A Visit with Melvin

A map show the confluences of the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers.  It is titled, "Our River" and "Welcome to the National Great Rivers Museum."
Can you see the confluences?

Our last stop on our little Pere Marquette get-away was in Alton, Illinois at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam.

When we visited Clarksville recently for Eagle Days, I learned you can take a tour of the Alton Locks and Dam. Tours are free and are offered nearly every day – three times a day. Since the Alton locks were en route on our way home, and since home is only an hour away, we added this stop to our itinerary.

At the entrance to the Melvin Price Locks and Dam is the National Great Rivers Museum. This museum tells the story of the Mississippi River – from various perspectives. This was the first time I had ever visited the Alton locks and this particular museum. Dan and I spent about an hour at the museum before our tour. And in my usual method, I will relay just a few interesting facts that I learned there. Perhaps you will be intrigued enough to visit yourself someday.

First, for us word lovers:

A display about "River words" which are now part of everyday speech.
National Great Rivers Museum

Growing up in St. Louis, the Eads Bridge has always been a familiar sight. And many times, I’ve heard it was an “engineering marvel” at the time it was built. But in the National Great Rivers Museum, I learned a bit more about the Eads Bridge. Two different types of stone were used when building the bridge.

Eads Bridge Being Built
Exhibit at the National Great Rivers Museum
Eads Bridge
Exhibit at the National Great Rivers Museum
Limestone and
Red Granite

Limestone was used for the piers above the water line. However, below the water line Missouri red granite was used for the piers. This is because the Missouri red granite resists water erosion. In other words, the red granite holds up better against the ever flowing Mississippi waters.

I also learned a bit about buttons. Now, I have many of my grandma’s and my mother’s old buttons. Once a garment became too worn for wear, my grandma would cut off the buttons and save them for another purpose. Those old buttons are like coveted coins to me. Not in their monetary value, but in the beauty and history of each button. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Mother of Pearl Buttons

One of my favorite types of buttons are those shiny white buttons. You know, the ones made from mother-of-pearl. Honestly, I had never thought about where those buttons came from. Mother-of-pearl buttons came from the lining of Mississippi River mussel shells. In 1884, a mother-of-pearl button factory opened in Muscatine, Iowa. I never knew that long ago buttons came from the Mississippi River! Of course, today buttons are made from plastic.

The museum also had several exhibits which explained the need for locks and how they worked. Earlier I learned locks are needed because the upper Mississippi River has a fall of about 420 feet. However, when I look at the river, I only see the surface – not the river bottom. This display helps me understand the need for locks and how they maintain a navigable channel.

A drawing of the Mississippi River showing the locations of the locks and dams.  The drawing also shows the river bottom depth showing the need for the locks and dams.

The museum also had a theater, but we did not have time to watch any of the three featured movies. This is actually a really interesting museum. I’d like to see more and watch those movies. There’s even a 60 minute movie about Lewis and Clark. Right now though, it’s time for our 1 pm tour of the locks.

The tour lasted almost an hour. We were warned that the group must all stay together. We were told that once we get up to the top of the locks if any one person has to go back down, we all must go back down. Fortunately, no one had the need to leave.

Walkway on top of the locks.
Dan standing on top of the locks with the river in the background.
Oh oh. He’s holding on pretty good there.
Does he need to go back down?

The Melvin Price Locks and Dam is the only lock and dam on the upper Mississippi which has a name rather than a number. This is because it is the only lock and dam which has been rebuilt. Remnants of the original lock and dam can be seen downstream. Did you know you can have a dam without a lock, but not a lock without a dam? I never thought about that before either, but it makes sense. 🙂

Unlike the Clarksville dam which was in a de-watered state when we toured it, Melvin was fully open for business and operating on a busy schedule. While out on top of the locks, we saw the complete operation of a barge coming in and going back out. Before we left, another barge was coming in.

  • Sir Richard is a tug boat in the distance.
  • A tug boat coming down the canal
  • Dan and Betty with the tug boat behind them.
  • Close up of Sir Richard getting a hold of the barge.

You know, I love traveling. I love seeing all the natural beauty in our country, and I love learning about so many different things. And while I can’t wait to get back out in our Micro Lite travel trailer, a part of me will always be grounded right here in the Midwest. Right here with Old Man River. There’s a beauty and a resourcefulness here that I take with me wherever I go. And when I’m home, I enjoy that, too.

Dan and Betty on the tour of the Alton Locks and Dam


  1. I spent a few years in Muscatine. I was friends with the family that owned the old button factory that made the old pearl buttons. Quite a place and story. At that time they still punched out a few buttons with the old machinery and divers (dangerous job in the strong river currents) still were paid huge $$ to harvest mussels. It’s about the only place fertile enough to grow the shells that thick.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How interesting! After reading your comment, I Googled and found there is a National Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine. Now I want to go there! We do like to go to Iowa in the summer. It’s close, cooler and less crowded than other places. I’m excited to hear of your personal connection to these buttons. Thanks for your comment, and enjoy your day!


      • It was back in the 90’s and the last button factory was still operating, making a few pearl buttons but had converted to plastic mostly. Very old equipment but kept up with a few employees. Not sure what happened since then as they were going to close down at some point.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks again for another interesting and informative post! I was in Seattle with my brother when a lock was flooding and I was amazed at how quickly the water level rose. Looks like y’all had a pretty chilly day on your visit.

    I have also had a long time fascination with our iconic bridges in the US and have written posts about the Golden Gate and the Brooklyn. I only learned of the Eads bridge while reading David McCullough’s book on the Brooklyn Bridge as it was where some of the first cases of Caisson disease (the bends) were seen before they were occurred on the Brooklyn. And interestingly, I am just now reading a book about the history of bridges in the US and the Eads Bridge is prominently discussed making me now want to read a more in-depth book about it. Next time I am in St. Louis, I must go across it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David, you are welcome. The Eads bridge is now lit up at night, and it truly makes the riverfront. I am currently reading (bit by bit) “Tales from Bellefontaine Cemetery.” James Buchanan Eads is buried in Bellefontaine. The cemetery (which by the way, gives tours) and this book are full of interesting history. David McCullough’s book on the Brooklyn Bridge sounds really interesting, too. Alton has a really beautiful bridge, too – but it’s too small in my photos for one to see. The day we visited the locks wasn’t too bad weather-wise. The day before was really windy and cold. It is colder and more windy when up on the locks, but it was worth it. Thanks for your comment and your interest, and I hope you have a great day!

      Liked by 1 person

    • You are so kind. Yes, it is amazing that we are amused by buttons. It reminds me of the saying, “Enjoy the simple things. There are so many of them!” Hope you have a great day!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I would bet that my grandma saved the fabric, too. I don’t remember her making quilts, but she did sew aprons. Frugality can be very creative. I know you are very creative, and perhaps some of your grandma’s creativity was passed down to you. Hope you have a good Sunday!


  3. Another enjoyable and informative post, Betty. Your description of the locks took me back to when we toured the Gatun Locks at the Panama Canal in 2015. At that time, they were constructing the first new locks since the original build. I did a blog post about it early on in my WordPress experience. Also, those “mother of pearl” buttons and the button jar … that brought back wonderful memories of similar button jars at both of my grandmas’ homes. I recall those thin, pearlescent buttons in both of those jars. Thank you for sharing the great photos and the great read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, Terry. I am sure touring the locks in the Panama Canal was an amazing experience. I’m glad the post brought back good memories of the button jars for you. My grandma and mom kept their buttons and sewing notions in tins – which I still have. I’ve seen buttons displayed in glass jars which is nice because you can see the buttons. Thank you for the very nice comment, and I hope you have a great day!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. How interesting! That kind of history is so fun to learn. I also love the mother-of-pearl buttons and have collected quite a few over the years. The shell buttons feel cold to the touch, that’s how I can tell them from plastic when they look very similar. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Noelle. I like learning history by doing tours or visiting a museum. Thank you also for the tip about how to distinguish the shell buttons from plastic. I will definitely keep that in mind. Enjoy your day!


  5. I am so glad you got to see the locks work. It is fascinating. Thank you for the mother-of-pearl button history. I had no idea they used to come from the Mississippi River. Good for you to get out and explore close to home.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did not know that about the pearl buttons either! People used to dive down there for them! I do like to explore. Pretty soon, we’ll be out in our travel trailer exploring – just like you guys! Safe travels!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.