Nov
02
2009

What is there to do and see in Nauvoo, Illinois?

Joseph Smith's Red Brick Store

Joseph Smith's Red Brick Store was reconstructed in Nauvoo, Illinois, based on old photographs in which the bricks were counted to make the building look as close to the original as possible. The Mississippi River is in the background. Mvguy photo. CC-BY.

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Most of the people who visit Nauvoo, Ill., are there to see historical sites relating to the settlement from 1839 to 1846 led by American religious pioneer Joseph Smith Jr. Although most visitors are from the two largest churches that trace their origins to Smith — the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) and the Community of Christ, based in Independence, Missouri — the city also attracts many other visitors interested in that era of American history.

At its peak in the early 1840s, Nauvoo was one of the largest cities in the American frontier, and with more than 10,000 residents it rivaled Chicago. Smith brought his followers to Nauvoo (from a Hebrew word meaning “beautiful”) when they were kicked out of Missouri, and quickly established all the amenities of the cities of those days and began construction of a temple that at the time was the tallest building that far west in the United States. The year after Smith was assassinated in 1844, those who recognized Brigham Young as his successor started fleeing to Utah, while others fled to Iowa and elsewhere, abandoning the city. Part of the city was taken over later by the Icarians, a short-lived utopian communal organization (their story is told in a museum), and the town also became home to a major winery.

Today, more than 60 historic buildings, most of them originals but some of them reconstructed, remain in the city. (Hundreds of log cabins and other buildings have been long gone.) The two churches provide tours — all of them free or for a minimal fee to support historic preservation — of historical buildings and explain the city's rich history. At the sites operated by the Mormon church, church volunteers provide demonstrations of 1840s life, including the making of horseshoes, baking bread, operating printing presses, weaving, making rope and so on. The most historically significant sites are owned by the Community of Christ and include one of the homes that Smith lived in as well as his burial site. Both churches also have visitor centers that have displays and artifacts as well as presentations on church practices and beliefs.

Dominating the skyline in Nauvoo and visible from across the Mississippi River is the Mormon temple, whose reconstruction was completed in 2002. (The original had been destroyed by fire and a tornado.) The exterior is a nearly exact replication of what pioneers built; the interior follows a modern floor plan and is for use by church members only.

Most of the year, you can count on it taking a full day to see the historic sites. During July, the Mormon church sponsors an outdoor music pageant related to church history, making July the busiest time, so touring may take longer then. Musical revues and outdoor musical performances, some religious in nature but others secular with all of them family-friendly, are scheduled frequently.

Tourism has boomed in recent years largely because of the temple reconstruction, although most of Nauvoo still looks like a typical tiny rural Illinois town that hasn't visibly changed much for decades. There are several hotels and campgrounds in the area (details are available from the Nauvoo Tourism Office) and a limited number of restaurants and shops. Many visitors stay nearby in Keokuk, Iowa, which has a larger selection of amenities. The closest international airport served by major airlines is in Moline, Ill., about 100 miles away.

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