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The National Great Rivers Museum educates the public on Mississippi River conservation and river transport

March 15, 2023   Ladue News

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Located just 25 miles north of St. Louis in Alton, Illinois, the National Great Rivers Museum tells the story of the Mississippi River and its history, ongoing preservation and ecology. Next door, visitors can tour the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, a structure that facilitates barge and boat travel on the Upper Mississippi.


The 12,000-square-foot museum, which opened to the public in 2003, is the result of a collaborative partnership between Meeting of the Rivers Foundation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The former, a nonprofit organization based in Illinois, makes an effort to educate the public through community outreach, volunteer work, classroom visits and events.


Along with an old ship wheel and part of a mastodon skull, as well as numerous complex exhibits, the museum houses a small theater. The films it shows discuss Mississippi River ecology and the problems and solutions associated with manipulating the river’s flow. Also nearby is the massive Melvin Price Locks and Dam. Completed in 1994, it stretches 1,160 feet across the Mississippi. “There are 29 lock and dam structures on the Upper Mississippi River,” a spokesperson for the museum says.


These structures create a “stairway of water” between them, making travel easier for three kinds of barges and other boats. In order for boats to pass between high water levels – held back by dams – and low water levels, special machinery “locks” watercraft into a space that fills up with water and then funnels the boats through.


One specialty the museum provides is free tours of Melvin Price. Visitors can take an elevator up and across the top of the structure, which sits 80 feet above water level and offers a bird’s-eye view of the barges and tow boats. “The amount of material [used to build] Melvin Price could build six arches,” the spokesperson says.


Because so many waterfowl, fish and other creatures depend on the river for survival, protecting their environments from excessive human disturbance is crucial – especially along the Upper Mississippi River. “The river ecosystem is home to a diverse array of fish and wildlife that find habitat in its channels, backwaters, sloughs, wetlands and adjacent uplands,” states “About the Upper Mississippi River System,” an article written for the Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program.


Migrating birds like geese, ducks, sparrows, blackbirds and warblers fly along the river in a route that’s known as the Mississippi River Flyway. In the section of river near the museum and locks and dam, these birds and their habitat – temporary or otherwise – are safe and sound in the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, which is just across the river in Missouri. “Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary [was established] to offset the environmental impact of the locks and dam,” says the spokesperson. “Over 12 types of gulls call the area home.”


According to the Audubon Center, more than 300 species of birds use the flyway for breeding, foraging and as a stopover habitat while migrating. In January and February, visitors to the museum can sign up to observe bald eagles soaring over the river. Although these animals don’t migrate too far from their feeding grounds, they roost atop the trees in the sanctuary and near the museum across the river. At the time of publication, museum staff had a scope trained on a bald eagle nest along the Great River Road.


With so much to see and do at the National Great Rivers Museum and attached Melvin Price Locks and Dam, visitors to the area can expect to use this resource to educate themselves on conservation and river transport for years to come.