The RiverWorks Discovery Splash Zone

National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium Celebrates 20 Years

The summer of 2003 marked the grand opening of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa. With strong political and private backing (including from members of the inland marine industry), the $57 million educational attraction became a reality.

Its grand opening even gained the attention of then-President George W. Bush. Bill Leary, an environmental adviser for the White House Council for Environmental Quality, presented the crowd with a letter from Bush, who recognized the contributions of the Mississippi River as “an essential part of the agricultural, commercial and recreational life of our nation.”

For a river that has been the setting for innumerable historical events over the years as it helped shape and empower a nation, the launch of the River Museum in 2003 was significant. Not only is the River Museum a Smithsonian Affiliate, but it is also one of only 16 institutions nationwide to be accredited by both the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the River Museum is alive and well, paying dividends to Dubuque, the region, the river and the nation. According to Kurt Strand, president and CEO, the River Museum has welcomed roughly 4 million visitors to date.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

“It’s an exciting time to be a part of this organization,” Strand said. “We have enjoyed expansion not only on our physical campus since 2003, but in the tremendous impact of our programs and the guest experience we provide to visitors from all 50 states and over 70 countries. We’ve garnered regional and national appreciation. Through the support of our staff, volunteers, board members and, of course, the community and visitors, we are proud to be recognized as a premier interpretive center and a destination people keep coming back to year after year.”

Recently, the museum has also benefited from the resurgence of passenger vessel traffic on the Upper Mississippi. About 40,000 visitors per year visit courtesy of the Port of Dubuque’s partnerships with Viking and American Cruise Lines.

Mississippi River steamboat pilothouse
Museum visitors imagine life in a Mississippi River steamboat pilothouse.

Of course, no museum claiming to depict an accurate picture of the river and its many benefits to the nation would be complete without a focus on its past, present and future commercial use and value. Fortunately, commerce was not overlooked. The River Museum includes many commerce-related features, including the 80-seat Mississippi Journey Theatre, the Woodward Freight House, the National Rivers Hall of Fame, an art collection containing numerous steamboat paintings and Mark Twain memorabilia and the RiverWorks Discovery Splash Zone, which offers interactive models of locks and dams and much more. Outside the building rests the dredge William M. Black, once used by the Corps of Engineers on the Missouri River, and the historical Logsdon sternwheeler towboat.

Capt. William D. Bowell Sr., founder of the Padelford Packet Boat Company, pledged $1 million in 2003 to form what is known as the Captain William D. Bowell River Library. More than 2,000 books and 27 paintings from Bowell’s personal collection established the library.

Over the past 20 years, the museum has benefited from other campaigns, donations, additions and improvements as well. In 2006, Peninsula Gaming donated its portside building to the River Museum, along with a $3 million gift. The Diamond Jo National River Center building opened in 2010, doubling the campus’ offerings, according to the River Museum.

In 2010, AEP River Operations donated the RiverWorks Discovery program to the River Museum, along with funds to continue operations. RiverWorks Discovery then became the national outreach program for the National Rivers Hall of Fame.

In 2019, a conservation department was added. And in 2021, River of Innovation, including an operational 1890s belt-driven machine shop, opened its final phase. Guests can also experience the Innovation Currents within the 9,000 square foot exhibit, highlighting STEM concepts associated with the river, such as a balance barge and river currents.

Earlier this year, on the eve of its 20th anniversary, the River Museum opened a “reimagined” Eckstein Family Rivers to the Sea exhibit, which includes 12 new aquariums and more than 100 new marine species. The exhibit honors Marquette Transportation’s maritime employees.

“We recognize the River Museum is a destination people want to come back to time and time again, and we have worked to reimagine different areas on campus to enhance the experience for all visitors, whether they come every year or once every 20 years,” said Wendy Scardino, vice president of development and marketing. “The past few years especially have demonstrated that growth, and we look forward to the future as we prepare for what the next 20 years can bring.”

The River Museum was named Iowa’s top tourist attraction for a metro area in 2022 and contributes more than $20 million in annual economic impact for the region, with no signs of slowing down. For more details, please visit