Midwest Cultural Envy from a Californian

I approached the Quad Cities in the late afternoon, going easy on Freddie who’d just been given the okay from Mike in Le Claire. I had no ships mate since Harmony left and my long repair delay derailed the plans of my next ships mate Lauren Donovan.


Locks: No big deal

People ask me all the time, How are the locks? They are intimidating structures to be sure: giant concrete boxes that can hold half an entire barge tow, hold back the weigh of the river, and then drop boats down (or raise them up) as much as four stories. ¬†But in general, navigating the locks is¬†easy for us. We drop the bumpers and then pull up to the wall where the lockmaster tells us. Uusally, those guys (always guys for some reason, I’ve asked) are always curious about the shantyboat despite having seen every possible crazy permutation of floating things on the river.

At one point through Pool 15, I looked out the Starboard windows beside the pilot’s station and saw a strange sight. As the shantyboat putted along at a good clip, there was an old man standing in a flatboat beside me matching my speed. I am used to people lurking in my blindspot, snapping photos, but people are kind of timid and lurk away or shout incomprehensible questions over the sounds of the engines. This old fella was different. How do you go full speed in a johnboat¬†standing up anyway? I throttled back¬†to talk to the guy. Turns out he read about the project¬†in the local paper and had been keeping a look out for weeks. Gary¬†is a fisherman that lives in Hampton along the shores of Pool 15. He told me that largely¬†Asian people come up from the Quad Cities to buy his fish at his¬†little fish market.¬†We chatted for a good long while, boats touching, and then he headed off to dinner.

Approaching the Quad Cities at even fall

It was getting late to make the 12 mile trip from Le Claire to the marina in Rock Island. I went through Lock and Dam 15 and under the famed Government Bridge which is unique in a bunch of ways. The sun went down dramatically behind bridges and clouds and finally over the horizon. I was traveling without nav lights and so getting a bit nervous.

Going under the Centenial Bridge at sunset (Scroll right >>)

I made it to Sunset Marina, well after sunset. I found a spot at the end of a random dock and toured around in the johnboat to see if I could find a guest dock which I never did. I squatted the dock and worked out the details with the marina the next day.

The Quad Cities are the four more-or-less equally sized river cities of Moline, East Moline, Davenport, and Rock Island, and the bonus city of Bettendorf. It was probably the largest urban area I’d been to since Dubuque. These are old industrial cities, serving first riverboats, then the railroads, and manufacturers such at John Deere, International Harvester, Case, and Caterpillar, all but Deere now closed. So there are a lot of old red brick factories and buildings, abandoned or recently repurposed.


Brian Shadt, City Engineer for the the City of Davenport, Iowa

I got a chance to tour around with Brian Schadt, the city engineer of Davenport, Iowa. He offered a unique perspective. He proudly told me that Davenport had not built a river wall and that when floods come, they deal with them, clean up, and then get back to business. I was trying to get a sense of how this decision was made. In my experience, civic authority is generally risk-averse. It is not typical that they talk excitedly about the aesthetics of the connection to the river, the wisdom of letting the river do what it needs to, and the concern of what walling off the city would do to downstream communities. It sounded unlikely, like perhaps the city clerk forgot to file the right paperwork on time, and then later came up with a justification for their fate.

With no municipal docks, Davenport offers an unfriendly face to the river¬†requiring me to pull up on concrete rubble to visit the farmer’s market

Brian showed me river flood maps and how they deal with each flood stage. Temporary walls of giant sandbags at strategic intersections, an army of pumps, infrastructure made to flood and allow the waters to recede, and most impressive, removable panels at the ballpark right at the river’s edge so River Bandits games can continue even while the river floods. That’s the dedication of a river city. Brian and I had a great interview in the 90 degree afternoon.

I liked the look of much of Davenport. Old but modest houses in well-used neighborhoods that had both grit and charm. Later I’d meet Spewy who lived in an old neighborhood in south Davenport and filled me with stories and roast beef and great cheese and beer and cigars.

Since Sunset Marina was a good distance from downtown, I used my johnboat as my commuter vehicle when I had business in town. Rock Island had convenient municipal docks on the river, but Davenport had no docks (ahem, Brian) which made landing there much more difficult. I went to the beautiful Davenport Farmer’s Market. It was impressively sized, with a wide variety of fresh food, preserved food, and food carts and trucks.

The gorgeous Davenport farmers market is on Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday

Beautiful assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as food carts and trucks

I saw great performers, met great people, and had great conversations down there. ¬†A few people stopped me and said, They thought they saw me¬†in the paper. It’s totally possible.¬†The project was¬†featured in both of the local papers.

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Secret History article in the Quad-City Times


Secret History in the Moline Dispatch / Rock Island Argus on the Illinois side



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