This is the third of three articles exploring the role of the Mississippi riverfront for the future of the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. They are adapted from a report for the McKnight Foundation’s Food for Thought series by local author Jay Walljasper. The first story, “A river runs through us,” examined the potential of the Mississippi River to boost the region’s international image and maintain our prosperity, and the second examined the flurry of riverfront park and development projects in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Minneapolis-St. Paul are more than river towns, they’re gateways to a little-discovered place rich in history, scenery, outdoor recreation and a local flavor all its own. The Upper Mississippi between Dubuque and the Twin Cities qualifies as one of America’s most storied regions — the site of epic steamboat races, Native American civilizations, abundant wildlife, colorful immigrant traditions, historically endowed communities and heart-stopping views of the Father of Waters. Mark Twain steamed these waters and Laura Ingalls Wilder crossed the frozen river in a wagon. Friday Night fish fries at local riverfront taverns are surpassed nowhere in the 50 states.
But even many people living here have barely dipped their toes into what the river region offers. We’re so used to looking north for nature, relaxation, boating, fishing, hiking and rural atmosphere that we’ve missed out on nearby attractions like Lake Pepin, mountain-like river bluffs, the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and lively, charming towns stretching along one of the most scenic drives (or bike rides) in the Midwest.
Minneapolis-St. Paul’s proximity to all this not only heightens our cherished “quality-of-life,” but could also boost our position as we vie with other cities around the country and world to attract young people, businesses and investment. Highlighting the Upper Mississippi’s recreational, cultural, historical and arts assets provides compelling evidence to quell misconceptions that MSP is surrounded by miles of flat mid-American dullness.
Consider these opportunities, which few people outside the Midwest (and not many within) know about:
- Sailing on Lake Pepin.
- Exploring river islands and backchannels by kayak, canoe or houseboat.
- Trout fishing in Mississippi tributaries.
- Hiking the near-mountainous bluffs along the river.
- Biking the bucolic Great River Trail between LaCrosse and Winona.
- Birding and strolling in the gorgeous Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, which preserves 261 miles of wild nature between Wabasha, Minn., and Rock Island, Ill.
- One-of-a-kind art galleries, artisans’ studios, wineries, locavore eateries, brewpubs, historic inns, B&Bs in old mansions, vintage stores, supper clubs and cozy cafés up and down the river.
- The rich scenery seen out the window of an Amtrak train, over the railing on a boat ride, through the windshield of your car or from the seat of a bicycle rolling on the Mississippi River Trail.
- Lake Pepin, the widest spot on the river surrounded by towering bluffs, which deserves to be known as the Midwestern equivalent of Switzerland’s fabled Lake Constance.
- The gloriously unspoiled feel of many parts of the river, which might trick you into thinking the boaters in the distance are actually Native Americans gliding in a canoe.
- Friday night fish fries in amiable riverfront taverns.
- The Fenelon Place Elevator in Dubuque, one of the last funiculars in the U.S., which runs from downtown to a blufftop neighborhood on what is claimed to be the shortest and steepest railroad in the world.
- The National Eagle Center in Wabasha.
- The Smithsonian-affiliated National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque (Shangri-la for river lovers).
- The jaw-dropping Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona featuring Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse, Turner, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Winslow Homer and other masterpieces in its collection.
- The awe-inspiring; engineering and scale of the lock-and-dams.
- The childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder (whose fans may outnumber Mark Twain’s).
- Effigy Mounds National Monument, near Marquette, Iowa, which preserves intact more than 200 mounds built by native peoples 800-1800 years ago.
- Skirting the sheer cliffs on Highway 35 above Lake Pepin near Maiden Rock and Stockholm, Wis.
- Charming communities like Frontenac, Minn.; Stockholm, Wis.; Fountain City, Wis.; and McGregor, Iowa, which feel like Old World villages.
- The major league Great River Shakespeare Festival, Minnesota Beethoven Festival and Frozen River Documentary Film Festival in Winona.
- The tiny ferryboat that plies a lovely stretch of river between Cassville, Wis., and Millville, Iowa.
- Couples promenading arm-in-arm along the riverwalk in LaCrosse.
- The funky riverboat community on Latsch Island, just across the channel from Winona.
- The exuberant Tiffany stained glass windows in the downtown Methodist Church in Dubuque.
- The famous Walnut burgers at the Trempealeau Hotel in Trempealeau, Wis. (which looks like something out of Norman Rockwell, and still rents rooms).
- The birthplace of water skiing (Lake City).
- The National Brewery Museum in tiny Potosi, Wis. (you’ll stay much longer than you expected, not counting time in the taproom).
- Sachsen Halle tavern in Brownsville, Minn., which looks straight out of a German folk tale.
- The river-rat haven of Harper’s Ferry, Iowa, where trailers far outnumber houses, and you see almost as many golf carts on the streets as cars.
- The eagle-eyed view of the St. Croix merging into the Mississippi from Freedom Park in Prescott, Wis.
There are promising opportunities for tourism development along the Upper Mississippi, but only if they are done with appropriate respect for the culture, heritage, geography and natural environment that makes this region special. What’s needed is sustainable tourism approach, which aims to enhance rather than destroy the qualities of the place.
The economic, cultural and recreational potential of the river region south of Minneapolis-St. Paul give us all the more reason to take care of the river, including maintaining water quality and making a full-cost assessment of the frac sand mining that is proliferating in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.
Jay Walljasper is a travel writer who also speaks and consults about urban and community issues. He is author of “The Great Neighborhood Book” and “All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons.”