Our meal at Toni’s on Main, in St Charles, was so good that we immediately booked to return the following evening.
Let me take a moment to tell you about marina courtesy cars. We have only taken advantage of them occasionally, preferring to use our bikes whenever possible. All these cars are unique in their own way, except that they are universally in such poor condition that you would not even be able to give them away. One had a locking mechanism that if it was used, the car could only be unlocked if someone crawled into the vehicle through the back window. Although use is usually free, in all cases you are required to add fuel (fair enough), but sometimes the amount you are required to add exceeds what you could possibly use. One place charges a $15 fee, and restricts use to one county while all the good shops are in another county, and closer. The car we had exclusive use of at Port Charles was by no means the worst example. There was no fee, an honour system request to replace the fuel you used, the vehicle ran well and use was unrestricted. On the downside, especially given the temperatures, the AC did not work, and the headliner had been covered over with muslin, held in place by Velcro and the sun visors (making the sun visors inoperable). One does not even want to think about what that muslin was hiding! Given that there was absolutely nothing in Port Charles, and St Charles was 10 miles away, we were very grateful for the vehicle, regardless of its condition!
St Charles was founded in about 1769 by a French fur trader. At the time the area was ruled by Spain following France’s defeat in the Seven Years War. Originally settled mainly by French Canadians, the city was an important river port, and was considered the “last civilized stop” by the Lewis and Clark Expedition before they headed upriver to explore the territory gained by the Louisiana Purchase. There is still a French Quarter in the middle of town, although it was clearly never as prosperous as the area now included in the Riverfront and Main Street areas that make up the St Charles Historic District.
On Sunday we returned to St Charles, driving through beautiful farmland, and spent some time wandering up and down Main Street. Major refurbishments have been made to all of the buildings, and many of them have been repurposed under a downtown business revitalization scheme. Here and there were clever and amusing sculptures of dogs, dressed up in interesting costumes. The street is full of independent shops and restaurants, and is clearly a mecca for visitors from nearby St Louis and farther afield. The best of the shops we stopped at featured beautiful glass work, unique Christmas decorations, and interesting art and sculptures. We were very tempted, but managed to resist and instead bought some oatmeal cookies from a nearby bakery and a couple of small tubs of herbs from a spice shop. Our dinner at Toni’s was tasty, although we decided on lighter choices after walking around in the heat.
On our last day in Port Charles we took time to thoroughly clean inside the boat, a chore that had not been done before we started the voyage, as we had planned to engage a cleaning service. Dick also hosed down the outside and vacuumed the cockpit, but it was too hot for any other outside cleaning. I washed all the sheets, but we made a note that in future we should try to do that on a cooler day. The dryer draws a lot of power, so while it is operating, we have to turn off one of the two AC units, and a single one struggles to keep up when outside temperatures are above 90F.
The new engine pump arrived and was duly installed. It took some hours, and goes to prove what we have observed, boat yards do give priority to emergency repairs, especially for customers who are in transit.
After a busy day, we settled down to sleep. I was just drifting away, when I became aware that Dick was going up on deck. He tromped up and down for a while, pausing here and there. I assumed he was closing the dryer vent (he wasn’t). Finally, he came back inside and shortly after, he turned off all the lights and everything was peaceful. Of course, I was now wide awake, and wondered whether he had for some obscure reason started the water tanks filling and then forgotten (he hadn’t). I was woken abruptly at 5:50am by a wide awake, fully dressed husband requiring my immediate assistance in tracing the reason why the freshwater pump was running continuously. Apparently, that was what the tromping about had been. Failing to diagnose the problem in the dark, Dick had turned the pump off completely, and then lay awake half the night, mentally tracing lines and outlets, trying to work out what the problem could be.
Wife duly rousted out of bed, the pump was turned back on, only to find that it was operating normally. The whole exercise did reveal an up-to-now undiscovered storage area below the washer dryer. The previous owners used it for laundry supplies. I have always assumed it was just one of the many mysterious hatches that are all over the boat and give access to the various mechanical gubbins for boat operations.
By our 7:45am departure, the problem was still a mystery. The pump has since performed as normal, touch wood.
At last, we set off up the Mississippi River, our first day of previously unknown (to us) territory. We passed the Golden Eagle Ferry. Our first impression was that this small car ferry runs from Nowhere Illinois to Nowhere Missouri. In fact, it does, but it was surprisingly busy with several vehicles waiting on both sides as it buzzed back and forth. Apparently, this ferry allows drivers to bypass St Louis and the inevitable congestion associated with a big city. There are few bridges over the Mississippi River. At this point, Alton, to the south, was closest, and then the next was 80 miles north. It is not surprising that there are several ferries in operation on this stretch.
In time we arrived at Lock 25, and were pleased to be able to go straight in. This was our first lock in a while with nothing to wrap a line to. Instead, the lock keeper dropped a line to Dick, and instructed him not to cleat it. Trying to hold 12 tons of sailboat-shaped boat in place without a helping cleat is difficult. I used the engines as I do in UK locks, to keep Nine Lives in place and stop her turning and banging against the sides of the lock. Easy enough with practice, which we have a lot of, but I feel sorry for boaters who experience this for the first time.
That day we went straight through both locks with no wait, and saw no barge traffic at all, even though the lock reports from the previous day had suggested we could expect at least an hour’s wait. We were tied up in Rockport by 4pm, a long day even without any lock queues. The marina is very shallow, just 2 feet of water under the boat.
Louisiana, Missouri was across the river, over a highway bridge. Dick took his bike across and reported that there are signs of former wealth, but 90% empty stores. However, there is a lot of cleaning and improvement going on, so that may change. Otherwise, it is an industrial town with little to recommend it to tourists.
We passed Hannibal, having had difficulty determining whether or not the marina had a slip for us. This town is clearly capitalizing on the Mark Twain association. Mark Twain this, Mark Twain that, even a never-functional Mark Twain memorial tribute lighthouse. We skipped Hannibal on this occasion, but now that we know they do have space for a boat of our size, we may stop and see what the fuss is about on our return.
There was a delay of about 45 minutes at Lock 22, waiting for a split tow to go through, but we were tied up at Quincy Boat Club by 3:30pm. We were the only boat there, but a member saw us arrive and came down to catch our lines and invite us to their dinner event the next evening.
The city of Quincy has an interesting history. In 1838, the governor of Missouri issued an extermination order, forcing Mormons to flee their homes. They crossed into Illinois at Quincy, and were made welcome in the town. In 1839 they purchased land upriver and founded the city of Nauvoo. Nauvoo was the largest city in Illinois by 1844.
Quincy was an important port on the Mississippi in the years leading up to the Civil War. They flourished partly because they managed to be cagey about their sentiments over slavery, and traded enthusiastically with both sides. Negotiations with President Lincoln by 3 of his friends from Quincy, ensured that the city was allowed to continue trade with the south, in spite of embargoes. The city supported the northern war effort by producing cannonballs and military hardware, but they also accepted, processed, and traded tobacco products from Missouri when other ports were embargoed.
We had a good dinner at the strangely named Boodalu Restaurant, fortunately only a short walk up the very steep hill.
The next day was a most enjoyable evening at the Boat Club. The Club was started in 1933, based in a ranch house on the water’s edge. The floods of 2019 destroyed the clubhouse and the docks, but there happened to be a failing restaurant in a very attractive building just a few yards along the waterfront. The Club was able to buy it, and it makes an outstanding venue. The food was very good, some of the best I have had in a club setting, cooked by volunteers. Members came up and chatted with us and made us welcome. The live music was wonderful. The singer was Liz Bentley, who offered a mix of covers and her own songs, mostly country music but with some country takes on folk and light rock. Dick even agreed to stay for one more set than his usual tolerance, possibly because of the very comfy seats, but he was also enjoying the music.
We headed up the river to Keokuk. In this area the river has long stretches of various wildlife reserves, and there is little to see except trees. We have seen bald eagles, golden eagles, deer on the banks, and of course herons. As we move north, we are starting to see white pelicans again. They are migratory, spending winters in Central and South America, and summers as far north as northern Canada.
After seeing very little traffic on the river, we were suddenly overtaken by a lot of small boats. On the Illinois side we could see a large building that turned out to be the former Warsaw Brewery. The brewery closed in 1972 after brewing beer for over a century, but the beautiful old building has been transformed into a restaurant. Lots of the boats had docked there and we could see people walking up the hill to the restaurant. It always surprises me how few waterfront venues offer any sort of docking for boats. Those that do are invariably very popular.
At Keokuk Yacht Club we had to tie up on the outside, very subject to waves and wakes, and the day was surprisingly rough. The first evening we rode bikes (my first time this season) 2 miles to a downtown restaurant. There are some beautiful large homes along the bluff on the way, but for the rest, the roads were in very poor condition, and downtown, although clean, was mostly empty shops. We did have excellent pizza, but I was not a happy bunny having to ride on the rough road.
Sunday afternoon the Yacht Club had an event with live music. This time it was The Boys, who played mostly rockabilly with lots of covers and some of their own music. An older couple danced through almost every song for several sets. Apparently, they are big fans and attend most of their events. We had a perfect front row seat in the cockpit of Nine Lives, and enjoyed a bottle of wine and a few nibbles.
In late afternoon a sternwheeler arrived, the Mississippi Princess II. She is the real thing, built 50 years ago in St Paul by a retired admiral. She has had only 3 owners during that time, and is a private vessel, not a charter. There was a bit of a flurry on her arrival while a small boat was moved to make room on the other dock. They had not realized that our dock was the one with power, so after Dick spoke to the owner, we agreed to move Nine Lives back a few yards and use the other power pedestal, making room for them in front of us. It was wonderful to watch the sternwheeler reposition. There are two separate paddlewheels, and two rudders, and the captain turns the wheels forwards and backwards as needed to maneuver the boat. The engines appear to be gas rather than diesel, but Dick didn’t get an opportunity to ask. Later on, the local Harbor Host, his wife, father, and another couple joined us on board Nine Lives for a drink and chat. Before they left, they toured Nine Lives, and were most impressed with the space and comfort below.
The next morning there had been a mayfly hatch, and the entire windward side of the boat was covered with them. One can easily knock them off the screens from inside, but you daren’t try brushing or washing them down, as they are extremely delicate and make a disgusting mess.
We passed Nauvoo, the city founded and still occupied by members of the Mormon Church. The area was very tidy and prosperous looking, quite a contrast to what we have been seeing on the shores so far.
There are lots of areas of waterlilies along the river’s edge. Since they only grow in still water, you begin to understand just how wide the Mississippi River is. The deeper channel can be only a very small part of the whole width, and the shallow areas do not have the strong current. Wing dams contribute to regulating the flow of the water, as do the frequent locks and their associated dams.
We came through a railway bridge, that was double decked, with the lower section for trains and an upper deck for cars. The bridge opened for us, and then stayed open for more than 45 minutes waiting for the sternwheeler behind us to pass through. We heard someone on the radio complain, I imagine the drivers waiting on the bridge were feeling very hot and frustrated.
Further on we passed a barge being loaded with corn for the first time. Now we know we are in Iowa! A plaque in one of the towns told us that northbound barges mostly carry coal, fertilizer, sand and gravel, and wind turbine blades. Southbound they carry corn and beans.
We tied up for two nights in Burlington. The marina is very shallow, in fact Dick had spoken to them a couple of times and they were not sure they could get us in. There had been rain earlier, and while we did churn the mud, we got in and tied up to the fuel dock. This was fortunate, because while there is an alternative dock (without power) closer to town, we had been a week without a pump-out and knew we were getting close to full. Opportunities to pump out are pretty scarce on the Mississippi. Not all states are as enlightened as South Carolina, which not only subsidizes facilities, but requires them to offer free pump out service to any boater who requests it.
One of the tourist attractions in Burlington is Snake Alley. No, nothing to do with reptiles, this is a street, built in 1894 to make it easier for horses, vehicles, and pedestrians to move between the residential district on the bluff and the business district on the waterfront. It still has the original brick paving, with the bricks laid at an angle to keep the horses’ feet from slipping as they went down the turns. While the whole idea was a good one, it turned out that horses would lose control at the top if they tried to go up the street, so it was, and still is, one way down only.
We walked to Drake’s, a huge restaurant on the waterfront. It occupied the building that was formerly Drake’s Hardware, once the top distributor of hardware in the Midwest, serving customers from the Appalachians to the Rockies. Many of the features of the old business have been kept and incorporated into the restaurant. Dick ordered a duck salad as a starter, that turned out to be a huge meal size, then his pot roast came with a side salad as well! I ordered spinach and artichoke dip, followed by an interesting lobster chipotle pizza. Both were tasty, but to be honest, they tasted the same, in spite of being completely different dishes.
We had a much better meal the next night at Martini’s, excellent food, professional service. The waitress made sure that Dick’s appetizer salad was not duplicated with a second “side” salad. It is an interesting (and annoying to us) assumption, more and more, that any starters and all desserts will be shared. Portions now serve 4 as appetizers. We don’t always want to share, it means that neither of us gets to enjoy our first choice from the menu. On several occasions the server has whipped away to put in the order for one appetizer, and we have to call them back to order the other.
We had a small amount of concern the next morning as we left at 7:30am to be well ahead of 3 upcoming tows. We knew the marina was shallow, and we had churned mud on the way in. We backed out of the slip okay, but then came to a gentle halt in the marina entrance. Dick reversed and tried again, slightly more centered and with a bit more speed. It’s a finely balanced judgement, too much speed can result in getting thoroughly aground with no chance of backing off. More mud later, we popped out of the entrance and were on our way.
Once again, we set off without being sure that our destination would work. This uncertainty has defined our voyage so far. Some marinas don’t respond to enquiries, those that “think” they can accommodate us are not sure. Keokuk was first come first served, no way of knowing whether the space would be filled with small boats, and no nearby alternative. Fort Madison marina is only partly built, in spite of having had a grand opening on July 1st. What is working in our favour, is that there is no competition for any available transient spaces. Nobody is boating! We assume it is the heat. Another aspect of this trip that adds to the uncertainty is a lack of current reviews of marinas and anchorages. There was major flooding in 2019, and many docks were destroyed or damaged. Any reviews dated before 2019 cannot be relied on if there is nothing recent.
A couple of pelicans swam into Lock 17 ahead of us, but they did not care for our company and flew away. Locks would be great locations for photography, but unfortunately, we are far too busy to take pictures. Pelicans like to hang around during the summer, as the water churns up lots of fish, and eagles congregate during winter, where the moving water is less likely to freeze.
In Muscatine, there is a municipal marina, and our reservation was accepted and money taken. We were assigned to a dock downriver from the marina. On arrival, we found that it had no centre cleat, only a large one at each end of the dock. Nine Lives is sailboat shaped, which means that a bow line cleated first makes it impossible to bring the stern in. Cleat the stern first in a fast current, and the bow will swing out too far to throw a line. We managed to tie up, but it took several tries, and eventually Dick had to leap off the boat when it was close and then run to grab lines.
A man who had used the boat launch was quite unhappy with us, as he had difficulty tying his boat while he got his trailer. He settled down when we explained that we had been assigned (and paid for) the dockage. There was no power or water, so we ran the generator for over 48 hours, happily with no issues.
Situated at last, we were very surprised to see Mississippi Princess, the sternwheeler, arriving beside us. They had also made a reservation and been assigned the same space! Once they understood what had happened, they got on the phone and were directed to tie up across 3 open slips in the marina proper. Dick walked over and helped catch their lines. The next day he chatted with a Parks and Recreation Dept worker, who told him that the marina was badly designed and has always silted up. The man said he was surprised that the sternwheeler had got out at all.
In 1833, at the end of the Black Hawk War, the Iowa Territory was officially opened for settlement. Began as a trading post, by 1840 the town, originally named Bloomington, had grown to 507 residents. Growing quickly, the town soon had a gunsmith, a hatter, tinsmith, cigar maker, flour mill and packing house, in addition to its main lumber industry. To avoid confusion with other places of the same name, the community voted to rename the town Muscatine. In 1853, Orion Clemens brought his family to town and took over the newly renamed Muscatine Journal. He employed his 18-year-old brother Sam at the paper. Under his pen name, Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens wrote “Life on the Mississippi”, commenting on Muscatine’s beautiful sunsets.
Just before the turn of the century, John Boepple came to town from Germany, and started a button making industry using the shells of freshwater mussels. Muscatine became the world’s capital of the pearl button industry. By 1894 there were 43 button factories in the area, employing 3500 people. H.J Heinz also set up a pickle factory. A unique feature of the town is the light system on the bridge. In 2008, 43 LED fixtures were attached to the bridge, capable of generating 16.3 million colour combinations. It is believed to be the first of its kind to be installed on a bridge over the Mississippi River. It was certainly pretty to watch from our ideal location at the dock.
Our dock was actually intended for the small boat launch, although a newer launch has been built further upstream. While Dick explored the area on his bike, I sat and watched a group setting up for a hovercraft meet. It was fascinating to see these small craft, especially when two arrived by water and just zipped straight onto the land. They maneuver very like a boat on the water, but on land they are somewhat clumsy and tricky to park. Several of the men simply stopped where they were and then lifted and manhandled the craft into place. The meet was set up, but the main events were not until after we left. It would have been fun to see 15 or 20 of these interesting craft zipping around, although it would have been incredibly noisy!
I watched a fisherman retrieve a huge net and empty it of quite a few fish, just a few feet from our stern. There are still plenty of fish in the Mississippi River, in spite of the invasion of Asian Carp. Catfish is found on menus up and down the river. Walleye, Sauger, Bass, Crappie, Perch, Paddlefish, Bluegill, and Pike are some of the fish to be found on the waters of the middle and upper Mississippi.
The first evening we walked over to an Italian restaurant. I had very good pizza, and Dick’s choice was an indifferent lasagna. The next day was a shorter walk, to a hotel restaurant right on the waterfront across from our dock. The menu looked interesting, and Dick’s grouper was tasty, but my portabella sandwich was awful. Far too many unrelated strong flavours competing. I thought of it as the Jackson Pollock chef’s style. Throw a bunch of stuff into a sandwich and hope it works.
We left quite early the next morning, with no idea where we would dock the next night although our destination was the Quad Cities area. Dick was never able to get an answer from the marina in Moline. Finally, we tried making contact with Lindsay Park Yacht Club (which had in fact been recommended), and we were able to make a reservation.
We called Lock 15 from a little distance downstream, and were told come on up, they were just locking down another pleasure craft. Dick asked if he should hurry, and was told it would not be necessary, so we proceeded at our usual trawler speed. As we arrived at the railway bridge south of the lock we were disturbed to see the other pleasure boat was already there. When we called the lock again, we were told there would be an hour and a half wait while they locked down a split tow. Quite a disappointment! Eventually the tow slid slowly out of the lock, but they needed a tug to help align them into the channel, so there was a lot of churning water. The lock keeper called us in long before the tow was clear, as he had another two tows waiting above. Dick made three tries at getting into the lock through the roiling water, on the third, Nine Lives spun around through a full 360 degrees before Dick could get her into the channel, meanwhile avoiding hitting the lock walls or the unfortunately placed dredge on our port side. There was also a railway bridge right above the lock and the operator had said there was 20 feet of clearance, so Dick had expected to have to get out and drop the antennas. This was impossible while he fought the roiling waters. Although Dick is generally not pleased that Nine Lives has oversized engines, I am sure that on this occasion we were glad of them. We were also happy to see that there was enough clearance under the bridge without lowering the antennas, as I can’t reach them. Rather more excitement than we like!
Eventually we were through the lock and arrived at the Yacht Club. Three members came out to help us get into an admittedly tricky spot. Nine Lives is wonderfully maneuverable, but driving sideways is not her best thing! For a change there was lots of depth. Everyone was very friendly, and offered advice on what to see and do while we were visiting. We had already made plans while we were there on this stop, but we will return on the voyage downstream and spend more time. In the evening, after sampling the offerings at the on-site restaurant, we were invited to join two members for drinks. We enjoyed a very pleasant interlude, telling stories of life on the Great Loop, while they regaled us with their own tales of handling a new-to-them cruiser through Mississippi locks.
Saturday was our 45th wedding anniversary. I occupied myself with laundry, while spending most of the day writing and preparing pictures for the blog. Dick launched the dinghy. The dinghy has no name yet, perhaps it will never get one, other than dinghy, or perhaps dink as an affectionate short form. Dick scouted the route and the dinghy dock where we planned to go for dinner, and he also went up to the Moline marina that we had been unable to contact, in spite of trying for weeks. There are lots of large boats there, so plenty of depth. Dick chatted with a guy on the docks, and found out that the restaurant, whose staff are supposed to take bookings for the marina, would rather keep the docks open for short term diners, so now we know why calls are not returned.
That evening we crossed the Mississippi in the dinghy, and after passage through a very narrow channel that was distinguished by a huge Danger, Strong Currents warning sign (!) we tied up at an excellent town dock. The steakhouse was just a block away. It is highly rated, but I noticed that it was surprisingly dirty, cutlery, menus, even the tables were greasy and had food remnants on them. Dick’s prime rib was excellent, but my beef wellington was truly awful. No relationship to the menu description, and very overdone, although I will concede that the meat was tender. The dinghy ride back was somewhat choppy, and I am hoping that in future we won’t have to cross the river to get to dinner.
The next morning, we passed American Countess, a sternwheeler cruise ship. She was originally a casino boat, but when Iowa changed their laws to allow casinos on land, the ship was sold for scrap. Bought by a cruise ship company 3 years later, she was taken to a St Louis yard, where she was cut in half and extended with a new 60-foot middle section to increase her passenger capacity. She now cruises up and down the Mississippi, still with true sternwheeler propulsion, although we noticed that she appears to need to have her own accompanying tug pushing as well.
After lock 13, we came into what is the widest part of the Mississippi. It is like a shallow lake with many islands, and the channel winds back and forth. We passed a large pelican rookery. The scenery is definitely getting prettier as we travel north, with more nice homes on the bluffs and less industry.
At Sabula we entered the marina and were assigned a 16-foot wide slip. We tied up on the t-head instead. Although our 19-foot beam is always the most important piece of information that Dick gives to a marina when he is booking, and he always stresses it several times, as often happens this was ignored. The dockmaster apologized and said he was just told 44 feet long. After the inevitable question, “are you sure you need 19 feet?” and carefully pacing off the slips to confirm that they really are only 16 feet wide, he calmly made the necessary arrangements and we were able to stay on the t-head. It meant a little bit of holding my breath in the morning, when the large tug from the next well came out and rounded the corner and passed us with just a few feet to spare, but all was well.