LECLAIRE, Iowa: Perched on the west bank of the Mississippi River, LeClaire sits on the Great River Road National Scenic Byway.
It stretches about 3,000 miles through six states, making it America’s longest and some would argue its most important scenic byway.
LeClaire (population 3,000) is a once-famous river town. It is also the birthplace of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, that iconic figure from the American West. Both share the spotlight in LeClaire’s biggest attraction: the Buffalo Bill Museum and River Pilots’ Pier off U.S. 67. Half of the space is devoted to Buffalo Bill; the other half, to riverboats.
There is plenty of memorabilia honoring Cody (1846-1917) who was born just outside LeClaire. He was a frontiersman, U.S. Army scout and showman who toured with his Wild West Congress.
The other big museum attraction is the wooden-hulled paddleboat, the Lone Star. It sits in a glass-and-steel enclosed structure in a dry dock where the steam-powered towboat is safe from the elements.
It is the last running and now the only intact wood-hulled paddleboat that plied the Mississippi River. It was built for Capt. Sam Mitchell, who transported goods on the river from Davenport to Buffalo, Iowa. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark.
The Lone Star was built as a wood-burning sidewheeler in 1869, launched in Lyons, Iowa. It was remodeled in 1890 as a sternwheeler, and again as a coal-fired steamer in 1899. It was rebuilt again in 1922, when coal bunkers and the Texas deck (upper deck) with four cabins were added.
The remodeled work boat is now 90 feet long and 24.5 feet wide. It has two boilers and 10 small engines for winches and pumps.
For a time, it pushed logs downriver. For its last 60 years, the Lone Star was a sand dredge owned and operated by the Builders Sand and Gravel Co. It would pump sand from the bottom of the river, load it onto two barges and take the sand to Davenport to be used in construction and other purposes.
In 1968, the Lone Star was decommissioned after 98 years, when it could no longer operate under federal safety rules. It was taken to LeClaire and added to the museum.
The museum, opened in 1957, sits on the LeClaire Levee at 199 N. Front St., at the foot of Jones Street. Summer hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Winter hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for senior citizens and $1 for children. For information, call 563-289-5580 or see www.buffalobillmuseumleclaire.com.
Another attraction in LeClaire: the homes of the old river pilots. More than a dozen of the stately houses, once occupied by pilots who helped guide riverboats on the Mississippi River, are found on LeClaire’s tree-lined streets.
LeClaire was the site of what was called the Upper Rapids, a troublesome section of river where pilots guided boats and rafts through. You will find the former homes of working or retired river pilots on Jones Street, Second Street, Cody Road and Wisconsin Street. Fourteen are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Most were built between 1850 and 1870, with Italianate and Greek Revival being the most popular designs.
Visitors can enjoy a self-guided walk through what’s called the Cody Road Historic District that covers nine blocks with 60 structures. The homes are private, not open to the public. A brochure is available to explain what you are seeing. For information, call 563-289-9970 or go to www.leclaireiowa.gov/Tourism/river_pilots.htm.
You can also enjoy a riverboat cruise on the Twilight. There are two-day cruises to Dubuque, Iowa, from Memorial Day through mid-October. The boat is based in LeClaire although its business office is across the river in Galena, Ill.
The elegantly finished boat sails on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in season. For information, call 815-777-1660 or 800-331-1467, http://riverboattwilight.com.
LeClaire is also the home base for the American Pickers television show. Antique Archaeology is a two-story former fabrication shop that houses best picks, a new merchandising store and services at 115½ Davenport St.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. For information, 563-289-1530 or http://antiquearchaeology.com.
LeClaire sits just north of Interstate 80. It is 20 minutes north of the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois: Davenport, Bettendorf, Moline and Rock Island. Its small downtown is filled with shops, boutiques, wine bars and restaurants.
For tourist information, go to www.visitleclaire.com.
I discovered LeClaire while cruising the Great River Road. I traveled 50 miles north in Illinois and then returned south on the Iowa side. I saw the 62-mile off-road Great River Trail for bicyclists on the Illinois side.
It is a great area for spotting bald eagles that winter at open water along the Upper Mississippi.
The Great River Road stretches 2,159 miles from Lake Ithasca, Minn., to Venice, La. You will find the byway with its iconic symbol of a boat’s steering wheel in 10 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
In some places, the byway is along the river with its islands and wetlands. In others, the river is out of view.
The byway cobbles together natural and historical and cultural attractions along the route, from Indian mounds to wildlife refuges to wineries to bike paths. It is a colorful slice of America. You can wave at people sitting in their backyards along the river. There’s plenty of industry, too.
Get byway information at www.experiencemississippiriver.com from the Mississippi River Parkway Commission. For Iowa information, go to www.iowagreatriverroad.com. For Illinois information, call 1-877-477-7007 or go to www.greatriverroad-illinois.org.
One stop I made off the Great River Road in Iowa was the William Cody Homestead near Princeton in northern Scott County. The house, built in 1847 and now a museum, is about five miles off the byway. It was built by Cody’s father, Isaac; the family moved to Kansas in 1853. It is the only Cody home on its original site.
The house is made of native limestone with walnut floors and trim, decorated in period furniture. The most striking object may be a pincushion crafted from the foot of a buffalo.
The house gets about 4,000 visitors a year. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from April through October. Admission is $2 for adults. For information, 563-225-2981.
You can also hop on the Historic Cody Trail that stretches from LeClaire to Eldridge with 11 stops along the 25½ miles. That includes the Cody Homestead. For information, call 309-793-8300.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.