Traveling the Mississippi River Road

Mississippi River Visitor Center, Rock Island, Illinois

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Mississippi River Visitor Center, Rock Island, Illinois

In mid-June Jo and I took our niece’s kids on a scenic drive on the Illinois and Iowa section of the Mississippi Great River Road from Galena, Illinois down to the Illinois/Iowa Quad Cities area.

Upper Mississippi River Visitor Center

We’ve wanted to go to the Mississippi River Visitor Center in the Quad Cities for a few years but haven’t had a chance until recently. The visitor center is located in the Corps of Engineers Locks and Dam #15 facility, which itself is within the Rock Island Arsenal Military Complex on the island. So you have to pass through the gates and show identification to get to the visitor center.

Although the Rock Island Visitor Center is open to the public seven days a week, we went on a Saturday because on the weekends they also offer a guided tour of the locks at 11 am and 2 pm. The locks tour was interesting. Unfortunately for safety and security reasons they don’t allow use of cameras on the locks tour so we have no close-up pictures to show you from the tour. But we were able to get some from the visitor center observation deck and from within the center itself.


The push-boat Bettendorf is used to help line up large barge arrays that wind and river current can make it difficult for the barge push-boat to adequately control as it enters the locks

The visitor center has a number of exhibits and a movie that show the operation of the locks and dams on the Mississippi River. A good substitute if you can’t catch a guided tour
A minute after the Tom Sawyer entered the locks, the bridge is already closing to minimize interruptions to traffic

The tour covers how the locks work, the function of the roller dam, and the operations of the 1896 Government Bridge which includes a rotating swing span segment that must be opened whenever barges and larger ships pass through the locks. Since the Mississippi River regularly floods towns and land adjacent to the river, one might think the major purpose of the 35 dams that are spread across the length of the river is flood control. But actually the main job of the dams are to aid navigation by maintaining the depth in the navigation channels that is deep enough for the barges, commercial ships, and recreational ships that sail the Mississippi.

For visitors who can’t catch the locks tour, there are displays and movie presentations within the visitor center that cover the same subjects.

Learn more about the Mississippi River Visitor Center and Lock & Dam tours.

On your way to the visitor center you pass through the Rock Island Arsenal complex. Those interested in military history will enjoy a stop at the Rock Island Arsenal Museum.

John Deere Pavilion

John Deere Pavilion, Moline, Illinois

While you are in the Quad Cities you should also stop in to see the John Deere Visitor Center. It is located only a few blocks north of the Rodman Avenue entrance to the Rock Island Arsenal complex (1400 River Drive). Lots of  educational and interactive exhibits plus you get to climb up in the cab of several of the big machines on display. Kids, young and old, have a ball climbing up to the cabs of these big machines. Unfortunately our visit was cut short due to heavy rain storm that arrived just when we were trying to find a parking spot. So Jo dropped me off and cruised around the block a few times while I dropped into the Pavilion exhibit hall to see what was going on. Next door to the visitor center is the John Deere store, chock full of toy models, Deere T-shirts and apparel, and all sorts of John Deere collectibles. I’m looking forward to a return visit when we have more time to see and experience all the exhibits.

Learn more about the visiting the John Deere Pavilion


John Deere Pavilion exhibits
There’s also several antique tractors and dozers among the many modern day machines made by John Deere

John Deere Pavilion exhibits
Kids were having a ball climbing behind the wheel or controls of some real big pieces of machinery

Thomson Causeway Recreation Area

The fishing at Thomson Causeway Recreation Area is pretty good as Keem’ McCullers can attest with this 28 inch Northern

Earlier we camped in our RV at the Thomson Causeway Corps of Engineers facility about 45 miles up river from the Rock Island visitor center. Typical of Corps parks, it has nicely designed and maintained RV campsites. Fishing is a popular recreational activity at the park. The nearby Mississippi River Bike Trail is another popular attraction that brings people to the park. It is a good place to let the kids and grandkids off on their own because the park is on its own island with no through streets – only four dead end campsite loops and one day use park loop.

Thomson Causeway is one of several Corps parks along the Upper Mississippi River and in our opinion one of the top parks – although I’ve yet to find a Corps park that wasn’t above average.

There’s 26 Corps recreation areas along the Upper Mississippi River. Learn More Here.


The dead end roads in the Rec area and the nearby River Road bike trail make biking a popular recreation at Thomson

Jo and Kylah having fun working on some craft projects at our camp site

De Immigrant Windmill, Fulton, Illinois

The operating Windmill at Fulton, Illinois creates old fashioned stone ground grain for sale in the Mill store and museum

Another Mississippi River attraction is the operating windmill at Fulton, Illinois, a river town with a Dutch heritage about 10 miles south of Thomson. The windmill was custom built for the city of Fulton in the Netherlands using a traditional materials and construction techniques. Except for the fact it is only about 10 years old it is identical to Windmills in the Netherlands that are centuries old. After it was built it was then disassembled, the parts labeled, and detailed construction plans created for shipment to Fulton, Illinois. Experienced windmill millwrights accompanied the shipment and supervised the construction at Fulton. It is an impressive structure to see up close. There are massive timbers that are almost a foot square. The granite stones that are used in the mill itself are huge, about four foot in diameter and a 2 feet high and weighing a couple of tons.

The windmill rises above the dike that surrounds the city and overlooks the Mississippi River. It is open for visitors seven days a week and on days with sufficient wind, you’ll be able to see them grind grain in the mill. Their stone ground grains are sold in the Windmill shop and in the Windmill Visitor Center and Museum located across the street. We’ve tried a number of their stone ground grains and like the texture and the taste. Since the milled grains and flour are ground in the traditional fashion, with no preservatives, they need to be kept refrigerated and in well sealed bags. (Conveniently they are sold in heavy duty zip lock bags).The Great River (Mississippi) bike trail runs through Fulton, past the windmill and along the top of the dike that protects the city from the flooding river. Other attractions in Fulton include the Dutch Days Festival, held the first weekend in May, several antique and craft shops, and Heritage Canyon, a restored 1800’s village. You can see more pictures of the Windmill and Fulton from an an earlier visit.

City of Fulton De Immigrant Windmill website page.

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