Iowa Stories and Tips

Dubuque: River and Bluffs

Breitbach's Country Dining Photo, Dubuque, Iowa

Dubuque is an old river town. It is so old, it dates back to the first explorers of the area. Lead mining, river traffic, timber and manufacturing have developed the city. However two strong influences in the community are religion (11 Catholic churches alone) and education (5 colleges or universities and 3 seminaries).

Fenelon Place Elevator Company:
Many spots in town offer scenic overlooks of the Mississippi River and the adjoining states. My favorite spot is at the top of the Fenelon Place Elevator. Billed as: "The world’s steepest, shortest scenic railway." It is 295 feet in length and transports you 189 feet from Fourth Street to Fenelon Place. As I child I remember riding the incline railway here for 5 cents. Now you pay $1.50 for one way and $3 for round trip. Children under five are free, but older kids are 75 cents and $1.50. And here is an admission charge I have never seen before: Bicycle & Rider $2. Originally built for the private use of a businessman who wanted to go home for lunch but didn’t like the long buggy ride involved. Soon, neighbors and friends were pestering him to ride along. There have been fires, restorations and change of ownership over the years. Inovations borrowed from things seen while traveling have been incorporated such as the turnstile before boarding. There are two small enclosed cars that are on rails. As the one on top descends it pulls the lower one up the incline. In the middle the track splits and the cars pass each other. This is not an amusement car ride with thrills and chills. It is a wonderful way to see the scenic overlook at the top and shop the fun boutique shops at the bottom. Built for a purpose and the tourists love it too. .

National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium:
This was a return trip for me, but much has been added to area and I had friends along to share the experience. Located at the Port of Dubuque at 360 East 3rd Street, The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium is associated with the Smithsonian Institution. That testifies to the quality of the museum. Admission is $15 for Adults, $13 for Seniors, and $10 for Youth (3-7). Hours are the same daily but change by season. Memorial Day to Labor Day: 9:00 am to 8:00 pm. Labor Day thru October 31 rst: 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.
November thru Memorial Day Weekend: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. You can buy refreshments at the River’s Edge Café and there are two gift shops. There are plenty of kid friendly choices in both shops. We started our tour in the newer building. The highlights for me were the dioramas of the explorers, natives and early settlers; and the octopus who is very hard to locate due to natural camouflage techniques. My friends were fascinated with the shark and manta ray tank. We walked outside over to the next big building. That gave us a chance to observe the eagle and osprey exhibits and check out the other marine related objects on display. We could see a docked Dredge Boat and considered touring it if we had time. We entered the Mississippi River Center and were first attracted to the Backwater Marsh tank. A helpful employee suggested we next go see the otters before they are put away for the day. Otters apparently have a strict schedule. Next we saw the huge tank where the deep channel fish are displayed. They used to have an enormous catfish that was quite frightening. He went belly-up from old age, but his buddies left behind in the tank are pretty impressive. As we proceed through the first floor exhibits we saw how shore and water critters change as we approach the mouth of the Mississippi where an alligator naps on a bank. In one side room are pelts of various fur bearing animals that live along the river.
Upstairs we each tried our hand at piloting a simulated barge out of the lock and down the river. The wonderful world of turtles showed us varieties from all over the world. The next building to visit was the former boat shop. There is a salute to Mark Twain, classic riverboats from different eras, and an actual boat shop. There is so much to see and do here, a full day may not be enough …good thing the admission covers 2 consecutive days!

St. Luke’s United Methodist Church
St. Lukes is the first Methodist Church West of the Mississippi having been founded in Dubuque in 1833. The present building dates back to 1896 and the Romanesque architecture is very imposing from the outside and a delight of color and ornate decor on the inside. One source tells me there are 23 Tiffany windows, but another only claims 18. They are awesome, rich in color and the style that Tiffany made famous. In addition to the stained glass to marvel at, there is a the beautiful brass filigree communion rail, ornate carved wood panels, an elaborately stone Baptismal font and a huge pipe organ, The organ has 30 ranks and over 1,000 pipes. Volunteers from the church will conduct tours or you can go at your own pace. Donations are accepted for the continued preservation of the Tiffany windows and to allow the church to remain open for tours. The church is located at 1199 Main Street in Dubuque. Call 563-582-4543 to check on hours or arrange special tours.

The Shot Tower and the Shot Tower Inn
The Short Tower is a prominent Dubuque landmark at 120’ tall. Dubuque is famous for the lead mines in the area. One of the uses of lead is to make shot for weapons. Molten lead is hoisted from the bottom the tower to the top where it was poured over wire screens. The molten globs cooled and rounded as they fell to the water at the base. The tower was built in 1856 and was kept quite busy during the Civil War. This one of a very few left standing throughout the country.
On another level is the Shot Tower Inn is where you can buy pizza and sandwiches at a moderate price (I got out of there for under $7). Located at 4 Locust Street. We were looking for local color, the place was full of locals, but the food was only standard. It did have a parking lot which is a real plus in this hilly town.

Vinny Vanucchi’s Little Italy
Founded in Galena, there is now a branch in a big old building in downtown Dubuque at 180 Main Street. They have allowed lots of room between tables, so it is a comfortable place to relax. The walls are decorated with enlarged photos of Italian immagrant families. Of course the cuisine is Italian with lots of pasta and sauces, but also entrees and pizza. The prices are high, but the servings are huge. If I could have taken home left-overs I would have been set for at least two more meals. We could have eaten on a roof top deck and watched the river traffic. My meal of Fettuccine Carbonara, plus coffee and tip was $22. Open Sun –Thu 11 am – 9 pm, and Fri-Sat 11am-10pm. Go early, it fills up fast.

Breitbach’s Country Dining
A friend recommended this place North of Dubuque in Balltown. (Thank you, thank you, thank you!) A true local favorite, even though it has burned down three times, it keeps coming back. This is the sixth generation of Beitbachs to own and manage the restaurant. The location is on a ridge overlooking beautiful farm land and in the distance the Mississippi River. Before or after your meal take a walk over to the overlook and spend some time ooohing and aaaahing. The address is 563 Balltown Rd, Sherrill, IA. Dubuquers consider it "just North of town". Huge pieces of antique furniture were along every wall. I know one was a commercial fixture with flour or seed bins. I saw a large bar and two large party or overflow rooms in addition to the main dinning room. Hours change due to the season so its best to check on-line at It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It really is homestyle cooking of sandwiches and entrees such as prime rib, and chicken. We had sandwiches and one of those was voted Best Pork Tenderloin in the State of Iowa, by the Iowa Pork Council. It was huge, and delicious. I would go back for that one. A well stocked buffet/salad bar was another option. My meal, which included an appetizer of breaded and deep fried cauliflower and a sandwich with tip was only $14.00. On the other side of the parking lot is a building called the Wine Shed. They sell local wines and antiques. I bought a sweet white called Promised Land First Crush, tasty!

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