The Great River Road

Zigzagging for nearly 100 miles south of the Quad Cities, the GRR picks its way along a series of back roads through Illinois floodplain and prairie, where frequent small farming towns serve as reminders of the need for frequent stops by early stages, steamboats, and railroads. Most of the towns seem not to have changed much since the last steamboat or train whistle blew, although now there’s neon in the bars, vinyl and aluminum siding on the houses, and farmers with high-powered four-by-fours on the roads.

Nearly 45 miles south of the Quad Cities beltway, the GRR passes tiny New Boston, where the Mississippi is fed by the mouth of the Iowa River. The town is a historical footnote these days, having been surveyed by the young Abraham Lincoln after his stint in the Army—a tour of duty during which his only combat was against mosquitoes, he later recalled. Along the river farther south, near Keithsburg, a sign welcomes travelers to the Yellow Banks, named for the deep layer of sand exposed in the river valley in this region. Because of this deposit, visitors can find sandburs and even cactus in the Big River State Forest south of town. Keithsburg used to be one of a number of button manufacturing centers located along the middle Mississippi: Freshwater clams were dredged from the river bottom and their shells were used for making pearl buttons.