Long before the second-growth forests of Minnesota and Wisconsins north woods became fall destinations, sightseers were flocking to northeast Iowa.
Flat? Hardly. In this part of Iowa, only the river is flat. Towering bluffs line the Mississippi, providing unparalleled views of the sprawling river plain.
For more than 150 years, people have gone to great lengths to see these views. In 1851, when the town of Lansing consisted of a few log cabins, a 20-year-old steamboat passenger named Harriet Hosmer noticed a particularly steep bluff there.
He was young and dashing, the son of Wisconsin's first millionaire, an Indian trader who became a country gentleman.
She was a beautiful debutante, daughter of a Fort Snelling general who was Custer's commander in South Dakota.
The pair loved art, horses and books; after they met in St. Paul and married, they honeymooned in Europe, where they commissioned an artist to cast their handsome faces in bronze.
Over the years, the byways around McGregor, Iowa, have seen an extraordinary procession of people.
Between 650 and 1300, Woodland Indians built animal-shaped burial mounds, 29 of which are preserved nearby at Effigy Mounds National Monument.
In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet arrived via the Wisconsin River, claiming the land for France and paving the way for the fur trade, whose center was just across the river in Prairie du Chien.
For much of its existence, Dubuque, Iowa, has been a little short on charisma.
It started out well, with a lead-mining boom and eight breweries and Victorian mansions filled with millionaires.
But it faded into obscurity. For years, its last brewery sat empty next to the 1856 Shot Tower, where laborers once turned molten lead into bullets and cannonballs by dropping it through screens into cool river water.
So you've done Galena the shopping, the wine-tasting, the trolley tours, the historic houses.
This mining town in northwest Illinois boomed, went bust and came back as a boutique town for urban weekenders. Now, it's returning to nature.
In the grand scheme of things, Galena, Ill., was destined to be a flash in the pan.
The flash came from the shiny lead sulfide upon which the town's fortunes were built in the 1830s, '40s and '50s; galena is the Latin word for the ore.
It made many people rich, and in the 1850s, Galena, three miles from the Mississippi, was the busiest port between St. Paul and St. Louis.
Tucked into the tip of northeast Iowa, Lansing has been overlooked for a long time.
In 1851, a 20-year-old steamboat passenger named Harriet Hosmer noticed its steep bluff and won a footrace to the top; the peak became Mount Hosmer.
Lansing was the county seat until 1867, when a posse from Waukon stole the county records. And it was a boom town in the 1870s and '80s, when farmers beat a path to its grain elevator and levee.
In the northwest corner of Illinois, there's no more cheerful place than Galena.
Today, it's known for its shops and giggling bands of women on a girlfriend getaway. But in the
1850s, it was the busiest port between St. Louis and St. Paul, and rows
of elegant homes were built with lead-mining fortunes.
Eventually, demand for lead waned, and the river connecting Galena to the Mississippi filled with silt. The town went into a deep sleep until the 1960s, by which point it had become a virtual museum.
For centuries, blufftop views of the Mississippi have inspired superlatives.
Jonathan Carver called the view from Barn Bluff "the most beautiful prospect that imagination can form.'' Stephen Long said, "The sublime and beautiful (are) here blended in the most enchanting manner.''
Those early explorers embellished their speech to impress folks back home. Nowadays, most people who take in the scenery just say "Wow.''
Walnut carpenter's lace. Fireplaces made of Italian mosaic tile. Yards of leaded glass and richly printed, century-old wallpaper.
That's what the two dozen people on a house tour and progressive dinner in Dubuque, Iowa, kept saying as the tour progressed from one Victorian mansion to another.