Welcome to Iowa’s Only Island City. For generations, you needed a boat to reach Sabula, but modern causeways do the job more quickly now.
Fill up on brochures and maps at the Jackson County Welcome Center (60488 State Highway 64; 800.342.1837/563.687.2237), housed in a replica country school but furnished with authentic 19th-century school-house items. They also have a gift shop in the basement that features the work of local artists. And don’t forget to say hi to Della.
French explorers called this area Prairie la Pierre or Pierre’s Prairie. I don’t know why, but I’m guessing a French guy named Pierre once lived here. Isaac Dorman arrived in the 1830s, put a flat boat propelled by oars and poles in the water, and called it a ferry; he didn’t stick around much longer. When the town was platted in 1837 it was called Carrollport, which proved unpopular because it created an impression that the town was named after a nearby resident named Carroll who was strongly disliked. The town switched its name to Charleston, which seemed like a natural because there was a Savanna nearby, thus bringing a little Carolina to the Midwest. The new name proved problematic, however, because there was already a Charleston in Iowa, and mail kept getting directed to the wrong town. In 1846 William Hubbel, taking notice of the exceptionally sandy soil, suggested basing the town’s name on the Latin word for sand: Sabulum, because no one liked Prairie la Pierre, Carrollport, or Charleston. According to local legend, a woman at a party liked the word but thought that “Sabula” was more elegant and easier to pronounce. Sabula incorporated in 1864.
In 1868, town leaders realized that the original town plat was nowhere to be found, which meant that no one had legal title to their property. This being a significant inconvenience, Sabula’s leaders turned to the Iowa legislature for help, which resolved the problem and granted permission for a new town survey. Sabula had a solid industrial base in the latter part of the 19th century, with a large packing house, a profitable sawmill, a planing mill, and a jewelry manufacturing company that created sleeve buttons, combs, brooches, and other wonders from local clam shells. In the late 19th century, the backwaters around Sabula were home to a very productive celery industry but, it went under when causeways and levees were built and the fields were permanently flooded.
Sabula was also an important railroad community from the time the first engine steamed into town in 1872. Trains were ferried across the river in summer; in winter, temporary tracks were laid across the ice. A railroad bridge was finally completed in 1880, then replaced with the current steel truss swing bridge in 1906. For a small town, Sabula had a very busy depot in the early 1900s, with up to 17 passenger trains stopping in town every day. The last passenger train left the Sabula depot on April 28, 1958.
In the early 20th century, tent shows were a popular form of entertainment and Sabula was home base for two well-known companies: the Brooks Stock Company and the Marshall Players. The tent shows were part vaudeville, part circus, and part stage dramas. Some of the companies began performing in opera houses in the early 1900s; as movies took over those venues, the shows went on the road and acted under big tents.
After severe flooding in the 1950s, new levees were built that completely surrounded the village, protecting it from major flooding, except for seepage that tends to fill some basements during high water. So Sabula not only can claim to be Iowa’s only island city, but could almost certainly claim to be Iowa’s only city that is completely surrounded by a levee.
Driscoll’s Island is a tiny peninsula park off the US 52 causeway on the west side of town; it is a cozy spot for a picnic. South Sabula Lakes Park (1516 South Ave.; 563.652.3783) has some picnic tables and a playground but is primarily a campground (see below). John Wall Park (River St. at Sycamore St.) has a playground and picnic tables next to the river; there is also green space with benches along much of River Street. Bill Cotton Park (Lake Street @ Elm Street) is on the other side of town, which is to say just four blocks away, along the lake.
On weekend mornings, you’ll find people lined up and waiting to eat pancakes at the unassuming café with a sign that simply reads “Restaurant.” This is the Island City Café (405 Broad St.; 563.687.2606), where two large pancakes will only cost $3, and, if you are not a pancake person, they have plenty of other breakfast options that are mostly in the $4–$6 range. They are also beloved for their homemade pies, which some consider the perfect complement to pancakes.
Bombfire Pizza (516 Pearl St.; 563.249.8688) makes delicious pizza the traditional way: in a wood-fired oven. Their pizzas have a thin, crispy crust with fresh ingredients made to order. They also have a wine garden and funky atmosphere; they don’t take credit cards.
The Corner Stop (205 Sycamore; 563.687.3013) will satisfy your ice cream craving. A single, generous scoop on a cone will cost you less than $2.
Just south of Sabula on US 67 is Hillside Stables Restaurant (1412 North Highway 67; 563.687.2479), an unassuming country eatery that serves delicious German fare like jagerschnitzel and bauernschinken, plus a selection of steaks and fish.
South Sabula Lakes Park (563.652.3783) is a popular but cramped campground; the 40 sites, all with electric, fill up quickly in summer.
The Castle B&B (616 River St.; 563.687.2714) is located on the river side of Sabula and has good views; it has three immaculate rooms that share a bath.
Hillside Stables has a comfortable two-bedroom apartment just behind the restaurant in a quiet country setting, a good deal for a small group traveling together.
Island City Harbor Marina (305 South Ave.; 563.687.2825; WiFi) offers a unique lodging opportunity—a floating cottage; roomy enough for a large family, the cottage has a complete kitchen, flat-screen TV, screened-in porch, and a boat dock adjacent to the cottage. With four twin beds, a queen bed, and a hide-a-bed, the cottage can accommodate eight overnight guests.
Post Office: 411 Broad St.; 563.687.2848.
Krabbenhoft Public Library: 512 Elk St.; 563.687.2950.
Heading upriver? Check out Green Island.
Heading downriver? Check out Clinton.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2009
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