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(Foot)Notes on Iowa - Words & Photos - Day 3: Bentonsport to Douds

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

Day 3 started early and relatively uneventfully at Bentonsport (for more on Bentonsport, please visit the Day 2 post: The Des Moines bends north before plunging into what locals historically called 'The Big Bend,' and my path led me away from the river until Keosauqua. My initial route planned to cut across the 'Big Bend' through Keosauqua to Pittsburg and on to Leando-Douds, but instead decided to utilize the trail system within Lacey-Keosauqua State Park to follow the south bank of the river.

The largest town in Van Buren County today, Keosauqua boasted 1,006 residents at the 2010 census. Platted in 1839 like several other villages throughout the county, the Algonquin language rooted town named for "Bend in the River" in the Sauk and Meskwaki dialects, the town prospered over the course of the 1800s. The iconic Hotel Manning, a three-story Steamboat Gothic style hotel, greets visitors approaching the town crossing the Des Moines. The town contains a rich history including the 1847 Pearson House, a noted stop on the Underground Railroad utilized by people escaping from enslavement on the famed path to freedom. Between the Dragoons in 1835, the Latter Day Saints on the Mormon Trail, and the Underground Railroad, Keosauqua historically stands out as an incredibly significant crossroads in Iowa's history.

I did not cross the river during my walking for the day, but did explore the town later on in the evening. Thanks to the good folks at the Van Buren Register-Leader, headquartered in Keosauqua, I gained access to a few historical newspapers detailing significant flooding in the area.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District and the United States Geological Survey cooperatively operate a river gage located ten feet upstream of that State Highway 1 Bridge. The gage recorded a record high stage of 32.6 ft. (22 ft. flood stage) on July 13, 1993. When I passed through, the river sat well below the standard high-water warning mark, lingering at around 12.95 ft. despite the recent and unrelenting rains that marked the first part of my journey.

By the time I reached Keosauqua a light drizzle intensified into a steady rain. I passed the flood gage as I entered Iowa's second oldest state park. Although the roads held well enough, the trails within the park denigrated under the consistent precipitation. The River Trail starts near the Keosauqua bridge, closely following the river through wooded areas along the river. By the time I started to transverse the park, the quickly rising and falling trails resembled a slip-and-slide.

Lacey-Keosauqua came into the public domain through the work of concerned citizens. In 1920, a group of local citizens acquired the land through organizing a donation drive yielding over $64,000. Initially named "Big Bend Park," the state renamed the park in 1926 to honor American Civil War veteran, state and federal representative, and early perservationist John Fletcher Lacey. The park gradually expanded in size from 1,222 acres in 1923 to today's 1,653 acres, although during the 1940s the park actually exceeded the current footprint and measured at 2,009 acres.

Famed stone bridges serve as a recognizable feature of the park, and the structures allude to the role of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Company 770 in the Lacey-Keosauqua's early development. The group arrived on May 28, 1933, and the CCC maintained a presence in the park until October of 1935. The group completed the vast majority of the initial trail work within the park, provided erosion control, and created an earthen dam and spillway to create a man-made lake. The Works Progress Administration also left an imprint on the park, building the famed bridges. Additionally, a National Park Service Camp contributed to the development of the park in from 1936 to approximately early 1938. The National Register of Historic Places listed three areas on the park in November of 1990.

Although the man-made bridges throughout the park often draw public attention, a stone-overhang structure caught my attention as I ambled up and down the slippery trails. I startled a few deer as I made my way along the river, eventually arriving at the famed Ely Ford Mormon Crossing. The crossing of the Des Moines River, now a component of the National Mormon Historic Trail, served Brigham Young and his followers as they flew from Nauvoo, Illinois in 1846. One of the famed stone bridges of the park carries vehicular traffic over a small creek near the crossing site.

Before departing the park, I stumbled upon several small, unmarked 'Indian Mounds,' a mark of the park's much deeper pre-Western history pass. The mounds are alongside trails, but unmarked in order to prevent overeager enthusiasts from disturbing the significant sites.

I exited the park and ambled my way north-by-northwest, eventually passing through Chequest Wildlife Area, a 21-acre Van Buren County Conservation administered stand of upland timber. Although I did not glimpse any wildlife while passing through, the area serves as a home to deer, turkey, rabbit, pheasant, and other wildlife. I soon found myself on Iowa Oak Grove Avenue, a north-south gravel road running toward the Des Moines River and my old-friend Eagle Drive. Once pack on the now familiar south-bank gravel road, I closely followed the river to the small towns of Leando and Douds. As I trudged closer to the towns, I spotted the enormous Douds Stone Mine. The mine exists as one of the largest underground mines in the state in operation today.

Leando, the older of the two census-recognized places flanking either bank of the river (originally platted in 1835, slightly before several of the other Villages of Van Buren County), the site contained an early ferry across the Des Moines in operation until the completion of a bridge in 1898. Eliab and David Doud Jr. platted the north-bank of the river in 1866, and served as a station for the railroad as it passed up the river toward Des Moines. Today the small communities host a branch of the Van Buren County Schools, and boast of famous son John Fremont who went on to start the fast-food chain Dairy Queen.

I ended my day at the site of Leando-Douds "Field Days." My route took my along the return route of the 1835 Dragoons Expedition as the descended the Des Moines. However, my route stood south of the outgoing route. The initial trek of the Dragoons northward took them on the rise between the Des Moines and Skunk Rivers, and the Dragoon Trail Historical Site Marker No. 3 rests across the county border in the Jefferson County town of Libertyville.


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