Iowa's Mississippi River Towns

Towns developed first along the banks of the Mississippi River in Iowa. Because of this, Mississippi River towns have a common culture and history apart from the rest of the state. They are the oldest. They have many common geographical features. They have undergone the same transitions in transportation from steamboats to railroads to automobiles and trucks. They have risen and fallen with different industries like mining, fishing and shellfishing, lumber milling, railroading and farm equipment manufacturing.

But they are also different from one another. They have different ethnic and religious populations and some different industries. South to north, they also have great differences in climate and topography.


Located in the northern third of Iowa, Dubuque was one of the first areas explored by Europeans and was the first town in Iowa.

Julian Dubuque used the river to travel and search for lead. The bluffs surrounding Dubuque held lots of lead—a source of great wealth. Lead rushes of the early 19th century brought miners to the city. Some remnants of the lead era remain in Dubuque. Building contractors still find mine shafts and tunnels when they excavate for new buildings. Sink holes even open up in backyards!

Because of its location on the Mississippi River, millworking (cutting timber into useable lumber) became a primary industry. Timber cut in Minnesota and Wisconsin could float down the river to Dubuque where it was cut into lumber at one of the numerous sawmills.

Steamboat traffic on the Mississippi River was heavy in Dubuque in 1857, and the town tried to dredge a channel through these marshes and sloughs. When that failed, they were filled in.

Lead, lumber, steamboats, railroads, shells and buttons, wagon works, farm implements, wholesale produce, brewing and retailing—Dubuque did it all. And today it has the old mansions, breweries, warehouses, churches, jails, theaters and hotels to prove it.


Traveling south on the river about 60 miles takes you to Clinton. Originally named New York when it was first mapped in 1836, Clinton was slow to grow. Neighboring town, Lyons, had several lumber and flour mills. However, when the Iowa and Nebraska Railroad decided to cross the river near Clinton instead of Lyons, Clinton began to grow and later absorbed Lyons and three other surrounding communities.

Because of its location on the Mississippi River, millworking became one of the primary industries in Clinton. By 1865 the sawmills had created 21.5 million feet of lumber and by 1871 Clinton was the was the biggest lumber port in Iowa.


About 40 miles southwest of Clinton is Davenport. Davenport was found in 1837 on land gifted by Chief Keokuk and has a history similar to many of Iowa's other river towns. It was a major lumber port and had some button-making industry. But one historic event separates Davenport from the rest of the river towns - it was the first city in Iowa to get a railroad and this railroad was also the first to cross the Mississippi River. In 1856, the Rock Island Railroad opened the bridge over the Mississippi River and was soon the center of controversy when the Effie Afton steamboat ran into and severely damaged the bridge. Davenport, however, thrived and became an industrial hub and today it is one of Iowa's biggest river towns.

At one time Davenport was promoted as a summer health resort. The city later became world famous as the home of D.D. Palmer. With his son, "B.J." Palmer, D.D. Palmer developed the Palmer School of Chiropractic in 1898. B.J. also started WOC, the first radio station west of the Mississippi

Throughout the 19th century German immigrants brought culture and music to the city. At the beginning of the 20th century Davenport had more than its share of talented and rebellious young artists: Alice French, Arthur Davison Ficke, George Cram Cook, Susan Glaspell and Bix Beiderbecke. Today the Putnam Museum and the Frigge Art Museum, formerly known as the Municipal Art Museum, draw visitors to the city. The Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival is held every summer in Davenport.


Muscatine was once the "Pearl Button Capital of the World." A man named John Boepple built a factory that used freshwater mussel shells to manufacture buttons. The business died as a result of river pollution destroying the mussels used for the buttons, a change in fashions, and the increase in cheaper plastic button manufactoring. Muscatine made a name for itself as a manufacturing center—a reputation it still holds today.


Another 50 miles south on the Mississippi River is the town of Burlington. Originally named Flint Hills, Burlington was incorporated as a town in 1837. The area's plentiful trees and timber allowed it to develop thriving lumber mills. From the 1850s until the 1880s Burlington also had furniture factories, railroad yards and repair shops, brickyards, grain elevators, carriage factories and food processors and wholesalers. During the 1840s and 1850s Burlington became the largest city in Iowa.

Fort Madison

Located only 25 miles southeast is Fort Madison. In 1808 Fort Madison created as a site for a U.S. fort and trading post. The fort's location was significant as it was one of three posts to establish control over the area in the Louisiana Purchase. The fort was burned in 1813 after a siege by the Sauk tribe.

The city of Fort Madison was built around the ruins of the original fort. In 1839 Fort Madison became the site for a state penitentiary. The "pen", built by prisoners, is the oldest prison west of the Mississippi.


The southernmost town on the Mississippi is Keokuk. Named for the Chief Keokuk of the Suak tribe, Keokuk was first settled by the American Fur Company which opened a trading post in 1828. In 1830 Issac Galland built the first school in Iowa just nine miles north of Keokuk and in 1837 was also the first person to platt, or map, the area that would be come Keokuk. In 1847 the state legislature granted Keokuk their charter and it was officially a town.

Since the Des Moines River was the biggest and most navigable Iowa rive,r and Keokuk is located at the point where the Des Moines River meets the Mississippi River, it became a departure point for early white settlers. Keokuk also lies at the base of what were once the Des Moines Rapids of the Mississippi. Between 1910 and 1913 a dam was built at Keokuk. It stretches 4,500 feet to the huge powerhouse near the lock on the Iowa shore. The Keokuk generators had a capacity of 310,000 electrical horsepower. Keokuk became known as "Power City." Still in operation today, the lock and dam are on the National Register of Historic Places as is recognized as a significant contribution to structural engineering.

Iowa's Mississippi River towns share many characteristics. But each city is unique with its own flavor of commercial buildings, museums and houses. The people, with their diverse backgrounds, helped shape their towns into the colorful places they are today. Each has its own story to tell. As Iowa's settlers moved west, they carried many of the ideas and customs that were begun in the eastern river towns to the interior towns.


Each town along the Mississippi River is unique. Find out about some of Iowa's river towns.

Media Artifacts

Investigation Tip:
Find your connection to history by examining an historical map of a familiar place. Where did the people live? What are the ways they used to get from one place to another?