You can borrow a guidebook from the office.
On the other side of downtown, the Gothic Revival Cathedral of St. Raphael and St. Patrick Church (231 Bluff St.; 563.582.7646) was built between 1852 and 1859. The interior has frescoes created by Luigi Gregori and art glass windows imported from London in 1889. The basement has a solemn Italian marble-lined mortuary chapel, built in 1903, that was off-limits to the public until 1997. The church is usually locked but you can ring the bell at the cathedral office during normal business hours to tour the interior.
St. Mary Catholic Church (1584 White St.; 563.582.5469) was completed in 1867 for a predominantly German parish. Designed by John Mullany, an architect with a specialty in gothic revival design who also designed the Cathedral of St. Raphael, the large—and tall—structure is distinguished by a 252-foot steeple that was modeled after Salisbury Cathedral in England. Many of the art glass windows are the creation of Bavarian artist F.X. Zetteler; they were shipped from Munich in 1912, just ahead of the violence that triggered World War I. The windows depict key events in the life of Mary, beginning with her birth (west side window at the front) and ending with her death (east side window at the front). The mural of the Assumption behind the altar was painted by Matilda Brielmaier in 1912. The mural, 35 feet tall, was painted on three pieces of canvas in the artist’s studio, installed in the church, and finished. The Altar of St. Mary (west side aisle) was installed in 1928; it is made of Italian Carrara marble and is decorated with a mosaic of Mary and houses the relics of four saints, including St. Anthony and St. Francis. The church closed in 2010 and is now an event center and the centerpiece of an effort to redevelop the church campus and surrounding area.
Saint John’s Episcopal Church (1410 Main St.; 563.556.0252) was founded in 1836; the current English Gothic building was finished in 1882. The limestone exterior is set off by doors painted a deep red—symbols of the blood of early Christian martyrs and Christ. The striking interior is rich in detail: a vaulted ceiling built to resemble the hull of a ship, five Tiffany windows, and a Baptismal font from 1851.
Another old congregation, the First Congregational United Church of Christ (255 W. 10th St.; 563.582.3648) dates to 1839 but the current building was dedicated in 1860, making it one of the oldest existing churches in Dubuque. When news of Lee’s surrender reached Dubuque in 1865, the church bell was rung so vigorously that it cracked. The bell was not replaced until 1886. The sanctuary is spacious and adorned with elaborate but warm woodwork, a Tiffany window, and an impressive organ behind the altar. The organ was installed in 1869, its trip from the manufacturer in Massachusetts completed with a tricky journey across the iced-over Mississippi River. The organ is still being used.
- See pictures from Dubuque’s historic churches here.
The Dubuque Museum of Art (701 Locust St.; 563.557.1851) has a few Grant Wood paintings on permanent display but otherwise uses its space to host rotating exhibits.
The Fenelon Place Elevator (4th St. at the bluff; 563.582.6496) was originally built for the personal use of J.K. Graves in 1882, who wanted an easier way to get to his home on top of the hill. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1883 and then opened to the public as the Fourth Street Elevator. In the past 120 years, the only major overhaul was in 1977 when the cars were replaced. It’s a very fun and unique ride with expansive views of Dubuque from the top.
The Mines of Spain Recreation Area (563.556.0620) is another outstanding park along the Mississippi River. The park includes the Julien Dubuque Monument, the dramatic bluff-top location where the city’s namesake was buried in 1810. The park has several miles of hiking trails; the ¾-mile hike around Horseshoe Bluff is a fairly easy and quick hike. Also within the park boundaries is the E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center (563.556.0620), which houses exhibits on wildlife native to the area.
Crystal Lake Cave (6684 Crystal Lake Cave Rd.; 563.556.6451) is a good starter cave, if you’ve never been in one before. The cave has a good variety of formations for its modest size.
Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey (8400 Abbey Hill Lane; 563.582.2595) is home for a group of Cistercian nuns living a contemplative life. They host prayer services at noon and vespers at 5pm; the public is welcome to attend. The nuns have a small organic farm and pay their expenses by producing and selling Trappistine Creamy Caramels. The Abbey is about six miles south of Dubuque. If you are interested in a quiet retreat, they offer a few different options for singles or small groups; what you pay is up to you.
West of Downtown
The Dubuque Arboretum (3800 Arboretum Dr.; 563.556.2100), located in Marshall Park on the city’s northwest side, may be a bit out of the way, but you should go, anyway. The Arboretum is divided into several theme beds such as Japanese, English, sun-loving perennials, and the 900-species hosta bed.
The Swiss Valley Nature Preserve (Swiss Valley Rd.; 563.556.6745) has a number of places to hike in its 500 acres of wilderness, plus trout fishing, and an interpretive center. Virtually next door is Swiss Valley Park (563.556.6745), with more hiking trails, picnicking, and a campground. To get there, go 8 miles west of downtown on US 20 to Swiss Valley Road; head south to reach the preserve and park.
Sundown Mountain Resort (16991 Asbury Rd.; 888.747.3872/563.556.6676) will help you pass the time on a cold winter’s day, with skiing from late November until mid-March; it has six lifts and 20 trails down a 475-foot slope.