Dubuque | Mines of Spain | River Museum

by Melanie and Jim

October included our 35th wedding anniversary. To celebrate, we drove 90 minutes to the city of Dubuque, Iowa, on the Mississippi River. There we visited the Mines of Spain recreation area and National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. We enjoyed dinner that evening and an overnight stay at our favorite B&B in town.

The City of Dubuque

Dubuque, a city of about 58,000 residents and five colleges, sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, in the northeast part of Iowa. It’s one of the oldest permanent settlements of Europeans west of the great river, and the oldest one in Iowa itself. The original settlement dates from the 1780s, as a prime location with trapping and hunting, fishing, and logging. In addition, the area had long been a site for lead mining by the Mesquakie tribe, and later by white settlers. The city was chartered in 1837. You can see the evidence of its age in local architecture. Almost 5,000 properties are documented for historical and architectural significance. These include churches, former boarding houses, grand mansions, and shipyards.

One shop in particular, the Iowa Iron Works, started as an iron foundry and machine shop in 1852. The site was responsible for building about 500 boats on the shore of the river. One of them was the Sprague, the largest paddle wheel steamboat on the river at 318 feet in 1901. The company reorganized in 1904 into the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works. Many boats built by the company were for the government during World Wars I and II.

Mines of Spain

The history of this region goes back a long time. Early Native American cultures dating back 8,000 years left evidence of mounds, villages, rock shelters, and campsites on the landscape. The Mesquakie traded furs with French voyagers and worked the lead mines in the bluffs along the river before the Revolutionary War.

The first European to settle here was Julien Dubuque about 1785. He received a land grant from the Governor of Spain in 1796 giving him permission to work the land and mine for lead in an area named “Mines of Spain.” Dubuque married the daughter of the local Mesquakie Indian Chief. Dubuque died 24 March 1810. The Mesquakie buried him with honors at the site of the present monument on a bluff overlooking the region.

The Mines of Spain park is now a favorite recreation spot for locals and visitors, alike. It features bluff-side trails, as is common with river parks in the Midwest. With both of us recovering from knee problems, we weren’t incredibly ambitious with our hiking. However, we did enjoy two different trails with a total distance of about three miles. Views of the river, seen from different overlooks on the trails, still include barges and riverboats, much as they did 150 years ago.

National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

The Mississippi River has a rich and colorful history. It touched the lives of many as it flowed from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Owned by the Dubuque County Historical Society, the museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution.

The museum features the culture and history of America’s rivers. There are over a dozen aquariums featuring river wildlife and animals found at the Gulf of Mexico. You can see giant blue and channel catfish, sturgeon, ducks, frogs, turtles, rays, octopus, river otters. Other exhibits include steam boilers, boats building hardware, and a woodworking shop. Children seemed excited to look through the clear tank walls and even had opportunities to touch some of the animals. We found it all very interesting.

We headed back home the next day and stopped at a favorite nearby park. Palisades -Kepler State Park hugs the Cedar River. Bluff-side trails give opportunities for more challenging hiking, with lots of roots and rocks and ups and downs. We didn’t take photos this time. However, three years ago we did and shared them in this post.


17 thoughts on “Dubuque | Mines of Spain | River Museum

  1. BJ Good

    I enjoyed a visit to the National Mississippi River Museum back in August 2010. They change exhibits to keep folks coming back I think so nice to see through your eyes. As usual you two were able to create an entertaining and productive experience for your celebration. I like[d] the history part of the Dubuque visit then and now with your blog.

    1. Melanie McNeil

      I haven’t been to Dubuque often, and mostly for the bank. So my “eyes” for the historical sites aren’t very practiced. I was really impressed with it, though, and hope we go back more frequently now. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    1. shoreacres

      Perhaps you’ve never spent an evening in a corn field, listening to it grow. It talks, too, and some of its tales are quite interesting. People in Nebraska claim their corn’s more sociable, but we never believed them.

      1. Jim Ruebush Post author

        I have heard Illinois corn at night. Our farm house was surrounded by fields. My upstairs bedroom was hot like an oven on most nights. By July the corn was growing fast. Those pops and squeaks were noticed.

        Now and then, they were interrupted by the chickens squawking followed minutes later by a shotgun blast. Dad got another raccoon. One night he went out, shined his light and spotted eyes on the top of a post. Bam! Well, that turned out to be Old Tom the cat. He was up there to get away from the raccoon, I guess.

  2. shoreacres

    One of my friends just took a week-long cruise down the upper Mississippi on a river boat, and spent a day in Dubuque. She didn’t do any hiking, and didn’t make the museum, but she still enjoyed it, and said she’d like to go back. If she does, I’ll be sure she read this first. I think it might strengthen her resolve to do more than shopping.


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