Keokuk’s unique historical attractions, community celebrations and festivals, plentiful parks and hometown atmosphere draw visitors and potential residents alike to this welcoming city on the Mississippi River. A wide variety of lodging, ranging from motels to fabulous bed and breakfasts with river views, is complemented by the many and various dining choices in the area.
Keokuk’s attractions reflect its proud heritage and position in the fabric of America. Although west and north of most of the Civil War action, Keokuk was home to several military hospitals. Wounded Union and Confederate soldiers were brought up the Mississippi River by riverboat for care in Keokuk’s military hospitals. The largest was the Estes House, now the site of Estes Park, Fifth and Main streets. A large mural depicting elements of Keokuk’s history is displayed on the side of the Heritage Center bordering Estes Park. The mural was created for the city’s Sesquicentennial Celebration in 1997.
Civil War soldiers who succumbed to their wounds were buried at the Keokuk National Cemetery, 1701 J St., the first national cemetery to be established west of the Mississippi River undefined and the only one in Iowa. More than 4,000 American soldiers are buried there, among towering oaks in rolling fields. The historic cemetery features a large handicap accessible flagstone circle complete with an American flag, benches and historical marker centered in the midst of stark white tombstones of old.
The cemetery is the final resting place of soldiers from many wars. The newly erected Keokuk Veterans Memorial stands in splendor near the entrance of the historic portion of the national cemetery and at the entrance of Oakland Cemetery, the historic city cemetery. The gray granite, black marble memorial is engraved with scenes representing each branch of the service.
Tours of a former working steam paddleboat and the home of a Civil War era supreme court judge are part of the historical scene in Keokuk. The George M. Verity Museum located in Victory Park on the Mississippi River- front is the well-preserved and retired S.S. Thorpe, a U.S. government vessel used to move barges from St. Louis to St. Paul in the 1920s. In the park’s green space a statue honoring Civil War General Samuel Curtis of Keokuk stands beneath the Keokuk-Hamilton Bridge which spans the Mississippi and within close viewing distance of Keokuk Lock and Dam 19.
An observation deck built on the former Keokuk to Hamilton Bridge, a historic structure in its own right, allows a clear view of the lock, dam and power house. Keokuk Lock and Dam and the power house were designed and engineered by famed architect Hugh Cooper and finished in 1913. At that time the dam was the largest in the world.
One-of-a-kind pictures of the structures’ construction are on display at the Miller House Museum, 318 N. Fifth St., Keokuk, along with a display of historical Keokuk and area memorabilia. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Samuel Miller of Keokuk to the U.S. Supreme Court. Miller served until his death in 1890. The museum is Miller’s former home and is furnished in antiques.
Keokuk’s history extends back to the days of trappers and native American Sac and Fox tribes. The city was named after Chief Kiyo’kaga (one who moves about alert), who was something of a politician during his lifetime, 1788-1848. A statue of the chief, now known as Chief Keokuk, stands in Rand Park, overlooking the Mississippi River. Rand Park features shelter houses, extensive gardens, a pond, water fountain, play and picnic areas, an attractive and challenging disc golf course and many picnic tables under shade trees. Rand Park also is the home of the Keokuk Firefighters’ Memorial, honoring the dedication to community of three Keokuk firefighters who died attempting to rescue three children from a house fire in December 1999.
The park is bordered by Grand Avenue and Rand Terrace, both distinctive parts of the Grand Avenue Tour. Mansions and distinguished historical homes overlooking the river tell a story of the city’s affluence and culture in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Before the lovely homes were built, the area on the bluff was a temporary home for immigrating Mormons from Europe who were on their way to Utah. Keokuk has strong historical ties to Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints rebuilt the temple first erected by Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. A marker at Triangle Park located at the junction of Grand and Orleans avenues notes the historical significance of the area.
In all, Keokuk has 11 parks dotting the city with green space and places to play or relax after spending time on the road. Tolmie Park hosts the Keokuk City Pool. For those who prefer indoor swimming and fitness facilities, the Hoerner YMCA on Plank Road offers a pool, weight room, exercise room, racquetball courts, basketball courts and saunas. The city also has tennis and basketball courts open for public use.
It’s easy to find something to do in Keokuk and the Tri-State Area, where boating, water skiing or fishing in the Mississippi, or a round of golf or bowling, airplane rides, a movie, antiquing, geode hunting, quietly researching family genealogy in the public library or taking a snooze in a park are always available.
The city has an active and talented group of actors, the Great River Players, who put on a series of plays each year at the Grand Theatre. At the same time, the Keokuk Concert Association brings cultural experiences to the area in the form of orchestral music, dance troops, opera and more. In addition to underwriting the arts in Keokuk, the Keokuk Fine Arts Council organizes trips to places of interest in neighboring states as well as getaways to Europe and other far flung vacation spots.
Keokuk’s historic downtown has been designated a Cultural and Entertainment District, helping attract artists, artisans and craftsmen to the area. Along those lines, the Keokuk Public Library recently rounded out its offerings with the completion of the Keokuk Art Center in its lower floor. Local and state artists have works on display throughout the year and workshops give area residents and visitors hands-on opportunities to tap into their creativity.
Keokuk’s festivals are greatly anticipated events, which remember the roots of our city and celebrate the city of today. People from far and wide are attracted to Bald Eagle Appreciation Days in January. Eagles flock to the open waters of Keokuk Lock and Dam 19 for easy fishing and roost in trees along the river. Observation sites with viewing telescopes are set up for closer inspection of the national bird and the local mall is filled with eagle-related activity and information.
After winter has worn out its welcome and April rolls around, an Easter Seals Block Party features a 5K run and auction of donated items, an event that whets the appetite for the Keokuk’s award-winning Battle of Pea Ridge Civil War Reenactment in Rand Park. Reenactors and spectators come from all around the globe to witness the authentically rendered clash of Union and Confederate soldiers. Don’t be surprised to see people clad in period costumes enjoying a meal at a local restaurant or shopping in the stores.
Abundant June festivals in neighboring cities lead into the Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza in Rand Park. Children and adults alike are thrilled by the exiting display of fireworks that spreads through the night sky over the Mississippi. Activities in the park during the day make for a mini-vacation topped off with the artfully executed fireworks display. Just a few days later, the Medicine Eagle Gathering of the People PowWow brings dancers to Rand Park for competitive Native American dancing. A Native American village with many handcrafted items is on display, educational opportunities about Native Americans abound and many beautiful creations are on sale. Also in July, the L-Bird Convention and Fly-in at the Keokuk Municipal Airport-Lindner’s Field brings World War II reconnaissance airplanes and pilots to the skies, ready to swap tales.
Shoppers can always find great antiques and unique gift items in Keokuk, but during Main Street Summer Crazy Days in July, store owners go out of their way to provide excellent bargains. August is the month for the Rollin’ on the River Blues Festival, a musical treat that attracts blues musicians from the bayou to the Windy City. Held in Victory Park beneath the Keokuk-Hamilton Bridge, many folks design vacations around a boating trip upriver to be a part of the two-night series of blues concerts.
After rocking in August, serious rock hunters roll into town for the Rocktober Geode Fest and Hunt in October. Keokuk and the surrounding area have spectacular geodes waiting for sharp-eyed rock hunters. A display of geodes
found in the area, the Glenn and Bertha Bevard Collection, is on display at the Keokuk Area Tourism and Convention Bureau, North Fourth and Main streets.
Hunting season brings duck hunters to the river and quail, pheasant, wild turkey and deer hunters into the plentiful timber in the Tri-State Area. Area communities offer horse trails, skeet shooting, hunting dog competitions and more.
As the days get shorter, the Keokuk Area Hospital Auxiliary Tea and Bazaar hints at the Christmas shopping season in November with selected gifts and treats.
Time is taken to honor veterans with a Veterans Day Parade before the City of Christmas Display of Lights is assembled in Rand Park at Thanksgiving. The vehicle tour of moving and lighted displays is added to every year and continues through Christmas. To officially kick off the holiday shopping season, Keokuk’s retail stores host Puttin’ on the Glitz, complete with the roving McNamara’s Band, carolers, refreshments and great gift ideas. Children have a special Saturday event with It’s a Charlie Brown Christmas, where volunteers help children get into the spirit and allow Mom and Dad to get some Christmas shopping done.
No matter the time of year, something exciting or just plain fun is happening in Keokuk or nearby communities.