Big River Magazine
Mississippi River stories and news

River News

Big River Man Does Sundance

Fountain City, Wis. — Martin Strel, a Slovenian endurance athlete, swam the Mississippi River in 2000. He gained more media attention two years later when he swam 3,274 miles down the Amazon River. Strel has crawled, back-stroked and breast-stroked down several other big rivers, including the Danube and the Yangtse. His motto is, “Plavam za mir, prijateljstvo in ciste vode,” which is Slovenian for, “I swim for peace, friendship and clean waters.”

Accompanying Strel on the 68-day Amazon trip was a writer from Fountain City, Wis., who navigated the support boat. Matt Mohlke turned his notes into a fast-paced adventure book, The Man Who Swam the Amazon (reviewed in Big River, November-December 2008).

The cinematographers who accompanied Strel created the film, “Big River Man,“ which won an award for cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, this year.

Mohlke was there and had a great time.

“I appear in the movie quite a bit and talk a lot. I churn out some pretty crazy religious philosophy and whatnot, all with the backdrop of the Amazon River and Martin swimming beside me. It was pretty cool getting recognized on the street by people who’d seen the movie.”

Strel invited Mohlke to join his Amazon expedition after reading his account of a solo-canoe trip down the Mississippi, Floating Down the Country. Mohlke considers that book thoroughly his own, while the Amazon journals were “something I did to help Strel.”

“He’s an old-school expedition guy,” Mohlke said. “It was kind of military-like. He told us what to do and we did it. He told me to keep a journal, like Shackleton did, to record all daily events, so that’s what I did.”

Would he consider joining another Strel expedition?

“There are very few rivers that would beckon Martin after doing the Amazon. Three that come to mind are the Nile, the Ganges and the Yukon. Of these three, I’d be most eager to paddle the Yukon as his navigator.”

Travel is exciting, but there’s no place like home.

“After spending three months on the Amazon, getting back on the Mississippi River was quite a contrast. It felt so tiny — the Amazon was 25 miles wide at the base and always wider than [Lake] Pepin. I still hold that with our bluffs and backwater systems the Old Miss is a prettier river with just as much wildlife on the main banks. On the Amazon you really have to go deep up inside the tributaries in order to see the more exotic creatures. Give me a day of eagles, blue herons and egrets anytime, and leave out the malaria medication side effects and the worms growing in my intestines. I’ll take the Mississippi any day.”

Credits at the end of the film say, “Filmed on location in Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Fountain City, Wisconsin,” because the film crew came to catch Mohlke and five other Fountain Citians in their natural habitat on the banks of the Mississippi.

Big River Man, Martin Strel--Amazon Swim

Fillmore Replaced

St. Paul — St. Paul’s annual Millard Fillmore Dinner, an annual spring networking event and river celebration, will now be called the Great River Gathering.

The new name fits the occasion better than the old one.

“The dinner really is all about the city coming together to celebrate the city’s progress of the last year,” said Patrick Seeb, executive director of Riverfront Corp., which produces the event.

The dinner was originally named for 13th U.S. president, Millard Fillmore, who was the most prominent of the hundreds of prominent people who came upriver by steamboat on the first “Grand Excursion” in 1854. The excursion drew attention and attracted settlers and developers to the Upper Mississippi. The re-enactment 150 years later had much the same purpose.

The 15th annual dinner will be held May 14 at RiverCentre, St. Paul.

Arising Again

Balltown, Iowa — On October 24, just 10 months after a fire destroyed the 155-year-old Breitbach’s Country Dining restaurant, a second fire ravaged the new structure that was built to replace it. Owners Mike and Cindy Breitbach announced January 28 that they would rebuild, again. The restaurant was the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Iowa.

“The community has supported us for 150 years, so we can’t let it down now,” Mike said. He is the sixth generation of Breitbachs to own and operate the restaurant.

Balltown is a small town in northern Dubuque County that sits on top of scenic hills overlooking the river. In 2000 it had a population of 73, and the restaurant was the center of community life. Even precinct caucuses took place there, drawing people from several miles around.

During recent years, the eatery had become a favorite stop for tourists traveling the Great River Road. In 2007 the Food Network’s Alton Brown featured Breitbach’s in an episode of “Feasting on Asphalt.” Recently, the James Beard Foundation named it an “American Classic.”

After the first fire, on Christmas Eve 2007, scores of people volunteered labor and materials to help rebuild the restaurant, and it re-opened in July 2008. The new building, which combined the historic, antique feel of the first structure with clean, modern lines of a newer building, seated about 180 people.

Mike Breitbach said the new facility will look much like the second building. Construction is scheduled to begin in mid March.

The first fire was caused by a gas explosion. The cause of the second fire has yet to be determined, though foul play is not suspected.

11 Rehab

Dubuque, Iowa — In February, the Army Corps of Engineers began repairing or replacing much of the machinery that operates the 13 Tainter gates and three submersible roller gates that keep the pool above Lock and Dam 11 at a minimum depth of nine feet. It is also working on the four operating houses, structures on top of the dam that house the machinery.

This is the third of a four-phase, $72 million rehabilitation of the lock and dam in Dubuque. The entire project is slated for completion in 2012.

In 2007 and 2008, the Corps removed and repaired the lock gates. Previously, contractors replaced the machinery that operates those gates, removed and replaced seven feet of concrete on the upper and lower guide walls and rewired the chamber.

This is the first major rehab of the lock and dam since it went in to operation in 1937. “There is a lot of 1937 technology that needs to be brought up to modern specs,” said Ron Fournier, spokesperson for the Corps’ Rock Island District.

Urban Bounty

Little Canada, Minn. — A Minnesota man was letting his dog out of the house one morning last November when he saw a 15-point trophy buck standing near a stop sign a few hundred yards from one of the biggest and busiest freeways in the Twin Cities. He went back in and got his crossbow. By the time he returned, the buck was 25 feet from the freeway shoulder. When he shot it, it jumped back over the fence and died in a parking lot, where a sympathetic passerby helped the hunter load it into the trunk of a car.

The story might have ended where a lot of poaching stories end — in the freezer or the frying pan — if not for an anonymous tip to the Department of Natural Resources.

When confronted, the man, who has a disability permit to hunt deer with a crossbow, claimed he thought he’d killed the deer legally, since it was on state property.

The case went to court on Christmas Eve Day, which might help explain why the judge dismissed the case for lack of a full investigation report and wished the defendant a merry Christmas.

The hunter, whom news reports described as elderly, living in a trailer, with health problems and not much money, got his crossbow back, along with a warning. Irked prosecutors were considering refiling the case.

New Carp Zapper

Chicago — The Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard hope to keep silver carp and bighead carp out to the Great Lakes with a new $9 million electric fish barrier in the canal that links the Mississippi watershed with Lake Michigan. (The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was built in the early 1900s to divert the city’s sewage from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River via the Chicago, Des Plaines and Illinois rivers.) The exotic fish haven’t made it up the Illinois and Des Plaines Rivers to the Great Lakes yet, although they are just 45 miles away.

Silver and bighead carp are native to China and were imported by commercial fish operations in the 1970s to clean up algae and other junk in fish ponds. A few escaped during flooding in the early 1990s and have been expanding their territory ever since.

The new barrier is designed to fire powerful jolts of electricity into the water to repel fish, but it also poses a potentially lethal problem for barges carrying flammable materials and to recreational boaters or anyone else who might fall overboard.

After more than two years of safety studies, the Corps and the Coast Guard have agreed that operating the barrier at about 25 percent capacity should repel adult fish and still be safe for boaters. That wouldn’t be enough to keep small fish out, but tests will resume soon, with the hope of using higher voltages this summer.

The Corps expects to turn the barrier on in mid March 2009.

The fish could always find their way to the lakes during flooding. No one has yet talked of setting up additional electric barriers to prevent that.

Sickening Mussels

After testing hundreds of strains of bacteria in search of one that might kill invasive mussels, scientists have come up with a good prospect: Pseudomonas fluorescens, a common species that prevents rot in the roots of certain plants. In the lab, it proved deadly to both zebra mussels and quagga mussels, both of which are wreaking ecological havoc across the country.

Zebras and quaggas are closely related species that are native to Eastern Europe and western Russia. Both have invaded the Great Lakes and most of the Mississippi River.

Daniel Molloy, researcher with the New York State Museum, said that the bacterium might be useful for clearing water intakes and power plant pipes that have been clogged by mussels, but could never wipe out mussels in large bodies of water. More testing needs to be done, he said. (Chicago Tribune, 11-29-08)

Trumpeter Handouts

Monticello, Minn. — Should you feed wild ducks, geese and swans? The question emerged in Minnesota this winter after a woman stopped feeding trumpeter swans accustomed to her handouts. Many of them ended up in trouble.

Sheila Lawrence, whose home backs on the Mississippi River 50 miles upstream from Minneapolis, has been feeding trumpeter swans in the winter for more than two decades. Back in the 1980s trumpeters were re-introduced in the Twin Cities area, part of a larger effort to bring them back to their traditional nesting areas. Now, more than a thousand of the big white swans come to her house to eat the corn she puts out for them. Fearing an outbreak of disease among the tightly clustered birds, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), asked her to quit for a month in December.

Lawrence quit and the swans dispersed.

Some biologists approved. “It was good to see the swans resorting to instinctual behaviors,” observed Harvey Halvorsen, a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR.

But the outcome wasn’t all good. The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville, Minn., reported it has treated 40 trumpeters this winter, twice the normal number. Some had lead poisoning, and others had flown into power lines, too weak to gain altitude, perhaps from hunger.

When they saw the connection, the DNR asked Sheila to bring out the corn again.

Now she’s back to doling out 1,300 pounds of hard-shell corn daily, using an auger that pushes the feed through an irrigation pipe from a driveway hopper that’s regularly topped up by a grain-delivery truck. She reports banded specimens to wildlife officials and sometimes wades into the shallows to save a diseased bird. “Once or twice a year she comes in soaking wet,” said her husband Jim Lawrence.

Sick swans go to the wildlife rehab center.

The controversy over feeding wildlife is not a simple one.

Lawrence’s feeding “has protected swans from things like lead poisoning, and protection has kept them in good breeding condition,” said Larry Gillette, senior wildlife manager for nearby Three Rivers Park District. Lawrence’s feeding, Gillette added, “has probably allowed the population to grow almost twice as fast as it would have if she had not been doing this.”

On the other hand, while feeding may have merit when populations are low or a species has just been re-introduced, it should eventually stop, argued Wisconsin’s Halvorsen. The Wisconsin DNR discourages feeding.

Trumpeters don’t need “handouts,” insists Sumner Matteson, director of the Wisconsin DNR Trumpeter Swan Recovery Program. The birds carry good fat reserves for winter. “One of the drawbacks of feeding swans is that they may become dependent on people, and we don’t want them to become acclimated to humans, especially as a source of treats.” Swans turn aggressive in mating season, and corn is “not nutritionally optimal” for birds that are meant to eat underwater tubers, he argued.

The 25-pound trumpeters have a wingspread of nearly seven feet. Their distinctive din fills the winter air outside the Lawrence’s residence. Their noisy courtship displays start around Valentine’s Day, said Jim Lawrence. Mated swans tend to stay together for life. Swans in captivity may live 30 years.

The racket of 1,200 trumpeters arriving daily to feed doesn’t penetrate the Lawrence’s home. Nor do neighbors complain, said Jim Lawrence. “Nobody’s outside in the winter,” he noted — except visitors who come to the cul-de-sac off I-94, an hour’s drive northwest of Minneapolis, to see the spectacle. “You’re never going to get this close to a bunch of trumpeter swans in the wild,” he said.

The feeding lasts through March. About 8,000 people come annually to see the gathering of big birds at Monticello’s municipal Swan Park, adjacent to the Lawrence home. The feeding cost, mostly born by Sheila Lawrence with help from private donations, was $5,000 per year but spiked to $14,000 in 2008 when demand for ethanol fuel drove up corn prices. Canada geese and ducks vie for their share as disinterested scaups skim by on the brisk current offshore. Warm-water discharged from Xcel Energy’s nuclear power plant upstream keeps about five miles of river open during the winter.

The sick swans probably picked up the lead from pond bottoms where they dabble. Their long necks allow them to reach underwater plants in deeper water than other waterfowl, which puts them at greater risk of ingesting lead shot settled in plants roots and sediment four feet down. It lodges in swans’ gastrointestinal tracks, where it slowly dissolves into the blood. Lead poisoning causes lethargy and loss of coordination and balance. Disoriented victims may freeze into the ice.

Sheila Lawrence knows lead poisoning by sight in trumpeters. “They kind of act like nobody’s home up-stairs,” she said. Lawrence waits until a sick swan is near, seizes it from the back to avoid its clawed feet, and pops it into a dog kennel for transport to the rehab center. There, x-rays may show lead shot in the gizzard. A flushing-out procedure called lavage helps anesthetized birds vomit out the shot.

Rules on lead shot and sinkers vary from state to state and according to circumstances. However, many stores still sell lead sinkers and jigs. Even if it was completely banned, it would remain in feeding grounds for years to come.

In terms of lead, the Mississippi River isn’t as dangerous as off-river wetlands. In the river, lead shot often is buried by sediment. “I don’t think that the river represents the same level of threat for poisoning waterfowl,” said Carrol Henderson, nongame wildlife program supervisor with the Minnesota DNR in St. Paul. “In that regard, the fact that swans are wintering on the river might actually be a good thing.”

If they didn’t stay here in the winter, where would those thousand trumpeters go? Some go to Arkansas. Some of their ancestors would have gone to now-vanished wetlands along the Lower Mississippi.

But for more than 1,000 trumpeter swans, the routine now is simple: Guard your nesting area until it freezes over. Then go to Sheila’s.

Bridge to Credit

Davenport, Iowa — A 2005 federal grant awarded Davenport funds to build a pedestrian and bicycle bridge across Credit Island Slough. The project should finally become reality this year, now that a new design has been selected.

A huge jump in the price of steel forced designers back to the drawing board. The new design has a concrete arch with wide viewing areas.

The bridge will link the island with Concord Street, Sunderbuch Park and Duck Creek, and from there follow the Mississippi River Trail to Buffalo and Muscatine, Iowa.

River Action, a Quad Cities nonprofit group, reported that construction is scheduled to start in 2009 and be completed 10 months later.

Cellular Lifeline

Minnesota City, Minn. — A cell phone and an airboat helped save the life of a teenager in the Mississippi River backwaters on one of the coldest days of January.

School let out at 1:15 p.m. that day because of snow. When Adam Bolkert of Winona took a shortcut on his way home, he was not prepared for adventure, but he did have a cell phone.

Cutting through the woods and backwaters, he fell through the ice. He made his way to a nearby island and called 911 at 3:54 p.m. His call was routed to the sheriff’s office, which brought up a GPS location. For the next hour and a half police, the Winona County Dive and Rescue Team, and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources personnel searched the area, while Bolkert stayed on his cell phone. First Responders on snowmobiles scoured the woods. Police sounded sirens and fired emergency flares to give Bolkert reference points. Airboats were launched.

DNR officer Tom Hemker knew the area well, but when he got to the boat landing, his airboat was frozen to the trailer and couldn’t be launched, even by driving backwards and slamming on the brakes. Fast work with a pry-bar by two Winona police officers freed the boat.

When Hemker found Bolkert at 5:18 p.m. — cold, soaked and disoriented — the sun was going down and it was starting to snow. In Hemker’s words, “It was completely dark when I brought him in, and the snow was swirling to the point where if the rescue had started a half-hour later, vision would have gone from 50 yards to 10 feet. You couldn’t see anything. Absolutely amazing that Adam is alive.”

Bolkert was taken to a hospital and soon released. He was cold but not yet hypothermic.

The sheriff said it was a good thing Bolkert had a cell phone. Hemker was glad he’d had an airboat. “If the DNR didn’t have them [airboats], I have no idea how we would have rescued him,” Hemker said.

(Winona Daily News 1-13-09, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources press release 1-16-09)

Water Grabs

Washington, D.C. — The general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Pat Mulroy, made headlines in January by supporting an old idea — collecting Mississippi River floodwater and using it to recharge the groundwater beneath the Central Plains. The 174,000 square-mile Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches across eight states from Texas to South Dakota, has been depleted by over-use, agricultural irrigation and drought. The aquifer recharges slowly because of overlying clay-caliche soils. Some estimates say it will dry up in as little as 25 years.

Pat Mulroy took her idea to a forum at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. on January 12, staged to consider possible policy recommendations for President Barack Obama.

“If the West is growing drier [through climate change] and the Midwest is growing wetter, I see that as an opportunity,” said Mulroy. “Mark my words, unless we do something considered outrageous by today’s standards, the West is going to run dry.”

While waiting for approval, funding and completion of this mega-project, the Southern Nevada Water Authority is forging ahead with plans to pump Ogallala Aquifer groundwater from eastern Nevada across hundreds of miles to Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, Texas oilman, entrepreneur and energy-independence campaigner T. Boone Pickens has created a new water district on his land in the Texas panhandle, which will allow him to proceed with plans to pump 200,000 acre-feet of water from the Ogallala aquifer every year and send it to major metro areas via huge pipes. The antique “Rule of Capture” law, which still stands only in Texas, allows him to pump as much water as he wants from directly under his land, according to the Public Citizen website, a nonprofit public interest organization.

Pickens predicts that water will become the scarcest resource in the world.

(Las Vegas Review-Journal 1-12-09, Denver Post 1-15-09)

Waterfront Center

Bettendorf, Iowa — A new Quad Cities Waterfront Convention Center opened this January in Bettendorf, Iowa. The main event hall in the 50,000 square-foot facility can accommodate 1,800 people or seat 1,000 for dinner.

The Quad Cities needed such a facility, plus 500 hotel rooms nearby, in order to attract conferences and conventions to the area, said Steve VanDyke, Bettendorf’s director of economic development. “It’s not meant for boat shows or car shows. It’s meant for educational shows.”

The convention center is connected via skyways to the Isle Casino, a smaller banquet facility, a parking ramp and two hotels. The Paradise Hotel and the Palm Hotel offer a total of 512 rooms.

“That makes this the largest hotel complex in the state,” VanDyke said.

The center cost $17 million to build. The city of Bettendorf issued $20 million in bonds to cover the cost of the facility, which will be paid back primarily through property taxes on the Paradise Hotel. The hotel opened last year.

In addition, the city received a $4.1 million grant from the Vision Iowa fund, $250,000 from Scott County, $250,000 from the federal government and loan guarantees from the Scott County Regional Authority.

Fertilizer Spill

Dresbach, Minn. — In mid December, two Canadian Pacific freight trains collided near Lock and Dam 7 in Dresbach, sending one locomotive into the river. The smaller train, pulling 15 cars, apparently failed to yield and broadsided the larger one, pulling 93 cars and three locomotives. The smaller train’s locomotive ended up in the Mississippi, and two tanker cars tumbled down an embankment, leaking liquid fertilizer. According to a sheriff’s report, the smaller train was traveling on a siding and did not stop before entering the main track. No one was seriously injured.

About 30,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer leaked into the river. The fertilizer contained 28 percent liquid nitrogen and a mixture of ammonium nitrate and water. Nitrogen causes eutrophication in the river by stimulating fast plant growth and decay, which consumes oxygen in the water leading to fish kills. Tests showed no evidence of a fish kill and, although initial tests showed nitrate levels at three times normal, it dissipated rapidly. Lock operators were on the lookout for dead fish.

Fast Track

After years of on-again off-again attention, state officials, mayors and regional employers are paying attention again to a possible high-speed rail connection from Chicago to St. Paul.

Everyone agrees it’s a good idea. The question is, where exactly should it go? Early in 2009, the most popular route followed the Amtrak Empire Builder line from Chicago to La Crosse, Wis., and up the Mississippi River to St. Paul. Winona and other rivertowns have formed a coalition and passed resolutions in favor of that route, because it would cost less and could be built more quickly.

Meanwhile, the new Southeast Minnesota Rail Alliance is working to detour the route away from the river and through Rochester, Minn., arguing that Mayo Clinic is the state’s largest employer and draws many thousands of visitors each year.

The original 1994 transportation study of the concept imagined five, 110-mph trains running the route each day.

Even if state and federal lawmakers act promptly to approve the project as part of a nationwide economic stimulus package, it would still take years to develop the line, beginning with a two-year Environmental Impact Study.

New Jobs

Dubuque, Iowa — Amid the maelstrom of economic problems, Dubuque received some good news. In January, International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) announced that it will create 1,300 new jobs there.

According to the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, IBM picked Dubuque for a new technical-support center, because the city boasts a healthy workforce, access to college students, quality education, a low crime rate and affordable housing. In addition, IBM will receive a healthy incentive package, consisting of $24.5 million from Dubuque Initiatives, a quasi-public economic-development organization, $14 million from the state of Iowa, a jobs-training program worth $8.5 million from Northeast Iowa Community College and $5.6 million from the city of Dubuque. As of press time, the financial package had yet to be approved by the city and the state, but it was expected to sail through.

The company will hire 350 to 400 people in June and another 350 to 400 in August. It expects to employ the full 1,300 by June 2010. About 80 percent of the workforce will consist of technical-support staff. Pay will range from $30,000 to $75,000, with an average pay of $45,000. Many positions will be filled locally, but IBM will bring a substantial number of people to the city, the Telegraph Herald reported.

IBM will lease a nine-story building downtown, that was constructed in 1929 for a department store and which currently houses a variety of companies and professional offices.

Headquartered in Armonk, N.Y., the company makes computer hardware and software. Lately it has bucked the national trend toward lower profits. Its fourth-quarter earnings in 2008 were up 12 percent, to $4.4 billion, from its fourth-quarter earnings in 2007, according to the New York Times.

Buckthorn Power

St. Paul — Natural resource agencies and conservation volunteers spend many hours each year clearing invasive buckthorn from woods and other natural areas. The glossy-leaved shrub from Europe invades woods and wetlands, and rapidly expands its territory as birds eat the berries and spread the seeds. Buckthorn, which can grow to be 25 feet tall, chokes off native vegetation everywhere, and is a special threat to the bur oak, a tree once common on oak savannas and riverbluff prairies. It’s nearly impossible to eradicate through mechanical or chemical means.

Now, with a half-million-dollar grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, buckthorn is being burned to light and heat buildings. District Energy St. Paul grinds up the brush and burns the chips in its biomass-to-energy plant.

Ten sites in Minnesota, including several overlooking the Mississippi — Fort Snelling, Pilot Knob Hill in Mendota Heights and Indian Mounds Park in St. Paul — are part of the pilot project. All of the sites are within 75 miles of District Energy St. Paul, which is the biggest hot water district-heating system in North America. When the grant runs out this summer, planners hope cities and other entities will fund the project.

District-heating systems circulate hot water to residential and business buildings. The idea also hails from Europe — specifically, the Roman baths and greenhouses of the Roman Empire — and is still a common source of heating in Denmark, Finland, Poland, Sweden and other countries. According to its website, District Energy heats more than 185 buildings and 300 homes in and near downtown St. Paul. It also cools more than 95 buildings in the summer.

District Energy began as a public-private project during the energy crisis of the 1970s.

Mr. Gone

New Orleans — The contract is out on the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO). In December, the Army Corps of Engineers gave a “notice to proceed” to a contractor to build the rock barrier closing the MRGO, the controversial shortcut shipping channel between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the outlet allowed saltwater to flow into the area’s freshwater bayous and lakes, killing cypress forests and wetlands that had served as a natural hurricane barrier. It was also criticized for being a waste of taxpayers money.

The rock barrier will be 950 feet long, use more than 420,00 tons of rock, and should be completed in late 2009. The Congress-directed closure plan includes restoring wetlands.

Boat Updates

• Grounded from overnight cruises since late fall 2008, the Delta Queen’s future is unclear. However, rather than languishing at a dock in New Orleans, the steam-powered paddleboat will be welcoming overnight guests as a boutique hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn., according to the Vicksburg Post (1-28-09).

It will be leased to the owner of Chattanooga Water Taxi and Fat Cat Ferry, and moored at Coolidge Park Landing on the Tennessee River. The lease specifies that the boat cannot be altered. In December the boat was nominated as one of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places.

• Meanwhile, the Robert E Lee was sold at auction in St. Louis for $200,000 to a father and son who want to eventually operate it as a restaurant.

• RiverBarge Excursion Lines, Inc. announced that it is closing all operations for 2009, due to rising costs and very soft bookings, according to a press release.

RiverBarge Lines offered casual four- to 10-day excursions on the River Explorer, two barges pushed by a 3,000-hp towboat. It cruised up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and through the Intracoastal Waterway and the Louisiana bayous. The floating hotel celebrated its 10th anniversary last September. According to the Waterways Journal (1-5-09), owner Eddie Conrad said he hoped to run again, if the economy turns around.

• The Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, Minn., announced in late December that it had not raised enough of the $2 million to $3 million it needs to relocate, refurbish and operate a retired Army Corps of Engineers dredge, the William A. Thompson, and has withdrawn its proposal to the Corps. The museum had planned to move the 267-foot-long, 1935, wooden workboat to a site adjacent to the museum and open it to the public. (See Dredge William A. Thompson, page 24, this issue.)

A group of local residents may try to raise funds independently to bring the dredge to Winona.

Meanwhile, the museum is moving ahead with its planned 6,850-square-foot expansion of the gallery, which will display marine-related paintings by Impressionist and Hudson River School artists. The new gallery is expected to open May 1.

• Skipperliner Industries, a La Crosse, Wis., boatbuilder and operator, will be running riverboat cruises in Anoka, Minn., this summer, on a new paddlewheeler on the Rum River, a tributary of the Mississippi.

Plans call for the new boat to run about half a mile down from the city dock to the Mississippi, and from there several miles downriver to the Coon Rapids Dam or upriver about a mile.

Old Land, New Protection

Several new parcels of land near the Mississippi became protected in late 2008.

• The city of Red Wing, Minn., with help from the Minnesota Land Trust, added 15 acres to the Billings-Tomfohr Conservation Area, known as Coon Hill, completing the 93-acre natural area. Scenic vistas overlook the river valley, and the area is used for environmental education.

• Farther upriver, in Hastings, Minn., at the confluence of the Vermillion and Mississippi Rivers, about 297 acres became public land. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will manage one portion as an aquatic area, and another as a wildlife area.

The land was previously owned by the estate of Raymond Frietag. Several conservation groups contributed to the effort.

• Downstream, Stanley Ledebuhr of Winona, Minn., donated a 20-acre Wisconsin bluff to the Mississippi Valley Conservancy (MVC). The land, overlooking the Mississippi in Buffalo County, near Winona, is the first nature preserve for the MVC in the county, and is open for hiking, hunting and other public uses.

• Not very far from the Mississippi, near Gays Mills, Wis., the family farm of author Ben Logan will be protected with an easement agreement with the MVC. Seldom Seen Farm was the setting for Logan’s The Land Remembers. Tillable land in the 103-acre farm will stay in production, and the rest will be wildlife habitat.

• Also protected with help from the MVC: 53 acres on the ridge above La Crosse, Wis., adjacent to Grandad Bluff; 203 acres near Onalaska, Wis., including Mississippi blufflands and forested land; a 106-acre easement near Fountain City, Wis.; an 80-acre easement in Vernon County, Wis.; and 63 acres in the Wisconsin River Valley in Grant County, Wis.

The La Crosse-based MVC received the 2008 Land Trust of the Year in Wisconsin award by the Gathering Waters Conservancy, a coalition of Wisconsin’s 50-plus nonprofit land trusts.

A New Park

St. Paul — A 27.3-acre parcel of land along the Mississippi River near Fort Snelling will be taken over and managed by the National Park Service, which already manages the Mississippi River and Recreation Area, a 72-mile corridor centered on the metro river. The decision was reached after no other agencies, colleges or universities came forward with proposals for the site.

The Coldwater Spring site includes a flowing spring that is of spiritual importance for Native Americans. It was once a source of water for soldiers at Fort Snelling, and was for many years a U.S. Bureau of Mines research center. The 11 abandoned buildings on the site will be torn down, and the site will be restored as a natural area for public use.

Award to the Friends

Lansing, Iowa — Friends of Pool 9, one of the newest of 220 volunteer organizations across the country that support refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge system, was given the National Friends Group of the Year award from the National Wildlife Refuge Association in January.

The group focuses on Pool 9, a 31-mile stretch of the river from Lock and Dam 8, near Genoa, Wis., to Lock and Dam 9, at Harpers Ferry, Iowa. The group is just four years old and has 400 members. It sponsors river clean-ups, restoration projects, wildlife surveys, birding festivals and educational events.

“I’m bursting with pride for our local bunch of roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work folks,” said Friends board member and co-founder Ric Zarwell of Lansing in an email announcement.

Last summer Friends of Pool 9 won a national award from the Izaak Walton League of America.