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Explore the Mississippi River

Day 5 — Plying the River by Paddle Wheel

Seeing the Mississippi River as a resource

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Story Highlights
  • There are at least 18 sightseeing paddle wheelers operating on the Mississippi.
  • There are more than 12 million annual visits by recreationists in the Upper Mississippi River system with a national economic impact of greater than $1.2 billion.
  • Dubuque's National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium plans to build a National Rivers Center, a Rivers Research Center, additional exhibit and retail space and a 250-seat, IMAX-like theater.

By Tom Eisenhart

Walking on the ramp leading to the Spirit of Dubuque, my view of the paddle wheel boat is obscured by the nearby National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. I catch a glimpse of the paddle wheeler's two tall, black smokestacks, a gilded 'crown' atop each.

As the boat comes into full view, I quickly find I'm mistaken. The three deck paddle wheeler I thought was the Spirit of Dubuque is actually the old Diamond Jo Casino riverboat. The two deck Spirit of Dubuque is docked parallel to the riverboat's stern. It's as long as the Diamond Jo is wide.

A Labor of River Love

The Spirit of Dubuque is a daily sightseeing boat owned by 'Captain' Walt and Nancy Webster. Operating the excursion boat is a labor of love for the two, who left careers in the corporate arena when they purchased the paddle wheeler 25 years ago.

For Walt, owning and operating a paddle wheeler is natural for someone who grew up on the Mississippi and has owned a number of boats. "Once you get the river in your blood, you never get it out," he tells me.

That draw to the river helps sustain them during the long hours they spend running not only the paddle wheeler, but a private tour boat called Miss Dubuque and a catering business.

Walt explains that a combination of bad weather on a number of weekends and the economy has made it a challenging year for his excursion boat business.

On a good day, there might be 200 people signed up for a tour. Today is not one of those good days; our crew will join about 20 passengers for the 3 p.m. tour.

Boarding the paddle wheeler, I climb the stairs to the upper deck and take a look around. The boat is pretty no-frills; lines of wood tables painted gunmetal gray surrounded by faded yellow plastic chairs. A small, screened-in concession stand offers soft drinks, chips and assorted souvenirs. Dixie jazz is piped over the loudspeakers. The enclosed downstairs area, used for dinner cruises and other events, is more upscale with red carpeting and drapery.

Competing for Tourists' Hearts and Dollars

With Dubuque's newer, glitzier attractions — the museum and aquarium, the now land-based Diamond Jo Casino, a water park and art galleries to name a few — the paddle wheeler seems like a throwback that couldn't compete for tourists dollars.

But Walt claims that the uniqueness of the boat (it's an authentic twin paddle wheeler) and the tour experience fill a tourism niche not otherwise claimed on this stretch of the Mississippi. He says he's had passengers from all over the world who want to enjoy the river from the deck of a real paddle wheeler.

Our one-and-a-half-hour 'Ecological and Historical Tour' certainly provides an interesting study in contrasts.

As Captain Mike narrates over the loudspeakers (Walt handles the boat's onshore operations), we cruise north toward Lock and Dam 11 on Dubuque's northern edge. The boat's paddle wheels leave a well-churned wake behind us as we glide by the city's revitalized North Port area. Here, long, curved, brick-lined walkways hug the top of a rock levee, as well as a sleek, glass-walled Grand River convention center and Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark. It's all part of a multi-million-dollar 'America's River Project' that Dubuque undertook in the 1990s.

Beyond that, we encounter the older, industrial Dubuque: oil storage tanks, warehouses and the now closed Dubuque Star Brewery. There are changes occurring here too, however, as older structures like the brewery are being rehabilitated for new uses. On the Wisconsin side of the river, the scenery couldn’t be more different. It's a mix of high bluffs and backwater areas that are part of the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife Refuge.

According to Walt, the chance to see wildlife, particularly birds — bald eagles, American pelicans, cormorants and fish hawks — is one of the highlights of the tours. The other draw is the barges that ply the rivers waters. "People love to see the barges and the lock and dam," Mike explains.

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