Burlington’s riverfront walkway brings those of us who use it close to the “Old Man” who dominates the Midwest. One day smooth and easy-going, the next turbulent and threatening, the Mississippi has moods enough for any temperament. The half-mile width of channel, hemmed in by the eastern levee, camouflages the real width of ten miles bank to bank, a hundred feet below the prairie plane. So those of us who associate so closely with this powerful river have a privilege that bears acknowledging.
Likewise the many people who have used this landing space and left it to us in its current shape bear some consideration. The foundations and landfills of many docks and businesses, boathouses and warehouses now lie under the grass and trees of parks and boat ramps and parking lots. A few remaining structures remind us of the energized industry required to open this frontier. But it also took much concerted action to clean up the ugly refuse and stifling crowdedness of that industry and make pleasant space for appreciating the river, not as much a mode of access as it was on the frontier, but still the primary source of the life of this region.
I try to generate some energy by running the path that winds along the riverfront, but mostly use up energy left over from earlier days. How can I or any of us add to the legacy of hundreds of thousands who have come this way in search of a fuller, better life?
We have little sense of who came here first. When Euro immigrants first saw Hawkeye Creek the burial platforms of the resident Sauk and Fox peoples lined the banks. The ravines provided shelter for winter lodges and hogans as well as plentiful springs and cover for game. One special notch in a northside cliff opened into the Council Rock natural amphitheater held sacred by unknown generations of inhabitants. Tools left hereabout date back over ten thousand years.
There has always been a seamier side to old river towns like this. Too raw and unfinished for the control and manners of more staid and civilized communities, people ran off to Burlington with floosies and rascals. Doss houses, taverns and gambling rooms filled the niches between more respectable enterprises, and the jail was always occupied. Tawdry affairs provide plenty of fodder for “Good Old Days” reminiscences. “Fun City” had another set of meanings in earlier days, but people did indeed come, and the latter day name recalls the earlier reputation. Today’s social problems echo those of earlier times. They are not quite buried under the lovely landscape.
Many people, headstrong and gracious, creative and opportunistic, made a way before us, cluttering or clearing the way. Some, though who knows how many, will come after. What part of building an enduring community will we play? There is always plenty to think about and pray about while running!