116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Mississippi River Museum offers aquatic adventure and much more
Too much to see and experience during a one-day visit
By Marion and Rich Patterson - correspondents
Apr. 12, 2021 8:31 am
We both grew up near the ocean, so occasionally we miss expansive watery views and the scent of salt air.
Now basically “Iowa Landlubbers” we thought a maritime experience wasn’t possible in the Hawkeye State. A recent day trip proved us wrong.
About an hour up Highway 151 from Cedar Rapids we quickly descended downward into urban traffic. Our GPS navigator directed us across railroad tracks and between old factories and warehouses. That’s where we spotted it.
The USCGC Wyaconda loomed ahead. We’d seen the distinctive red hull stripe on ships in New Jersey, Alaska, Washington and Louisiana. Although there was no salt air to sniff, seeing a U.S. Coast Guard Ship momentarily transported us from inland Iowa to the ocean's edge.
We learned the Wyaconda, known as a river buoy tender homeported in Dubuque, was assigned to help clean up after the 2007 Midwest flooding.
After viewing the moored ship, we spent a few hours in Iowa’s premiere Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. As we enjoyed interactive maps of the vast river system that drains Iowa and much of North America, we realized Iowa isn’t completely inland. The massive river and its tributaries link inland states with oceans and the world.
The River system is a vast beacon, corridor and highway for migrating fish and waterfowl. It also is plied by commercial barges and pleasure boats.
The Mississippi and its tributaries sustained populous cities of Native Americans before Columbus and formed a watery exploration route for early European explorers and traders, including Julien Dubuque. Following our nation’s founding, prosperous towns sprouted on the banks of what became one of the most strategic military objectives of our Civil War.
Although Iowans think of the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium as a fascinating collection of aquaria and fish, it’s much more.
“The organization is heavily involved in conservation and research as well as education,” said Wendy Scardino, Director of Marketing & Communications. “It’s also a tourism magnet important to the local economy and a major Dubuque employer.”
She introduced us to Jared McGovern, Curator of Conservation, and Megan Bradley of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They are collaborating to restore populations of river mussels devastated by poor water quality and other environmental challenges.
Water quality is a major challenge to any aquarium. Anyone who has owned a small glass enclosed fish habitat knows it takes work to maintain. Multiply that thousands of times to appreciate the task of running a major aquarium.
“Maintaining them is a massive job,” said Mikaela Foust, assistant curator of Living Collections at the Mississippi River Museum, which has about 30 large aquariums “Seven of us work full time keeping them clean and the occupants healthy.”
Some contain fish native to the big river and its tributaries. Others hold salt water creatures from distant oceans. One houses sleepy water snakes near a large tank where river otters dodge and dive in front of admiring humans. According to Scardino, the two most popular exhibits are the otters and a large shallow watery display where visitors can touch stingrays.
Although aquatic animals form the backbone of the museum’s exhibits there’s plenty of educational diversity. One exciting display being completed in phases is the River of Innovation. The first large room features the Iowa Marine Engine and Launch Works. Working belt-driven machines from the late 1800s demonstrate how boat engines were crafted.
Scardino pointed to the sparkling, carefully arranged tools lining the walls around the center display of whirling belts. She explained how all staff and many community volunteers from companies such as John Deere, took turns cleaning the tools so they could be displayed. Although dirty and sometimes tedious work, the result is an engineer’s delight. And, an intriguing tour for regular visitors.
The next two phases in the works with completion scheduled for summer include Innovation Currents — how innovation fueled economics along the river — and Find the Innovator in Yourself. A true “maker space” for visitors to create on their own.
Other temporary displays highlight Dubuque’s baseball legacy and women's rights histories. At one time, the “Key City” was home to nine fields. The last minor league closed in 1976. In “Hard Won Not Done” visitors journey through the history of suffrage with an emphasis on local women’s contributions and the reminder that working toward equity still remains.
Throughout the museum are smaller displays with lessons of hardship and the message that we do better treating all people with respect.
In past years we have trekked to Dubuque to enjoy temporary exhibits on the Titanic and the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci. In this summer’s special exhibit “Splash and Bubbles: dive In, Lend A Fin!” — due to open mid-May — is made especially for kids. Fueling their imagination while exploring STEM concepts, kids will recognize comic elements from the popular PBS show, Splash and Bubbles. They will weave their way through a kelp maze and explore a sunken ship.
“Splash and Bubbles is a wonderful tie-in to the conservation work our staff undertake daily, our focus on STEM education, and our mission to inspire stewardship,” Scardino said.
Boats are a natural complement to displays of aquatic wildlife, and visitors enjoy seeing vintage craft ranging from tiny sail dinghies to the massive William M. Black dredge that once kept the channel deep enough to float barges. Visitors are welcome to board some of the bigger vessels that worked to develop Mississippi River commerce.
The Museum opened in 2003, but its history extends back to the 1950 founding of the Dubuque Historical Center. Jerry Enzler played a key role in the organization’s growth, which included the 1980 acquisition of the William M. Black.
Many Iowa museums are small and intimate. It’s easy to enjoy them in a half day. The Mississippi River and Aquarium is an exception. It’s not one building. It’s a campus of structures with indoor exhibits, outdoor displays, boats to wander through and places to sit an absorb the importance of the Mississippi River to our economy, culture and history.
There’s so much to see and appreciate at the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium it’s a good idea to consider an overnight. That way there is time and energy to take in the backwater marsh and display of living raptors, the theater, and lab.
After a few hours, we develop museum overload and needed a break, so we’ve visited this Museum several times to focus on one or two types of displays.
The Museum is located at the river's edge close to downtown Dubuque. For those inclined, the Diamond Jo Casino is within walking distance. A stroll through this formerly no-nonsense industrial city’s downtown offers adventures, and gastronomic and visual serendipities.
The nearby Fenelon Place Elevator is a well-known for its dual cable cars that whisk pedestrians up or down an incredibly steep slope that forms the edge of the big river’s flood plain. Views from the bluff’s top are spectacular. How it got started is intriguing. Near the elevator’s base many small, locally owned specialty shops, breweries and restaurants invite in visitors. And amazing street art livens up the sides of historic, multi-storied buildings.
Nearly 40 themed murals completed by renowned artists liven up Dubuque. Greetings. Floral Wonders. Solidarity. Monsters. Whimsy delights the eye. They are beautiful and fun as can be to study.
Being COVID-19 conscious, we were relieved to find all museum staff and visitors and downtown establishments respectfully maintaining distance and wearing masks. Rather than enjoying a sitting meal in a restaurant as we would have done pre-COVID, we bought fish and chips carryout at the Barrel House Restaurant and drove a few miles to the Mines of Spain to picnic.
With minds filled with images of fish, mussels, barges, Coast Guard ships and otters we needed quiet and enjoyed lunch at a picnic table surrounded by 1432 acres of woods, bluffs, prairies and streams at the Mines of Spain.
The State Park is where Julien Dubuque began mining lead in 1788, located on the south edge of Dubuque and includes the Julien Dubuque Monument, Horseshoe Bluff and E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center. The park is open but the Interpretive Center is closed due to COVID. On the grounds is the Betty Hauptli Bird and Butterfly Garden.
The park’s trails in this bluff country offer opportunities for hikers to huff and puff as they ascend steep slopes. Several shorter trails appeal to those less ambitious.
Our Dubuque trip offered us an unusual experience. We picked up a new Chevy Bolt at McGrath Auto Group to test drive. It proved to be a delightful and amazing driving experience in a car of the future. During our 160-mile round trip we didn’t burn a drop of gas. Instead, we used 50 kilowatt-hours of electricity. As we descended the steep grade into Dubuque, the car’s instrument panel showed that gravity pulled the car downward allowing it to regenerate energy and charge the battery.
We were skeptical of how far a battery could take us. Would we need to recharge in Dubuque to get back to Cedar Rapids? Not a chance. After cruising along at 65 miles an hour on a cold blustery day, the car’s gauge said we still could have gone another 50 miles before the battery would be drained.
On our recent Dubuque trip, we were only able to visit the museum and state park. There’s much more in and around Iowa’s 11th largest city. It’s easy for corridor residents to experience some on a day trip, but staying a few days makes a visit more relaxing and comprehensive. For the active, bring your bicycles and pedal parts of the Heritage Trail that runs form Dubuque to Dyersville. Or try your hand at Axe throwing at one of the venues!
More information on lodging, restaurants and places to see www.traveldubuque.com.
Before you visit check out these websites:
- Street Art of Dubuque. Nearly 40 themed murals dot the city walls. Map shows location. Monsters. Solidarity. Floral. Downtown.
- Mines of Spain, EB Lyons Nature Center.
- Twenty-Six Mile Heritage Trail. Dubuque to Dyersville.
- Baseball Roots in Iowa.
- William M. Black Steam Dredge Boat.
- National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.
Activities and interesting buildings: Axe Throwing, Clock Tower, Fenelon Place Elevator, Riverboat Rides, Dubuque History Trail Tours: Five tours highlight the City and area. Pick up brochures at the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.