Celebrating 75 Years of the Great River Road

The Mississippi river stays open south of the lock and dam by Alma.  All winter you can watch eagles diving for fish in the open water and stay warm.

The Wings Over Alma Nature & Art Center provides warm viewing of our nation’s favorite predator in action. You can also learn about local history or find a special piece of art created by the local artists.

To visit Alma and the other 32 wonderful river towns you must travel the Mississippi Parkway otherwise known as the Great River Road. The beautiful parkway along the Mississippi was constructed because of the forward thinking leaders of the Mississippi River Parkway Commission.

This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the Mississippi River Parkway Commission. In 1938, with the help of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the commission began work on the vision of a park-like corridor along the river that “insulated the motor road from uncontrolled development along the roadsides.”

Over 75 years ago, Missouri’s Governor Stark authorized a planning recreational survey. From this document came the idea of a Parkway along the Missouri side of the Mississippi. A Planning Board member, Mr. A. P. Greensfelder, pushed for a meeting with other border states. Two years later a 10 state gathering to explore a Mississippi Parkway convened in Minneapolis.

From this conference the Mississippi River Parkway Planning Commission was created. The commission’s chief task was seeking support from Congress for a survey of the new river route. World War II delayed this work for 11 years. Finally in 1949, the commission received $250,000 for the survey of the new “Parkway for the Mississippi.”

Surveying the Big River was no small task. The river meanders 2,552 miles from its source in Itasca State Park to the Gulf of Mexico. Surveyors decided they could cut about 500 miles of river bends out of the route making the entire Parkway about 2,000 miles.

Congress authorized another quarter million dollars in 1954 and again 10 years later. States were encouraged to contribute to the creation of the Parkway.  According to early commission documents, Wisconsin’s commissioners approached this task with great zeal.

Working to secure donated land, local funds and, when it could be justified, federal highway funds, commissioners helped organize projects along the Parkway.

River access sites, overlooks, waysides, scenic easements and signage depicting the history and natural geography of the region are among the benefits created with the assistance of the Parkway Commission. Over the years, commissioners worked to promote tourism in the region and coordinate interstate development along the river.

The work of Harold Olson, the Secretary of the Commission in the 1950s, provides us with insight into the vision of the early commissioners:

“There will be places at frequent intervals where one might stop at the river’s edge to watch it, to picnic and to play. Thus the visitor can motor along the river, cross and re-cross its bridges, stop along its banks, and fish in the river and the tributary waters. It is a plan which will give the Mississippi River a scenic, historic, romantic route back to the people, for boating, fishing, swimming and general enjoyment.”

Last summer the Great River Road lived up to the vision of its creators when it was voted the Prettiest Drive in America by readers of the Huffington Post.

I am honored to be among the current commissioners of the Mississippi Parkway Commission. This year, we all will be celebrating the glorious Parkway and the Mighty Mississippi at events in communities along the river.

For example, in June the re-created 1900 rural farming village of Stonefield in Cassville (near Dubuque) will celebrate the anniversary of the Great River Road.

So come enjoy the eagles, soaring bluffs, river trails, migratory bird haunts and backwaters. Visit nearly three-dozen charming river towns along the 250 miles of Wisconsin’s only National Scenic Byway - the Great River Road.

Whether in January or June you will leave with wonderful memories. We owe a heartfelt thanks to those whose vision resulted in this beautiful Parkway and to those who continue that work on the Mississippi River Parkway Commission.