Dubuque’s Mississippi River museum explores life on the river

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Life on the Mississippi River can vary from the northlands of Minnesota to the bayou of Louisiana.

The river runs 2,340 long before ending at the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the fourth largest river in the world.

Traveling that length gives different views of the United States.

The story of the Mississippi is shared at Dubuque’s National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

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The museum complex consists of two large buildings and an outdoor area.

The main building houses the Mississippi River museum and Aquarium. The second building houses the National River Center, which includes information about other rivers.

The aquarium was our first stop. Fish from the Mississippi are on display – sturgeon, catfish and gar highlighted our viewing. There are touch tanks for kids to check out some fish.


The lobby has a large tank for viewing turtles. They were cool to watch swimming underwater and lounging on the shore.

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A few ducks were sharing the space with the turtles.

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Highlighting the southern section of the river was an alligator. A snapping turtle was hiding in a nearby tank.

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The aquarium had a special exhibit on turtles during our visit. They came from all around the world, including Asia and Australia.

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The museum had a section on the role of the Mississippi River during the Civil War. A sample of a warship stands among the display.

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A life-sized Abraham Lincoln model stands as if delivering a speech. Three Lincoln speeches are available to listen to, including the famous “A House Divided” speech.

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The museum had an interactive barge exhibit. People can “navigate” a barge through the dam and locks around a river bend. To my surprise, Lisa made it through her attempt with ease. For my own safety, I will not mention that Lisa has yet to meet car she doesn’t want to have an accident in.

A large section of the museum features riverboats. From a life-sized pilot’s deck to scale models, visitors get an idea of what it was like to ride Old Man River on a boat.

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Other boat displays show different views of life on the river – from leisure to work.

An interesting boat display shows a man fishing for clams. He hanged them on a line as he continued shelling them.

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A boat workshop shows how boats were built back in the day.

A display on Julien Dubuque hit close to home for me. Lisa pointed out that an artist who had done a recreation of Dubuque’s face was named Trudell. Charles Trudell was an artist who lived in the Dubuque area in the early 1920s.

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I did some research afterward, and learned he hailed from Sioux City, IA. My family is from northeast Nebraska, so there is a string probability that Charles was a distant relative.

The National River Center gives visitors an immediate choice of taking a look at fish or exploring the early days of fur trading.


A floor to near-ceiling tank houses fish native to American rivers. The attraction was mesmerizing for some visitors, as people stood and watched the fish swimming for several minutes.

We moved on to an educational area. The importance of caring for America’s waterways struck home quickly as we saw a photo of a turtle whose shell had grown around a plastic cap ring. Someone had thrown it into the water. As a baby, the turtle became entangled with the ring. The shell grew to reflect the ring’s size – it was small in the middle section.


The exhibit suggested ways we can reduce waste in water and help improve the lives of creatures that rely on the water for survival.

The aquarium had other items on display, including more fish and coral.


We moved to the Native American exhibit.

The museum did an impressive job in telling the Natives’ story, without exaggeration.

A display I loved showed a fur trader working with a Native American on a trade. The original Trudell was believed to be a French Canadian fur trader, so that was extra special to me.


The Native American exhibit also featured clothes, tools and other items.


The river center is also home to the river’s Hall of Fame, with members such as Lewis and Clark and Mark Twain.


The National River Center has a children’s play area with several interactive exhibits.


The museum complex is home to an excellent outdoor boat collection.


There are parts of steamboats on display outside, including propellers, engines and pipes.


The William M. Black is on display for public viewing. Visitors can actually walk around the steamboat used for river dredging.


The front of the boat as rigged with equipment with a claw that would grab silt and other debris. It would be pushed into a pipe that ran below the length of the boat. There were pipes attached behind the boat on a series of pontoons. The silt and debris would either be dumped on the shoreline or on to another boat for transportation elsewhere.


The visit on the Black was interesting. You moved on a self-guided tour through the engine area and then on to the second level. The crew would sleep, dine and relax on this level.


The captain’s personal quarters were near the pilot cabin.


Along the outdoor route were other exhibits, such as a log cabin and two raptors. A bald eagle and a red-tailed hawk live on the museum grounds. They were injured in the wild, and could not survive if released.


The museum has turtle statues located throughout the grounds. The fiberglass statues were part of an exhibit for the museum last year.


Decorated turtles were displayed around Dubuque.


Some of the turtles displayed included a Julien Dubuque “lookalike,” a money turtle, and our favorite – a Spock turtle.


I strongly recommend visiting the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium when in Dubuque. Plan to spend some time at the complex, especially if you have children. We spent about 3 hours there ourselves, including a short break for a quick lunch. It was time well spent. You will not be disappointed.

Disclaimer: Thanks to the Dubuque Visitors Bureau for the complimentary tickets. However, all opinions and views are ours.