When you think “island getaway,” Iowa is almost definitely the last place that would pop to mind. But Iowa has a sweet little secret hiding out between its eastern border and the Mississippi River. You’ll often hear it called by its descriptive nickname: Island City.
Sabula is Iowa's only island city.
But it wasn't always an island. It was physically connected to Iowa until 1939, when Lock and Dam #13 was built between Clinton, Iowa and Fulton, Illinois. The dam permanently submerged the lowland area to the west of the town, leaving Sabula physically cut off from the state.
Sabula has a long history that stretches back long before the Army Corps of Engineers started building dams on the Mississippi.
The first European settler arrived in Sabula on a log.
According to local legend, Isaac Dorman crossed the Mississippi from Illinois on a log. The current town site was already home to several Native American families who, it is said, continued to inhabit the area after the new settlers came. In its early years, the new town went through several name changes. It was called Carrollport when it was platted in 1837, but some settlers were displeased with the name. They didn't want anyone to think the town had been named after an unpopular resident named Carroll, so they changed the name to Charlestown. This fine name proved to be a bit too popular since there was already another in Iowa. The name had to be changed again to avoid confusion.
The exact details of how the settlers arrived at the name "Sabula" is lost to history (there are several conflicting stories), but the name is said to mean "sand" in a Native American language. Since the town's soil is quite sandy, the name seemed to fit.
Early industries included a button factory and hog slaughterhouses.
Clams were harvested from large clam beds in the river, and their shells were used to make pearl buttons in Sabula's button factory. The meat inside the clams was used to feed hogs, thus fueling the town's other major industry. The pearl button factory was shut down by the advent of the plastic button, and the building has since been razed. There are no hog farms on the island, but that industry still thrives on Iowa's mainland.
There's some real history here.
The Jeremiah Wood House, shown above, was built by one of Sabula's original settlers. Wood was a successful entrepreneur and riverboat captain. The house is in beautiful condition and is privately owned.
The John C. Dominy House is another gorgeous example of early settlers' homes in Sabula. John Dominy was Sabula's first blacksmith. While the home doesn't offer tours, you can admire the excellent craftsmanship from the sidewalk.
The railroad played a significant part in the island's history; the Chicago, Clinton, Dubuque, and Minneapolis Railroad Co. built a line from Dubuque to Clinton just west of Sabula in 1870. The Sabula, Ackley and Dakota Railroad laid the first tracks through the town in 1872.
The tiny island is one mile long and a quarter mile wide.
At the 2010 census, the island had a population of 576. Most of the employed residents travel to nearby towns in Iowa or Illinois for work, but the island community has all of the amenities of any small Iowa town. There is a school, a bank, a convenience store, a public library, three taverns, several restaurants, a B & B, and various other businesses that keep the town running. But Sabula has also become a haven for tourists looking for a unique getaway. This sweet small island town is a great place for fishing, hunting, boating, camping...or just for a nice change of scenery.
This is a seriously fantastic place to take it easy.
The island is easily accessible by car or by boat.
A causeway connects Sabula to the Iowa mainland. On the way, a little stop-off called Driscoll's Island (circled above) is known as a great fishing spot. If you choose to arrive by boat, make use of Island City Harbor. It offers transient slips, a gas dock, and a quaint harbor store.
Stop in and explore this hidden Iowa gem.
Sabula boasts several public parks, an historic caboose, one of the
coolest pizza places
this side of the Mississippi, and so many neat treasures that you'll easily spend an entire weekend exploring them all.
There are so many Iowans who still don’t know about Sabula. If you haven’t visited yet, start making plans – this little hidden gem is like nowhere else in Iowa.