Port Byron is perhaps best known as the town that competes against Le Claire, Iowa in the annual TugFest, but it is also a popular place to grab a bite to eat or a drink at one of the establishments along Main Street.
If you have questions about Port Byron, your best bet is to direct them to the helpful folks at the library (see below).
Port Byron’s first settlers were Thomas and Robert Syms who arrived around 1828 when the area was inhabited primarily by Sauk and Mesquakie Indians. Archibald Allen was another early settler, building his house in a village that was called Caanan; it was eventually absorbed into the village of Port Byron. Port Byron was platted (and named) in 1836 by Samuel Allen, Dr. P. Gregg, Nathaniel Belcher (who was granted a license to operate a ferry here in 1837), and Moses Bailey; the town is probably named after the 19th century Romantic poet Lord Byron, although it is not clear which of the early founders was a Byron aficionado. Like its neighboring villages, lime production was an important local industry, although its 1840 start made Port Bryon an early innovator. Lime kilns operated in Port Byron until the 1930s. One early resident was Colonel Charles Eads. His son, James B. Eads, would go on to become one of the best American engineers of the 19th century, completing a remarkable stone arch bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Louis in 1874.
There are a few picnic tables scattered along the Port Byron riverfront, especially south of downtown. The Brown/Hancke house (414 S. Main) was built in 1839 and is believed to be the oldest residence in town.
The Port Byron Congregational Church (200 S. High St.; 309.523.2318) was founded in 1849 with 12 members. The current building was dedicated in 1856 and cost about $3,000 to build. Most of the materials to build the church were shipped up the Mississippi River, including the art glass windows that were made in Germany. While the initial construction was done frugally, the congregation splurged on a 500-pound bell that was cast in Boston in 1854, a gift from the pastor’s brother. When the bell was being unloaded from the steam boat, it was dropped in the Mississippi and had to be fished out. The entire front of the building was rebuilt in 1934 to make room for the new highway.
Festivals. When it comes to festivals, you just can’t beat TugFest (563.289.3946). Thousands of people descend upon the small towns of Le Claire, Iowa and Port Byron, Illinois on the second weekend of August for a spectacle that is part county fair and part athletic competition. For three hours, the Mississippi River is closed to all commercial traffic. Organizers lay out a 2,400 foot rope and stretch it from bank to bank so teams of 20 or so from Iowa and Illinois can compete. While the individual tugs are taken seriously, you can’t help but notice that the whole event feels like one big gag and everyone is in on it. Carnies line the riverfront, armed with old-school games of chance that entice suckers with large stuffed-animal prizes. When you get hungry, you can have a hand-dipped corndog, then choose either a fried Twinkie or fried Snickers bar for dessert (or both, I suppose, if you are a true glutton). Bring a chair and get there early to stake a claim to a good spot to watch the action. (See pictures from TugFest here.)
Camp Hauberg (129th Ave. North; 309.523.2168; April 15–October 15) has nearly 200 sites next to the Mississippi River; campers also have access to a boat ramp and dock.
Post Office: 105 Hickory; 309.523.2345.
River Valley District Library: 214 S. Main St.; 309.523.3440.
Heading upriver? Check out Cordova.
Heading downriver? Check out Rapids City.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2009,2017
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