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Casino Cities 

These Parts: East Dubuque, Rock Island, East Peoria, IL

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Aurora and Joliet are close enough to Chicago that if you drive to either one to gamble you can come right back the same evening. That's good news, because neither town offers much else to do anyway. But if you're still stuck on the Vegas ethos, you can re-create a small part of it by driving half a day to get to a casino, the way people in southern California do.

Of course, if you really want to do things the way they do in southern California, you might also prefer to drive half a day just to get to the grocery store. Also good news, because once you get more than about 50 miles outside Chicago you find long stretches of highway where most drivers think that 55 miles per hour is a goal they ought to work toward achieving by the time they die. If driving at or above the speed limit is important to you, the casinos in Rock Island and Peoria are your best bets; most of the roads are wide. The main route to East Dubuque, however, has more than 50 miles of two-lane road with slow-moving convoys of half-dead trucks placed strategically at five-mile intervals.

Amazingly, the Silver Eagle (815-747-2455 or 800-745-8371) is worth the wait. Of the six casinos I visited in two weeks, it was easily my favorite. (Everything is relative: I also think Baywatch is the best thing on TV.) The Silver Eagle is surprisingly clean and airy. The gift shop has a huge assortment of kid things--lunch boxes, alarm clocks, night lights--with no casino logo on them. That means grandma and grandpa can buy a whole year's supply of gifts without letting on where they lost the trust fund.

The boat had some serious, industrial-strength air-conditioning going, which seemed to have killed the clouds of cigarette smoke that waft through other boats. And the crowd was better-dressed than on any other boat: On the Sunday afternoon we were there, whole busloads of senior citizens showed up decked out in their best jogging suits and golf shorts.

After a Silver Eagle cruise it's tempting to drive the ten miles back toward Chicago and stay in hilly, picturesque, historic, romantic, quaint, and charming Galena. However, scientists have recently proven that large doses of teddy bears, gingham, and heart-shaped picture frames are a leading cause of brain decay. It's safer to stay in East Dubuque and do nothing, which, coincidentally, is the town's main industry.

There's at least one East Dubuque business that might get a good ride on the Silver Eagle's coattails. Gamblers who haven't already inflicted enough pain on themselves at the slot machines might enjoy a night at Bill's S&M Motel (79 Sinsinawa Ave., 815-747-8805), a nine-unit place next to Bill's Lounge on the town's main street. The manager assured me that the hotel's striking name doesn't mean anything dirty, "although a lot of people ask that." They might as well; a five-minute tour of this gray, weedy little town spawns the idea that a business dedicated to whips and chains would be redundant here.

Which is why there's Dubuque, an attractive little city with an interesting history and, even though it's in Iowa, several tourist sites that will not put you to sleep. Dubuque is immediately across the Mississippi and a world apart from measly little East Dubuque. For the dedicated gambler who still has something left to lose, this old lead-mining and ice-harvesting town has both a year-round greyhound track, Dubuque Greyhound Park (1855 Greyhound Park Drive, off Highway 151, 319-582-3647), and a riverboat casino, the Diamond Jo, docked in Ice Harbor at Third Street (319-583-7005).

Next door to the casino is the Mississippi River Museum (319-557-9545 or 800-226-3369). Management says this is six different museums, but that's just Iowa's way of making itself look well-equipped. It's all one big museum, with each separate exhibit called a museum on its own. Two of the museums are old riverboats, one is the old boat yard, and the rest are indoor tributes to the mighty Mississippi, the history of Dubuque, and America's rivers. The Rivers Hall of Fame section has displays about the Mississippi showboats and about gambling. Entering this last one, visitors get a handful of slot-machine tokens to wager when they answer questions derived from the exhibit.

Sheer bluffs separate downtown Dubuque from some of its best real estate. In 1882 a Dubuque fat cat who got tired of hauling his heft uphill every day at lunchtime commissioned construction of a small private railway he could ride up and down the bluff. The Fenelon Place Elevator (West Fourth Street and Bluff Avenue, 319-582-6496) is supposed to be the world's shortest, steepest scenic railway, and regardless of whether that boast means anything, it's a real joyride. There are just two teeny cars, each with seats for about eight people, and they are always in motion at the same time, running in opposite directions. The two cars appear to be playing a slow, creaky game of chicken on narrow tracks. But just in time, about halfway up the hill, the tracks widen and the two cars glide past each other. Phew.

At the top, old man Fenelon's house is part of a glorious old neighborhood of huge private houses, most of them well preserved, along Raymond and Summit streets. At the bottom are the shops of Cable Car Square (between Fourth and Sixth on Bluff Avenue; call the Dubuque Visitor Bureau, 319-557-9200), Dubuque's answer to downtown Galena.

Just outside Dyersville, 20 miles west of Dubuque on Highway 20, is one of the world's most perplexing tourist sites: the two farms where the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams was filmed. In 1989, when the movie was a big hit, farmer Don Lansing started letting people walk around on the lawn the moviemakers had installed in his former cornfield. People came from far and wide just to play baseball where Costner and a bunch of other studly movie actors had once pretended to play baseball. OK, the movie was really good and made everybody weepy about father-son issues, the once-great American pastime, and the fact that Kevin never took his clothes off during the movie--but that was five years ago. People are still showing up at the farm (three miles northeast of Highway 136 in Dyersville, 319-875-8404) and its next-door neighbor (319-875-7985), which has since joined the fun. Don't they have anything better to do?

Three miles south of Dubuque on Highway 52 is Crystal Lake Cave (7699 Crystal Lake Cave Drive, 319-556-6451), touted as "Iowa's largest show cave." Sadly, there are no show tunes at Crystal Lake Cave, but there are scads of cool figures formed by the stalactites and stalagmites (the first come down from above and the second come up from below--it's easy to remember this way: stalactites have to hang on tight, and stalagmites have to be pretty mighty to hold up their weight). The guides point out rock formations that resemble Saint Peter's dome, Noah's Ark, and a chandelier.

Farther down the Mississippi, in Rock Island, the Casino Rock Island (18th Street at the river, 800-477-7747) is a central part of the town's riverfront entertainment district, cleverly dubbed "The District" (18th Street and Second Avenue). City hall, the casino developers, and local business people all banded together a few years ago to breathe a little life into a nearly dead downtown area. And that's what they got: a little life. The District has a pub, a small cluster of restaurants, and a bookstore.

They've even got guns in Rock Island. Oh, we've got some guns in Chicago, but in Rock Island they have 1,800 of them all in one place. And at the Rock Island Arsenal Museum (on Arsenal Island, 309-782-5021) you can stare down the barrel of a mean-looking pistol without having to hand over your wallet. Rock Island Arsenal is an active U.S. Army munitions factory, and its museum is like one big shrine to the Second Amendment. One block east on Rodman Avenue is the arsenal's Memorial Park, where lots of big artillery is on display. The museum's curator, Kris Leinicke, says one eight-inch gun in the park has a bizarre provenance. The gun, several parts of which were manufactured at Rock Island, was sold by the U.S. to Iran in happier days. Iran lost the gun to Iraq during their war, and then Iraq lost it to the U.S. during George Bush's war. Nearby are two Russian-built tanks and a piece of artillery built in China; all three were also captured during Desert Storm. "It's interesting to see where Iraq got their big equipment for that war," Leinicke says.

For more peaceable tourists, Rock Island's historic Broadway District is a pleasant five-block section near downtown with a few dozen houses either recently renovated or currently under renovation. There are mammoth houses--like the 17-room one built by a pork packer in 1888 that is now the Victorian Inn bed-and-breakfast (309-784-7068)--and smaller places treated to big splashes of color. One of the most gorgeous spots in the neighborhood is the quarter-acre formal garden behind Knox Larson Funeral Home on the corner of 21st Street and Seventh Avenue. Its flower beds are alive with all the colors of summer, and it is studded with cool, quiet fountains and inviting benches.

Immediately northeast of Rock Island is Moline, headquarters not only of Deere and Company but also of historical exhibits related to John Deere, the guy who figured out how to cut the prairies open and farm them. His granddaughter's house, Butterworth Center (1105 Eighth St., 309-765-7971), is a museum, his son's house, Deere Wilman House (817 11th Ave., 309-765-7971), is a museum, and his company's headquarters has a museum. His own house in Grand Detour, 75 miles northeast, is also a museum. The Deere and Company Administrator Center on John Deere Road is a serene black and glass building designed by Eero Saarinen, the architect of the University of Chicago's very cool Laird Bell Law Quadrangle.

Peoria and East Peoria are where the once-hilarious Richard Pryor grew up, but I couldn't find anything at all dedicated to him there. The local historical society has no idea where he lived, probably because, if his stories are true, his mom was a hooker and his childhood home was a whorehouse. No self-respecting historical society wants to point out that a famous local got his start in a brothel. On the other hand, if there's no monument to him in town, that leaves visitors free to imagine him everywhere.

There's Pryor now, downtown, walking past the world headquarters of Caterpillar (100 N.E. Adams, 309-675-1000), the mammoth company that has been battling its unions since around the time God made dirt. And there he is again at the Wildlife Prairie Park (3826 N. Taylor, 309-676-0998), a wildlife preserve northwest of town that features dozens of Illinois native plants and animals--but not comedians. I especially enjoyed picturing Pryor sniffing the flowers at the Botanical Garden (2218 N. Prospect Road, 309-686-3362), whose 800 varieties of roses are breathtaking.

More fun for nature lovers: the 3,800-acre Jubilee College State Historic Site (11817 Jubilee College Road, 309-243-9489), 16 miles northwest of Peoria on Interstate 74. Reverend Philander Chase and a band of Episcopalians founded a school on top of a high hill here in 1839, but only managed to keep it alive until 1862. The group had a town site, a girls' school, sheep herds, and all the other important parts of 1840s life on 4,000 acres. In the past two decades the state has bought back all but a small slice of the original grounds and let them revert to a primitive state. Two Gothic buildings from the college remain, but the real draw at Jubilee is the mowed--not paved--trails through the woods.

On the back of my ticket to the Par-a-Dice Riverboat Casino in East Peoria (21 Blackjack Boulevard, 800-PARADIC) was a coupon for $2 off admission to Big Al's (519 Main St., 309-673-9393), in the heart of downtown Peoria. Big Al's promises "World Famous Adult Entertainment." A quick phone call to Scott Woody, the manager at Big Al's, unearthed this amazing coincidence: In the first week of June, Big Al's hosted the Miss Nude World Contest, featuring women from 25 nations. As it happened, the woman who won, Miss Nude Argentina, was already scheduled to perform at Big Al's the very next week . Big Al's clearly is the world capital of naked women.

Not that you'll be stopping by if my wife is with you. Not even with a $2 coupon. But if that's the case, Woody suggests several other places to visit in Peoria, all of them bars where his friends work. Champs (508 Main St., 309-672-9660), across the street from Big Al's, is "where all the dealers from the casino go after work," Woody says. He describes Jimmy's Irish Pub (2301 W. Farmington Road in West Peoria, 309-676-4021) as a small, friendly place with one dart board and Guinness on tap. And right upstairs from Big Al's is "our sister club, just a dance bar with no naked women," Woody says. Gilligan's (525 Main St., 309-673-5678) has a tropical theme: the tables are made from surfboards, and outside there are three hot tubs where everybody stays dressed.

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