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Mines of Spain State Recreation Area - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 42


Located on the might Mississippi River on the southern edge of Dubuque, a 1,439 acre state recreation area holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Mines of Spain State Recreation Area.


Although only acquired in its entirety by the State of Iowa in 1980, the history of the site stretches back into the prehistoric past. Archeological evidence proves Indigenous inhabitation of the site stretching back to the Archaic and Woodland periods. By the time French exploration arrived on the Mississippi River, one of the largest known Meskwaki villages stood on the bank of the river at the site. As early as the 1690s, French records note large deposits of lead at the site. Lead mines developed at the site and operated by the Meskwaki supplied the vital product for gunshot throughout the 1700s. Local legend holds some of the lead found its way to George Washington’s troops on Revolutionary War battlefields in the eastern United States.


In 1788, Julien Dubuque arrived from Canada and gained a reputation as the first man of European descent to settle in Iowa. Gaining a land grant from the Spanish government who held formal title to the lands west of the Mississippi at the time, Dubuque set about gaining access to the vast lead reserves. Local stories suggest Dubuque went so far as to have his men soak Catfish Creek with oil so he could light the water aflame to inspire the cooperation of Meskwaki tribal leaders. With the consent of the tribe, Dubuque expanded production at the Mines of Spain to over 400,000 tons annually. At one point in time, Dubuque’s lead constituted 10% of the world’s total supply in circulation.


A city of miners sprung up north of the site, and still stands today as the seat of Dubuque County. When Dubuque died in 1810, the Meskwaki buried him. In 1827 locals erected a castle-like monument standing 28’ tall, a reburied Dubuque. Originally buried beside his wife Petosa, and her father, the Meskwaki Chief Peosta, it took until 1973 to reunite the three in reburial overlooking where Catfish Creek empties into the Mississippi River.


A scenic spot south of the city, visitors often visited the graves of the three early Iowans over the years. After the inception of the Iowa State Parks System in 1917, local efforts spearheaded by the American Legion urged the state into acquiring the Dubuque Monument site during the 1930s. From the earliest plans for preservation developed in the state, the ICC hoped to acquire the site. The monument state under control, the state sought to condemn surrounding lands without success during the 1957. Although the Julien Dubuque Monument welcomed visitors, decades passed before the state added additional lands to create the overarching Mines of Spain State Recreation Area.


During the late 1970s, momentum started to build on a project to acquire a large tract of land at the Mines of Spain site. Cooperation between the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the Iowa Conservation Culminated in a large land purchase in 1980. Local land owners, Herman and Marcella Lott also contributed portions of the new lands comprising the state recreation area site. Several tracts of land make up the public lands at Mines of Spain including the Catfish Creek State Preserve, the Julien Dubuque Monument, and the E.B. Lyons Nature Center. Built by the city of Dubuque with funds from E.B. Lyons, the state operates the nature center under long-term lease in the northwestern portion of the recreation area. Projects to restore habitat, especially prairie, took place during the 1990s at the site.


Today, Mines of Spain State Recreation Area offer visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in eastern Iowa. With 16.5 miles of trails traversing diverse habitat, historically significant sites, and breathtaking Mississippi River views, the site provides one of the best hiking opportunities in Iowa. Canoe access to Catfish Creek welcomes water-recreation enthusiasts, and picnic facilities offer a great place to gather throughout the park. The E.B. Lyons Nature Center serves as a visitor center while also offering displays on the area’s natural and human history. Horseshoe Bluff, one of the most awe-inspiring sites in Iowa welcomes visitors hoping to see a side of the state’s beauty largely unparalleled elsewhere.


Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Mines of Spain State Recreation Area. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Mines of Spain State Recreation Area shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.


Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Mines of Spain State Recreation Area.


Make sure to subscribe to the Notes on Iowa website, subscribe on YouTube, follow on social media, and tune in each Sunday to explore the history of Iowa’s state parks, preserves, and other public lands.


I hope I’ll see you out there!

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