Steamboat Art: Thomson

There is art beneath our feet. There is art that was pressed into the ground, pounded until it couldn’t move, commanded to remain there and serve us until we see fit to release it. There is art that will trip you.


Why are there boards in the middle of the wide, dusty main street of Thomson, Illinois? Are they the remnants of a plank sidewalk? Why are they paired with a smattering of bricks here and there? It seemed impossible to solve this mystery so I left Thomson, a place I was unlikely to stop and less likely to linger.


Steamboat Art: Sabula

OK, this one isn’t unique to Sabula, but an establishment there that calls itself Flippers (the sign for which featured a pair of flip flops crossed like the bones of the Jolly Roger) had it at the centerpiece of such an archetypal Upper Midwestern bar scene that I had to showcase it here.

SabulaSteamboatArtAnheuserBuschInBevSwillCorp has distributed these things anywhere a steamboat captain might have thought about blowing a whistle at any point in the last 150 years. Look for one in your town!

Rural roads

A typical view of our rural roads, this one near Lima, IL.

A typical view of our rural roads, this one near Lima, IL.

My grandmother grew up outside of Herman, Minnesota, in a landscape of vastness. The last time I was there was summer and the corn was tall and heavy with cobs, but when I think of the landscape it appears as it does in early winter, the ditches yellow with dead grass, the few trees bare and revealing the rotting frame farmhouses and barns with caved-in roofs, the fields all stubble and mud, nothing to hide the immense distance between the nothing nearby and the nothing you can kind of see way off on the horizon.

My grandmother tells me astonishing things about growing up outside of Herman, Minnesota, about not having electricity, about building rafts and floating them down the creek, about eight-year-old girls killing chickens. But one of the most astonishing things she tells me is about walking in this landscape where the immensity is constantly hovering over you, walking ten miles to her grandfather’s house, walking ten miles to town.

How can people walk in the countryside? Where do they walk? How do they feel about it? Does it make them ashamed, afraid, or bored? Is it fun, beautiful, or inspiring? One reason I’m taking this trip along the Mississippi is to investigate walking in the countryside.

I have a friend who is really great and spends a lot of his time interviewing people, and not too long ago he interviewed an octogenarian Minnesota state legislator who chaired the House Transportation Committee. On my behalf, my friend asked him about intercity transit between towns in outstate Minnesota. While he misunderstood the question, the legislator maintained that small towns were compact and self-contained enough that they didn’t need transit. But the bigboxing of America has left small towns more interdependent than ever before. Travel between towns may be more necessary now than any time since Per Hansa snuck to Sioux Falls to file his fraudulent claim.

Recently I was talking to someone who was excited about a trip he was planning to England, in which he and his wife would spend a week or so walking across the countryside, taking advantage of a service that would shuttle their bags between inns as they hiked. I asked him why people didn’t get excited to walk from town to town in the USA. Population density, he said, towns are too far apart here. Maybe. As I’ve documented in the Crossings Accounting posts, there are plenty of cases in rural America where towns are clustered a walkable distance from one another, for example across a river. A more fleshed-out example would be the Root River Valley in Minnesota’s Bluff Country, where a number of towns and villages are strung along a trail system that offers a comfortable and scenic walk. Yet this trail is almost exclusively promoted for biking. Why hasn’t the concept of a three-day hiking vacation been explored here? Are Americans just not a walking people?

This morning I came across a piece that seems to be trying to teach Americans how to walk in the countryside by dissecting parts of Italy where it’s done so well. Charles R. Wolfe has written a book on urbanism, but he’s also interested in rural places and how they differ from and overlap with urban ones. While he hints that it may not be possible for American towns, which he believes were built around modern transportation technologies, to achieve the aesthetic delight of their Olde Worlde brethren, he also suggests that writing gradual transition zones (called transects by true believers) into our codes could help to mimic the success that the ancient ones achieved without thought.

I believe that the aesthetics of walking in rural areas is important, if only because people already walk there, so we should at least put some thought (if not money) into making it pleasant and comfortable to do so. But aesthetics is not the be-all and end-all. 70 years ago, it was probably not pleasant for my grandmother to walk eight miles in the Traverse County landscape, exposed to the biting winds and fickle weather of our continental climate. There must be a deeper motivation to walk in these places that have been abandoned to the car and the tractor. I hope that I can uncover something of this motivation as I travel along the Mississippi.

Crossings Accounting: US-52, Sabula

The map gave me high hopes for this crossing. US-52 manages a human-scale, two-lane profile on its journey through Iowa, and its snaky route through Sabula and the sloughs north of town made it seem likely to maintain it here. When I got to Sabula and started walking around, the hope stayed alive as I saw the humble old bridge that carried the road over the Mississippi.

When I finally approached the bridge, though, hope was dashed. (Technically the bridge that leads out of the north end of Sabula crosses Esmay Slough, and the road snakes around some sand islands until finally crossing the river about two and a half miles north.) John Weeks says the bridge is 20 feet wide, which feels narrow to motorists when passing an oncoming car. Any pedestrian would have to take the lane, not something that most people who enjoy the pulse of life in their veins feel comfortable doing.

The ample walking shoulders taper down as my heart sinks in Sabula, IA.

The ample walking shoulders taper down as my heart sinks in Sabula, IA.

It might not be so bad if it were just the bridge that was so narrow. On foot I didn’t take the chance that the road on the other side would be just as narrow, but I confirmed it later in a car. These islands are just little spits and the DOTs didn’t bother building out any more than the width of the road, so the shoulders plunge down into sloughs on either side of that road. If the theoretical pedestrian were to survive, the actual river crossing isn’t any wider (John Weeks again says 20 feet). While pedestrians aren’t explicitly banned from this short stretch of road between Savanna and Sabula, they certainly would be taking their lives in their hands by merely existing. On this crossing, pedestrians are Effectively Banned.

Reverse Bermuda Triangle for pedestrians in Savanna, IL.

Reverse Bermuda Triangle for pedestrians in Savanna, IL.

A couple interesting related items from Sabula: First, the river bridge has a quaint plaque on the Illinois side crediting the motivation behind the bridge’s construction to concern for the “motor travelling public,” perhaps explain the utter lack of pedestrian accommodation.

It would be interesting to investigate bridge companies as early examples of corruption in American infrastructure construction.

Community spirit and civic pride (and a private company using public funds?) built this bridge in Savanna, IL.

Second, I found this plaque in Sabula claiming that they used to build railroad bridges on the ice across the river before the current swing bridge was built! Does anyone know anything about railroad ice bridges?

If I'm reading this right, these tracks were laid on ice in winter.

If I’m reading this right, these tracks were laid on ice in winter.

Steamboat Art: Dubuque

Dubuque is a frickin mecca of steamboat art. This ancient lead mining center somehow manages to have public amenities comparable not to American cities orders of magnitude larger but to comparably-sized European cities (Dubuque ain’t Paree on the Mississippi, but it might be like a, uh, Bremen?).  I’m not going to say that the streets here are paved with public art (although there are some nice painted intersections on Washington St), but there is a nice collection for a city of 60,000, and steamboats are a common theme. I’ll share a few of my favorites.

Starting things off is this remarkable building, likely accomplished in the great postwar era of wiping slates:

DSCN2720The irregular fenestration of this building makes me think that at some point someone found a pair of solid 19th century structures with entirely too florid and expressive facades. The solution? Tiles! But my imagination reaches its limits in searching for a backstory on why, rather than bask in the cool perfection of utter blankness, the tiled exterior was instead sprinkled with two clusters of Dubuque landmarks such as the Fenelon Place Elevator, the Shot Tower, the Steamboat Natchez (?), and the Julien Dubuque Bridge with a Punch-Out!! skyline behind it.

The next steamboat art hangs in the foyer of the main post office and features a sharply-dressed man and two children holding hands and watching as the steamer Dubuque III plows through the fantastically compressed river and up onto the bank while mountainous bluffs loom too closely behind:

DSCN2708The building managers were nice enough to provide a little plaque with details about the piece, which was done by Iowan artist William E.L. Bunn in 1937. He would have seen enough working boats to provide the rigging details that are so exquisite in this piece, although according to the plaque the Dubuque III was only in service between 1867 and 1876, several decades before he was born.

Holding down one end of a landscaped median perpendicular to the Cathedral of St Raphael is a truly remarkable sculpture with a steamboat element:

DSCN2756One quarter of this supergroup of Dubuque pioneers (the other three are a lead miner and two farmers, one male and one female) is a steamboat captain, uniquely positioned with his back to the wheel in the manner of Christ on his cross. Maybe the sculptor had recently read Melville.

In the final piece, my favorite, the steamboat is once again foreground to a cluster of local landmarks, all of which are reduced in impoverished retirement — like a greeter at Wal-Mart — to indicating to the passengers who’ve abandoned them the route from the plot of gravel designated for automobile storage to the house where they seek goods shipped here on planes, food trucked here to be microwaved, or information that rides across a continent on flashes of electricity:



Crossings Accounting: US-20, Dubuque

I have been surprised and delighted by Dubuque in ways that I still need to process, so the full-length post that this weird old town deserves will remain for now forthcoming. But the onion of Dubuque has many layers, and the actual town has many bridges, so I’m going to do another Crossings Accounting for it, as well as a Steamboat Art (probably Monday).

The Julien Dubuque Bridge holds down the right end of this panorama.

The Julien Dubuque Bridge holds down the right end of this panorama.

The Julien Dubuque Bridge, which carries US Hwy 20 across the river to East Dubuque, is visible from much of downtown, poking its lovely arched truss out between buildings and displaying its curves down at the bottoms of streets. Much of downtown Dubuque feels a bit like On the Waterfront, not just because of the character-steeped old buildings but because the bridge is always looming, convincing you that the waterfront is there, even though it isn’t.

So one day I set out to find this bridge. It was really hard! Transportation planners in their infinite wisdom have transformed the South End of Dubuque into a twisting moat of stroads, making it dubious and unpleasant to walk and cross there. Fortunately I found a set of signs directing motorists to a pair of businesses, which I assumed were placed only because highways had been designed in such a way as to make their access nearly impossible. This sort of design is typical at the foot of a bridge, so I followed the signs, and they led me to another typical bridge-foot environment:

Where to even begin crossing?

Where to even begin crossing?

The bridge was in sight, but even a “strong & fearless” pedestrian like me was intimidated by this intersection. They didn’t take the time to put up a sign banning pedestrians, but there weren’t any crossing signs, and I could picture myself stranded on one of those porkchop islands, semis whizzing past me, only figuring out if the light was with me about the time it turns yellow. No thanks.

I’d noticed a pedestrian overpass crossing a nearby stroad just across the stroad in front of me (the one you can see in the intersection photo above going off to the left). I twisted and turned and froggered my way towards that in the hopes that it would lead to the river bridge or at least give me a vantage point from which I could see it. No such luck. From atop the ped bridge, the route appeared just as labyrinthine and discouraging. But I did encounter a dogwalker up there, so I asked her if it was even possible to cross the river at this point. The leash-holder didn’t know, and was suspicious about why I might want to try. I told her that it seemed like a nice view from up there. At this point, her face brightened, and she recommended I walk in the other direction, towards a nice, safe parkified levee. I thanked her and continued to wander in contradictory directions, but never did figure out how to reach the bridge. Later I asked google, and discovered that this would have been the route that I needed to take:

Dubuque Oblique

Oblique Dubuque

Later I drove to the south side of the bridge to investigate the conditions. The sidewalk there is pretty good, and since East Dubuque isn’t too far, it seems like it might see some use if there was a comprehensible path. But because there are so many hurdles to accessing the bridge from the north (which is where the majority of the town lies), I have to rate this one Not Banned, Not Easy.