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The Great River Road

Straddling the Mississippi at its confluence with the Rock River, the Quad Cities—Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa—encompass an enormous sprawl of some 400,000 residents. While much of the cityscape is dominated by heavy industry, particularly on the Iowa side, points of interest are sprinkled throughout.

Along the river at the heart of the Quad Cities, adjacent to downtown Rock Island, is the former namesake of that city, now called Arsenal Island for the U.S. Army facility based there. The island is open to the public. Besides an arsenal museum and Civil War cemeteries, there’s a good Mississippi River Visitor Center (daily, free) right next to Lock and Dam No. 15, where the operation of the locks can be seen from a penny-pitch away.

The first railroad bridge over the Mississippi linked Rock Island and Davenport in 1856. The railroad was promptly sued by a steamboat company, whose craft was mortally attracted to the bridge piers. The plaintiffs argued that bridges violated their navigation rights; the defense lawyer’s elegantly simple—and successful—rebuttal was that a person has as much right to cross a river as to travel upon it. That lawyer was Abraham Lincoln. Today the railroad crosses the river on the upper deck of the old iron Government Bridge, which swings open for the tows entering the locks; cars crossing between Rock Island and Davenport can ride the humming lower deck or take the modern concrete highway span below the dam.

If you come to the Quad Cities looking for a slice of old-fashioned middle-American humdrum, you’re in for a surprise: one of Midwest’s most impressive municipal art museums stands at the heart of unassuming Davenport. The Figge Art Museum (225 W. 2nd St., 563/326-7804, Tues.-Sun., $7), overlooking the Mississippi, is housed in a beautiful glass gem designed by noted British architect David Chipperfield. The museum shows off some of the University of Iowa’s fine collection of painting and sculpture, the only self-portrait by American Gothic artist Grant Wood, and an excellent assembly of WPA-era art and Frank Lloyd Wright furniture. The Figge also stages events and educational activities. Another intriguing cultural enterprise is just up the street, where the River Music Experience (129 N. Main St., 563/326-1333, Mon.-Fri., free) is a music venue and an interactive museum exploring the many different sorts of music that have grown up along the Mississippi River.

Davenport celebrates the music legacy of native son and cornetist Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke with the annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, held each summer. A high-tech “Skybridge” over US-67 links downtown with the riverfront, where a statue of Bix stands along the water. Also here is the wonderful old (circa-1930) but thoughtfully modernized Modern Woodmen Park, where the Quad Cities River Bandits (563/324-3000, tickets $5-14) baseball team play their home games. It’s a fun time for all, with a Ferris wheel. In a nod to Iowa’s famous Field of Dreams, before games the home team players run out from a corn field planted down the left field foul line.

Quad Cities Practicalities

In downtown Davenport, the only large Mississippi River city not cut off from Ol’ Muddy by a permanent flood wall, look to the historic downtown area, where you’ll find the Front Street Brewery Pub & Eatery (208 River Dr., 563/322-1569) and several good restaurants and cafés. Away from downtown Davenport, off I-80 exit 292, the original Machine Shed Restaurant (7250 Northwest Blvd., 563/391-2427) draws families from near and far for its huge portions of roast pork and other Midwest faves, like the famously good pies.

In downtown Moline, a half-dozen blocks along 5th Avenue between I-74 and 14th Street hold everything from the unexpectedly excellent Vietnamese fare of Le Mekong (1606 5th Ave., 309/797-8660) to the extraordinary Lagomarcino’s (1422 5th Ave., 309/764-1814), a candy store and soda fountain that serves drinks like phosphates in a setting virtually unchanged since it opened in 1908. Order a hot fudge sundae—it’s made with homemade fudge and ice cream.

In Rock Island’s old downtown, 2nd Avenue has experienced something of a revival; one pleasant result is The District, centered on the 2nd Avenue pedestrian mall. One great place hereabouts is the Blue Cat Brew Pub (113 18th St., 309/788-8247) along the riverside, where salads, seafood, and desserts go way beyond your average pub fare, and the beers range from traditional lagers and ales to more esoteric concoctions.

For a truly regional diner experience, make your way to Maid-Rite (2036 16th St., Moline, 309/764-1196). A strictly upper-Midwest phenomenon whose faded logo, “Since 1926,” can often be seen on old brick buildings or historic commercial storefronts as far away as Minnesota, the local Maid-Rites are unusually bright and polished, and they come heartily recommended for their “loose meat” sloppy joe sandwiches.

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