story and photos by Kayte Deioma
People on the outer edges of the United States may never have heard of the Quad Cities, but for residents of America’s heartland, this collection of towns on the Iowa/Illinois border is a popular destination with much to offer visitors. On a bend in the Mississippi River where it flows from east to west, the cities of Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa on the north bank, and Moline, East Moline and Rock Island, across the water in Illinois to the south, make up Quad Cities, with the borders flexing to include activities in a few neighboring communities as well.
In 1991, the Quad Cities reintroduced riverboat gaming on the Mississippi River. The economic impact allowed an unprecedented boom in cultural investment in the region with a bevy of new museums and cultural centers bringing much needed educational tools to local communities and creating new attractions to entice visitors to the area.
On a clear day, you can bike along the river, take a ride on the Channel Cat water taxi, or visit the Niabi Zoo. On a rainy, snowy or sweltering day, in addition to the three riverboat casinos, there are plenty of indoor options to keep the whole family comfortably entertained.
The number one tourist draw in the area is John Deere. People come from all over the world to pick up their brightly colored green and yellow tractors and combines. In 1997 as part of the revitalization of downtown Moline, the John Deere Pavilion was opened on John Deere Commons to showcase the company’s products and innovations. Docents will walk you through the history and future of agriculture and the role of John Deere equipment or you can explore the interactive exhibits on your own and climb up to check out the view from a towering combine, baler or cotton picker.
Around the corner, the John Deere Collectors Center is a recreation of a 1950s showroom with vintage equipment on display, a repair workshop and a play area for kids. Souvenirs are on sale at the Collectors Center or at the John Deere Store.
The latest addition to Quad Cities culture is the new Figge Art Museum in downtown Davenport. The glass building designed by British architect David Chipperfield houses a wonderful collection of Mexican Colonial paintings and vibrant Haitian art as well as regional artists and traveling exhibitions. They also have the long-term loan of the iridescent ” River of Life,” a 1905 Tiffany stained-glass window, beautifully backlit for display. Family-friendly tours and hands on activities make this a great stop with school-age kids.
Around the corner from the Figge, the River Music Experience is a café and live music venue downstairs, with a gallery upstairs dedicated to the history and tradition of music along the Mississippi River. Interactive consoles let you browse topics and listen to stories, interviews and music clips arranged geographically with stations for Memphis, St. Louis, Up River, and Beyond the River. Photos, records and instruments help tell the tale of the legends of blues and jazz from native son Bix Beiderbecke to the Charlie Daniels Band. (Read more about the River Music Experience in Going Solo.)
In a former warehouse down the street, the Bucktown Center for the Arts is a cluster of art studios and shops where you’ll find local artists creating wearable art in the form of fashions and jewelry, wall art in every medium from oils to watercolors to photography and digital art, custom furnishings and décor. Original art purchased from local artists makes a great souvenir.
Rock Island is the name of the county and city in Illinois with the Mississippi River to the north and the Rock River to the south. Part of the city is an island in the Mississippi known as Arsenal Island, home of the Rock Island Arsenal. There is still a working military base and arsenal on the island, but there are also several attractions worth visiting. There are bridges to the island from Davenport, Rock Island and Moline.
The Mississippi River Visitors Center near the bridge to Davenport, is a great spot to watch water vessels maneuver through Lock 15, where the Rock Island Rapids would once have kept commercial and recreational boats from navigating this part of the river. The best view is from the outside deck, but you can also get a good look from the climate-controlled Visitors Center. Exhibits explain how the lock and dam system works to overcome the elevation changes along the Mississippi River.
The Colonel Davenport House, on the north side of the island, was the home of George Davenport, a local fur trader and government agent in the early 19th century, who was one of the founding fathers of the Quad Cities. The restored building is furnished with accoutrement of the times, with a touchy-feely trading post upstairs illustrating the history of the fur trade in the area. Tours elucidate the Federal architecture, “sleep-tight” beds and other antique furnishings, and the historic significance of the Colonel, his home, and his untimely end.
The Rock Island Arsenal Museum showcases the history of the island as a manufacturer of munitions for the US Army. From the creation of Fort Armstrong as a military presence on the western frontier in 1817, through the construction of limestone barracks and factories after the Civil War, and the increased production of military ordinance through two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and right up to the present.
Exhibits include the Indian Guns of the Little Bighorn, typical infantry gear over time, and an amazing array of swords, canons, machine guns, handguns and rifles. Weapons from other countries are also on display, including the arms a German soldier would have been carrying in WWII. Production photos, uniforms, and manufacturing equipment round out the exhibit. Kid-size camouflage, civil war uniforms and prairie dresses are available for photo opportunities in the Discovery Room.