Destinations: Melvin Price Locks and Dam

The massive Mississippi River navigation structure amazes visitors of all ages

Downstream view. July 18, 2022. (Photo by Will Sites)

By Will Sites for the Clarion News

ALTON, Ill. – Need a day-trip getaway? The St. Louis area has a lot to offer, including the Gateway Arch, Botanical Garden, a world-class zoo, City Museum, and baseball at Busch Stadium. Great places to visit, but rarely cheap and often crowded. There’s one hidden tourist gem offering spectacular views and educational opportunities on par with anything the big city has to offer.

The Melvin Price Locks and Dam is a navigational structure stretching four football fields shore-to-shore across the Mississippi River near Alton, Ill., a historic river city just north of downtown St. Louis. Maintained by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, the purpose of the concrete and steel engineering feat is to aid large barge tows moving product up and down the river. The lock and dam – located south of the beautiful Clark Bridge and downtown Alton – is also home to the impressive National Great Rivers Museum.

Entry to the museum and tours of the lock and dam cost – nothing! That’s right, absolutely free. Tours begin inside the museum, where visitors sign-up for the 45-minute lock and dam tour (daily at 10 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m.). While waiting for the tour, enjoy the very impressive museum, which includes a lot of hands-on exhibits incorporating the history of Mississippi River life. But the real star of the show is the lock and dam tour.

The National Great Rivers Museum is part of the lock and dam property. Free to the public. July 18, 2022. (Photo by Will Sites)

An Army Corps guide leads visitors (via elevator) high above the bowels of the mega-structure. The scenic views of the river and surrounding area are unforgettable – simply amazing! The Clark Bridge upstream, the Gateway Arch downstream, Missouri to the west, Illinois to the east, and the power of the Mighty Mississippi beneath one’s feet is nearly overwhelming. Tour guides do an excellent job at describing each form and function of engineering – and can point out the variety of river wildlife swimming and flying nearby.

Visitors should arrive at least 15 minutes prior to a tour. Sign-up at the visitor desk. However, arrive an hour or so early to enjoy the museum. Tours on top of the lock and dam are exposed to the sky – no cover from the sun or wind. Bring an umbrella or hat on hot, sunny days. Cameras are allowed, but limited to a 200mm lens for 35mm digital SLR’s. The federal facility takes security serious – lockers are provided for bags. Keep photography low-key. Advice – leave everything in the car. Bring a phone for taking photos.  A reasonably priced gift shop is in the museum. Snacks available.

To get there: Melvin Price Locks and Dam is located just south of Alton, Ill. along the Great River Road. Alton is located off Highway 67 north of Interstate 270.  When you cross the Clark Bridge from Missouri, turn right (south) to the lock and dam.

Facts about Melvin Price Locks and Dam: (source: Army Corps of Engineers)

*Named for Illinois Congressman Melvin Price, who championed the project

*First lock opened in 1978; finished in 1994 with the addition of smaller lock.

*Concrete used: 800,000 cubic yards, enough for 123,000 home driveways

*Reinforcing steel: 21 million pounds. Enough for 10 Gateway Arches

*Total weight: 3.4 billion pounds

*Dam gates (“tainter” gates): Nine gates that are 110 feet wide by 40 feet high

*Main lock is 1,200 feet long, 110 feet wide.

*About $23 billion in goods move annually through the locks

*1,200 acres of wildlife habitat provided on the Missouri side

Melvin Price Lock and Dam at Alton, Ill. July 18, 2022. (Photo by Will Sites)
The 600-ft. auxiliary lock is designed for smaller craft and shorter barge tows. July 18, 2022. (Photo by Will Sites)

See the Blue Tiger drone video of a barge tow on the icy Mississippi River near Alton/Grafton, Ill.

View of the river from atop the lock and dam. July 18, 2022. (Photo by Will Sites)

Round concrete-filled “cofferdams” are used to stop barges from slamming into the dam. Barges are supposed to enter either to the right or left of the structures. The Clark Bridge is in the background. July 18, 2022. (Photo by Will Sites)

A sign discusses why two locks are available to river traffic. July 18, 2022. (Photo by Will Sites)

The Clark Bridge at Alton, Ill. is just upstream from the Melvin Price Locks and Dam. July 18, 2022. (Photo by Will Sites)
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge Potter, left, and survey boat Pathfinder work to keep a minimum 9-ft. main channel along the Mississippi River at Alton, Ill. July 18, 2022. (Photo by Will Sites)

The National Great Rivers Museum at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam. July 18, 2022. (Photo by Will Sites)
A tow shuttle takes workers from dredge boats to the shore at Grafton, Ill. July 18, 2022. (Photo by Will Sites)

About The Clarion News

Campus and community news produced by journalism students at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.
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