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A 2004 Beer and Steam Odyssey through the US Midwest

Part 4: Onwards to the Mississippi and Quad City brew-pubs

Friday 25th to Sunday 27th June

We were back on the iron road the next day (Friday 25th June) after a pleasant two and a half day visit to Chicago and Northern Illinois. This was the main part of the Grand Excursion tour. We left Chicago Union station on the tracks of the BNSF Railroad that we had travelled on the day before to Downer’s Grove and Aurora.

US Midwest P4 1We then continued beyond the Metra territory and went west to Galesburg, 162 miles from Chicago. Nevertheless, apart from the multitude of freight trains on this main line there are still four passenger trains over this section. They all run daily and are the California Zephyr to Emeryville (just outside San Francisco) via Denver, the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles through Kansas City and Albuquerque. Also there are regional trains to Quincy, Illinois, the Carl Sandford and the Illinois Zephyr.

At Galesburg we had a complicated manoeuvre as the complete 18 car train had to be reversed to continue on the line to Rock Island. As can be imagined this took some considerable time as we were propelled around a triangle of track and then forward again. The move was necessary because the original route of the Rock Island Railroad from Chicago used in 1854 had been declined for this train, possibly because it is a 40 mph (or less), freight-only line. As always the BNSF proved to be a perfect host railroad, as they value the publicity provided by occasional steam trains.

US Midwest P4 2The train was scheduled to terminate at Rock Island, as the original did in 1854. However I discovered that the crew were talking about a continuation across the Mississippi River to Davenport on the Iowa side. Well that was where we were staying and I casually asked if it was possible to go with them and the answer was yes. That was superb and I thank them very much.

Obviously this had been a long day but we still had time to visit the Front Street Brewery in Davenport. This faces the Mississippi and opened in 1993. That was the year of the great flood and no sooner had the pub opened, it was under water. Following a massive clean up by the owners and customers it reopened. It was a serious flooding as the seven barrel (bbl) brewery was situated in the cellar.

Located in a former warehouse building the brew-pub is to be found on River Drive which was once Front Street, hence its name. When we visited it was more or less the same since it had opened, yet big changes have occurred since.

In 2012 the brewing was moved from the cellar to the Freight House, built by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in 1924. This is just four blocks away and is also on River Drive. It has newly built equipment and the capacity is double at fifteen barrels (bbls). It has its own tap room and the building also houses a farmers’ market.

US Midwest P4 3Maybe a short explanation of why this area is called the Quad Cities. Very simply, there are four conurbations here. Why they are not one is explained by the fact that they are divided by the Mississippi River and are in separate states.

We were staying in Davenport, Iowa. Three or four miles away in the same state is Bettendorf. Directly opposite Davenport is Rock Island, Illinois and on the same bank a few miles away is Moline.

On Saturday 26th June the train was operated as day excursion northwards along the bank of the river and across to Savanna, Illinois and back. As we were going to travel over 95% of this section later, we passed on that. Anyway there was another steam-powered journey I wished to make, only this time on water. A big feature of the celebrations was a gathering of typical Mississippi stern wheeled paddle boats.

US Midwest P4 4So, that Saturday morning saw us on a bus heading towards neighbouring Bettendorf for a short journey on the river. After photographing the steam special train passing through on its way to Savanna we were headed towards the strangely named Isle of Capri, a pier on the river next to a casino of the same name. Our transport was the “Julia Belle Swain” a classic steam paddle boat. Although built in a very typical old style it is not as ancient as it looks, although its propulsion is.

It was ordered and designed by Captain Dennis Trone and was built in 1971 and was the last ever constructed by the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works. See photo (above left) of it at the quay. However, its steam engines are much older being built in 1915 by the Gillett and Eaton company. They were originally installed in “City of Baton Rouge” a side-wheel paddler. The Julia Belle Swain was based in Peoria, Illinois and used on the Illinois River and Peoria Lake. During 1975 and 1976 it operated out of Evansville, Indiana on the Ohio River. It then moved down to Chattanooga, Tennessee to work on the Tennessee River.

US Midwest P4 5It came back to the Mississippi and ran out of the Quad Cities from 1978 to 1994 when it was sold. The buyer based it at La Crosse, Wisconsin further up the Mississippi. This was when we travelled on it. After a poor season in 2008 caused by the economic turn down it was laid up and deteriorated.

In 2013 it was purchased by a not-for-profit foundation who completely rebuilt the vessel. This was not envisioned and costs rose greatly since starting the work.

It was expected to operate again in 2018 out of La Crosse, Wisconsin. The steam engines have been wisely retained but almost everything else will change. It will be air-conditioned and is having an interior elevator installed. I think we were very lucky to travel on it in its original condition. There is one other original item that will be retained to be restored and that is the calliope. This is the traditional musical instrument carried by many steam paddlers. It operates like a small steam organ, please see photograph, above left.

US Midwest P4 6One of the purposes of the Calliope was to alert potential passengers on shore when the boat is approaching a landing point. However it was mostly used for entertainment. Incidentally, I did visit the bar on board and was disappointed with the selection. Hopefully there will be a greater choice of local brews when it runs again.

We passed the Spirit of Peoria, another stern wheeler, the first ever boat built at the Walker Boat Yard of Paducah, Kentucky in 1988. See photo right.

This boat replaced the Julia Belle Swain at Peoria when it was moved away. Unlike our vessel the Spirit of Peoria is propelled by diesel-electric power, although the paddles are real, unlike some boats on the Mississippi. I must say we did enjoy our jaunt on the river.

Bettendorf is very spread out and it was a long way to our objective. Then as now, there are no brew-pubs in the city and our best bet was a branch of the Old Chicago pizza chain. These restaurants are also bars and this one had around twenty-five beer taps. We walked from the river to the nearest bus stop to get a bus towards our destination. On the way we saw a Cardinal, a classic American bird that is completely red. It was a bit of a walk at the other end but we made it.

US Midwest P4 7Actually it was a bit of a disappointment as a lot of the taps had national brews and some well-known imports. So sadly this left very little room for the true local beers. We had one and caught the bus to Davenport.

Once in Davenport we changed buses and caught another to Moline on the other side of the river in Illinois. This city is well-known as the home of John Deere Tractors (the green ones with the yellow wheels).

There in the compact centre we found Bent River Brewing. It is housed in building built in the 1920s as a hardware store. The story of it as a brew-pub goes back to April 1993 when Tim Koster founded the Kolski Home Brew shop here. In the autumn of 1996 he opened a bar at the location named Kolski Beer Hall, yet it wasn’t until two years later that the brewing equipment was installed. The home brew shop eventually closed and the pub expanded into the space vacated.

US Midwest P4 8It is a relatively small bar but had a good pub feel. We settled at the bar counter and the first thing that struck us was that, right in front of us, was the brewery itself. Please see photo right.

I think we probably spent a bit too long here because we certainly had a lot of different beers. But if you’re enjoying them, why not!

I had intended to visit another pub in Rock Island that evening but had to pass the opportunity up. No great problem, as we had time to go there the following day.

The company started a program of expansion in 2009 when a local restaurateur Joel Krogman joined them. The first move was to convert the pub into a full service restaurant. Outside it changed its appearance. The front was remodelled with one central door instead of two. Later its look changed again as it acquired large wooden shuttered windows that can be opened wide in summer.

US Midwest P4 9They next set up a pub in Rock Island that opened during the spring of 2012. At this location a larger brewery was installed along with a bottling line. This increased capacity to over 10,000 barrels per annum.

These days their beers are to be found in bars and stores either side of the Mississippi River in Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois. We eventually finished and went back on the bus to Davenport with a late one at Front Street Brewery.

The next day, Sunday 27th June, found us back at Rock Island. This time at the railroad station on the waterfront. The last passenger trains ran to and from Chicago on December 31st 1978. This was the Quad Cities Rocket and it was operated by the Rock Island Railroad over their tracks for the whole distance.

The station was built in 1901. Obviously when the passenger trains finished it fell out of use and the railroad ceased using it in April 1980. I think this was about the time the Rock Island Railroad went into liquidation. It was placed in 1982 on the National Register of Historic Places. It was purchased by the City of Rock Island in 1994 and was completely restored in 1996. It has been a restaurant since 1999.

US Midwest P4 10Today our day trip was to Bureau, Illinois and it was actually over the tracks that the original Grand Excursion took. On my first visit to the USA in May 1978 I travelled from Chicago to Peoria on a Rock Island passenger train, the Peoria Rocket. It was about to be discontinued along with the Rock Island Rocket. It went through Bureau, so I was pleased to join up with the only part of the Rock Island Line that I’ve previously travelled over. These days the line is owned and operated by the Iowa Interstate Railroad (IAIS) and it is a lifeline from the rural towns and cities in Iowa for freight to Blue Island Yard in Chicago.

We were lucky inasmuch that IAIS is a pro-steam locomotive company, most are not. Its owner Henry Posner has two of his own, purchased from China, which he occasionally steams up and runs over his tracks. Because it is a freight-only railroad the maximum permissible speed is 40 mph but often less, as the track is not maintained to passenger train standards. This did mean it was a rather boring journey and when we got to Bureau the train turned on a wye (triangle of tracks) and we headed back to Rock Island. We didn’t even get off! It was apparently something to do with safety. The town is on the Illinois River and I would have liked to have seen it, pity.

US Midwest P4 11On the plus side we were back in Rock Island with lots of time to visit two pubs. Both pubs are in the middle of town. Nearest the station was the Blue Cat Brew Pub, photo above right. The name is a reference to a type of catfish found in the Mississippi, maybe we ate it later in Dubuque! The pub was founded in 1994 by brother and sister Dan and Martha Cleveland. It was the second brew-pub to be established in the state of Illinois.

The building dates from the 1908 and was built for the Order of Elks. They occupied the upper two floors and there was a saloon on the corner. So this part of the building has been a licensed bar even since it was built, except for the period of prohibition. The other parts of the ground floor have seen use as a tailors and a pool hall.

The Elks moved out in the 1920s and the Order of Moose moved in (I haven’t made this up!). They moved out in the 1940s and thereafter the building served many users. The top floor was lost to a fire in the 1960s.

Just around the corner one block to the east is the Rock Island Brewing Company which is definitely not a brew pub although they offer a very good selection of local beers from small producers. Founded in 1979 this pub styles itself as the best source of craft beer in Rock Island and it probably is. Photo above left.

Bob Thompson
Part 4 of 5