The National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, Iowa started as a plan to recover a then blighted waterfront area. At that they succeeded mightily. The area now boasts not only the museum, but a hotel with a water park, multiple restaurants and a casino. Where other downtowns are most active during the day (at least according to the hours of most of the restaurants) Dubuque’s downtown seems to be focused on the nightime crowd. They also have restored a lovely opera house downtown for events.
Returning to the National Mississippi River Museum
I had visited the museum several times, especially when it was connected with an event, but I hadn’t been in years, even though I stayed next door at the Grand Harbor during the Iowa Library Association last fall. However, when a chance to visit came up during the between semester break, I was there and I have to say I was impressed on how much had changed. They have added an entire separate building, beefed up displays and kept older displays refurbished.
New Building with 3D/4D Theater
My group went in through the second building and it seems like you enter on either side of this building or through the original building. Any of them take you to ticket station and lets you into a fenced campus type area where you can waunder at will. The two movies in the 3D/4D theater (more on that in a minute) were an additional charge for each of the two movies. Our deal arranged for both and it was almost time for it to start so we went up to the second floor to the movie theater. The theater projects out one side of the new building on the second floor. You buy tickets at the main ticket desk. We saw Dolphins which was 20 minutes and Monsters of the Deep which was 10 minutes, but they are showing two other movies right now, one of which was Ice Age 4 aka Ice Age Continental Drift which comes in at 88 minutes so they must show longer things. It’s a 3D/4D theater which means you wear 3D glasses and stuff seems to really to come out within inches of your face. The 4D part is rumble speakers in the seats and water squirting devices which spritzed in our faces several for each movie.
Hands On, Library, Salt Water Aquarium, and Lock
After the movie we checked out the rest of the second floor which consisted of the Library/Archive (Yea!) which was locked tighter than a drum (Boo!), a long hallway of river art which they hope to add to according to the signage, and the kids hands on area which had a mockup of a beaver lodge and a water table where you could make a lock and dam work (although I submerge my boat 3 times before I gave up). There were several large windows there which must offer great views of the Mississippi, but the shades were drawn and you couldn’t get anywhere near them.
Down on the first floor, besides the gift shop, was a video about how a lock worked shown in a mock up of a lock, some historic artifacts from people connected with the river, the River Hall of Fame, and a salt water aquarium. There was another area with computers where you could play games like successfully get the salmon to spawn. There was a fake cave where you could go in and hear ghost stories and a real waterfall with mannequins acting out a trade between mountain men and a Native American.
Out on the Grounds
Then it was out the door and into the area between the buildings. Most eye catching was the giant cage with two Bald Eagles in it. A smaller cage
next door had a hawk. Also, in the area between the buildings was the walk through giant catfish, although I still think they should try to bring up one of the real HUGE ones they always say are by dams in the river. I’d certainly be willing to part with money to see a catfish that was so big a diver could swim inside before he realized it (as I’ve been told sometimes happens).
On the way into the second building we passed the remote controlled boat pond (I never can resist a remote control boat since Adventureland had them when I was little) and yes I stopped. Then we boarded a boat that some college kids pedaled (it had bikes hooked up to a paddlewheel down the Mississippi in the late 1990s, but it wasn’t operational for the
summer yet. Then I once again had my photo taken with Mark Twain on the bench. I LOVE that.
Changes to Original Building
We didn’t go into many of the boats this time, mostly because one member of the group was tuckered out and wasn’t up
for the walk, but part of the outside walkway that leads to where they do living history on some weekends was already underwater (up to the bottom of the first rail underwater). So I didn’t go exploring on my own. We went into the original building and a lot of it seemed the same, although they were refreshing a couple of the exhibits and had signs up about what they were doing. The second floor still had the keelboat exhibit which should interest any Laura fan (spot the things mentioned in the books), the history of the riverboats and a chance to drive a barge with a tugboat virtually. (I’m still not convinced the controls did much, but if they did, make a note not to let me drive your tugboat/barge as I seemed unable to straighten her out properly.) The new part of the upstairs was all turtles and terrapins of various kinds from around the world. This exhibit made the news when one of the expensive and rare turtles went missing. It was assumed stolen and then turned up after it worked its way into the mechanical area behind the public display tanks.
Mark Twain Area
The best part though was the Mark Twain area about steamboats taking up part of the original boatyard building. Some
things were there the last time, for instance the mirrored area that lets you see yourself walking on the logs that were floated downriver from the woods to the sawmill. Much was brand new. It has everything from an original wheelhouse (that had been rescued once from a wreck to be used as a summerhouse) to a mirror actually owned by Mark Twain. This area was just fascinating. I also has to especially point out one of the best hands on activities I’ve seen. In the area near the rear of the steamboat is a boiler that would turn the paddlewheel. You can see actual fire (I assume gas fireplace style) and you take logs from the back and feed them into the boiler fire, that they drop through come out behind in the area to feed the flames again. It makes a point about the steamboats that most people wouldn’t consider, is hands on fun, AND even resets itself automatically, what more can you ask for.
Tom Sawyer Cave
At the rear of this area is a small, Tom Sawyer cave.
While it’s nothing compared to the original and not even the best fake Tom Sawyer cave I’ve seen, it is simply one of the best uses of soundscape to make something seem real that I’ve ever run across. From the sound you really could be in a cave and that goes a long way to make the whole thing seem real.
After that we headed out. Straight into road construction, but it is the season for it and we got out of it fairly soon. I think the museum is well worth a visit especially if you’ve never been.
The website has a lot of information, but for some strange reason no maps. You get the maps at the ticket window after you pay admission.
UPDATED December 18, 2015: It doesn’t look like it needs much editing, but I have added my current signature block. I also made some of the photos larger.
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales striving to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.