The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium is an outgrowth of the Dubuque County Historical Society (DCHS). As such, the DCHS mission and Museum & Aquarium mission are one in the same – to inspire stewardship by creating educational experiences where history and rivers come alive.
National Mississippi River Museum & AquariumHistorical Collections
Mathias Ham Historic Site
Spring floods seem to be an annual tradition along the Mississippi River. It has always been more a question of “how badly will it flood this year?” rather than “will it flood this year?”
This circa 1867 photo by Samuel Root labeled “High Water” shows a spring flood in Dubuque from the early days of photography. The image shows a view of the Pacific House, a boarding house and hotel first listed as located on the corner of Iowa and Jones streets, according to Dubuque City Directories. It has also been listed at First Street and the railroad tracks. The flood waters seen here are coming from the area now known as the Ice Harbor. Today, Highway 61 runs through where these buildings once stood, and Iowa and Jones Streets no longer intersect.
Pacific House touted 18 sleeping rooms, a dining room, and a bar. Boarding houses were used by farm families, workers, and others who came to town. Often boarding houses had stables where travelers’ horses could rest and eat.
Samuel Root became a well-known daguerreotypist in New York before coming to Dubuque in the late 1850s. Daguerreotypes were one of the earliest forms of photography, created by using silver plates and mercury vapor to produce images.
The Society’s collection of Samuel Root photos was donated by John Rider Wallis in 1964. Wallis was a local businessman and helped found the Dubuque County Historical Society.
The story of the Dubuque County Historical Society (DCHS) has its roots in the Richard Herrmann Museum of Natural History, established in the 1870s.
DCHS formally organized in 1950 as a private, non-profit organization in the state of Iowa. In its first years, DCHS presented programs and collected oral histories, archives and photographs. Activities undertaken by DCHS included historic preservation awards, walking tours, National register nominations, and providing step-on bus guide service.
DCHS helped restore the Shot Tower and waged unpopular battles to block proposed demolition of architectural treasures, including the Dubuque County Courthouse.
DCHS opened its first museum, the Mathias Ham House, with support of volunteers, a public radio campaign through KDTH, and a long-term lease from the City of Dubuque. Harry Slichter, retired Telegraph Herald editor, wrote guest articles in the TH, pleading for artifacts.
In answer to the requests for artifacts, hundreds of boxes were donated from the Richard Herrmann Museum of Natural History, including fossils, Native American artifacts, fur trade goods, lead-mining artifacts, and Julien Dubuque’s cradle.
Among the donations were the remains of Meskwaki Indians Peosta and Potosi, who were subsequently re-interred.
DCHS awards its first historic preservation awards and begins a long-standing tradition.
The idea of a riverboat museum was proposed at a DCHS board meeting by Wayne Norman and accepted by the DCHS with the caveat that the organization would not incur any long-term debt.
In December, Captains Robert and Ruth Kehl donated the Burlington Northern Freight House, a 10,000-square-foot waterfront building at the Ice Harbor.
At Bill Woodward’s urging, the Woodward Foundation made a challenge pledge gift of $200,000 to build the Fred W. Woodward Riverboat Museum.
Wayne Norman applied to the National Trust for Historic Preservation for money to restore the freight house. DCHS received $135,000, the seventh largest award in the country, and the largest on the inland waters.
DCHS kickoff off a $650,000 fund drive after already amassing $385,000 toward the goal.
In September, the William M. Black stream dredge boat arrived as part of the federal government Surplus Property program. Too wide to fit through the floodwalls, Newt Marine cut off the side decking, to be reattached later.
The fund drive raised $1.1 million.
The William M. Black opened to the public.
The Fred W. Woodward Riverboat Museum building opened.
National Rivers Hall of Fame opened.
The museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.
William “Bill” Woodward, former president of the DCHS, passed and left the organization nearly $2 million. This gift served as a catalyst for the museum’s America’s River campaign.
After combining forces with the city and chamber, the America’s River Campaign began with a plan to re-envision the Port. The campaign began with a goal of $25 million and increased to $30 million thereafter.
Vision Iowa, a fund of $200 million, is initiated by Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and passed by the Iowa Legislature. America’s River campaign submits their application for funding.
Dubuque receives a Vision Iowa award of $40 million, with just over half going toward the river museum project.
By the end of America’s River Project, Vision Iowa, the city of Dubuque, Dubuque County and private donors provided $188 million. It was the largest fundraising campaign in Dubuque history and culminated with the opening of the William Woodward Mississippi River Discovery Center, a new city Riverwalk, and the Grand River Center.
The institution becomes the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.
Peninsula Gaming, the one-time owner of the Diamond Jo Casino, donated its Portside building to the museum along with a $3 million gift.
The Museum & Aquarium spearheaded America’s River II.
The Diamond Jo National River Center building opened.
As it celebrated its 10th year, the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium welcomed its 2 millionth guest.
The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium is now the leading cultural and environmental facility in the region and the largest tourism attraction in a 150 mile radius. The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium is a Smithsonian Affiliate and accredited by the American Alliance of Museum (AAM) and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). It is one of only 16 institutions nationwide to be accredited by both AZA and AAM.