Local Features
12:05 pm
Fri December 4, 2009

A tour through Paducah's River Discovery Center

Paducah, KY – True to its nickname, Paducah has been a river city from the start. And despite past periods as a major railroad hub and as "The Atomic City," Paducah remains an important center for the river industry. The River Discovery Center commemorates Paducah's steamboat past while at the same time educating visitors on the industry's present. Todd Hatton toured the Center with Executive Director Julie Harris, and has this story about what the Center has to offer as it heads toward an ambitious future.

True to its nickname, Paducah has been a river city from the start. And despite past boom and bust periods as a major railroad hub and as "The Atomic City," Paducah remains an important center for the river industry. The River Discovery Center commemorates Paducah's steamboat past with models of the ships that plied this region's waterways, photographs and artifacts from the period, as well as interactive exhibits, like this one that plays the songs you might have heard on Paducah's riverfront one hundred and fifty years ago.

But it would be a mistake to think the Center is focused solely on the past. As Executive Director Julie Harris points out, it's very much in the present.

"In simplest terms, the mission is to educate the public; specifically and very important to that is educating children about the importance of the river, the river's impact on our daily lives, and how we can take of this very important asset."

Harris says fulfilling that mission is a constant challenge, even in the best of times. However, these are not the best of times.

"You know, it's been an interesting year, just like all businesses. We've had our struggles and we just work through them. Our biggest economic impact this year was the loss of all the excursion boats that stopped here in Paducah."

Last year, those boats visited forty times, and the Center would see between fifty and a hundred people off of each one. Factor in admission to the museum and whatever they might spend in the gift shop, and the economic hit is obvious.

Harris says that, fortunately for them, they've had the unwavering support of Paducah's river businesses. But that's not the only thing that's kept them afloat. Since last fall, they've seen a 30% increase in attendance from area schools. The reason: 8 hundred thousand dollars in new exhibits, including one that allows aspiring mariners to test their chops at the helm of a virtual barge, U-S Coast Guard vessel, or speedboat in the Center's state of the art simulator. Standing at the wheel, the video screens extend to the edges of your peripheral vision. So, if you're not paying attention, you might find yourself unprepared for sudden course changes.

Julie Harris is steering us out of a very realistic Tennessee River, heading west on the Ohio. As she does so, she spins the wheel side to side, as if to test one's sea legs.

For those lacking sea legs, other exhibits at the Center are just as hands-on. For example, visitors can take a model barge through a lock, not unlike the one at Kentucky Dam.

"Towboat pilots must have precise control over their loads. A typical tow on the Ohio River consists of fifteen barges in a five long by three wide configuration, with the towboat secured to the stern of the tow."

Learning facilities have also been enlarged.

"We also added a classroom and we use it almost daily. It really helps with bringing schools here when they have a real space for learning. It's a really great experience for the children, for our staff, for the teachers. It's just it makes for a great day."

But the expansion that's helped them weather the current financial crisis isn't all that's on the drawing board. Harris says a Connecticut-based museum consulting firm told them they'd need to expand in order to stay healthy. To illustrate that point, Harris says the approximately 10 thousand square foot River Discovery Center will host around 900 students in the next two weeks alone. The problem is, the present facility is landlocked. It sits in the middle of the 100 block of South Water Street with the city's floodwall directly across from them. The solution? Go over the floodwall. The Center's master plan includes a $15 million expansion that will rise up and over the floodwall, connected to its current location by a walkway. The renderings show a magnificent glass and steel structure resembling the bow of a ship. It'll take five years to build once the funding is secured, but Harris says they're in no hurry, not with more pressing present concerns.

"We operate very small staff, and we are very fiscally responsible. In the museum business, you have to be if you want to keep your doors open."

And for the Four Rivers region, keeping those doors open is important; and not just to get a look back at the past. The River Discovery Center also hopes to make us more aware, and appreciative, of a resource too easily taken for granted.