By tradition, September is “Drive the Great River Road” month. Now curtailed by COVID-19,  when this popular pastime resumes, Bellevue is poised to bring a major addition to the story and sites of the iconic national route.

Bellevue’s New GRR Contribution

Newly assembled, cataloged, and verified research of Bellevue’s Young Museum collection confirms that the Great River Road (originally the Mississippi River Parkway) had its genesis in work of Joseph (Joe) A. Young circa 1920–1952. Correspondence, maps, and hundreds of other artifacts testify to Young’s leadership and influence in achieving this iconic river route.

Interrupted by WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, the original parkway-in-progress was recast ca. 1970–1990 as a national scenic byway. The first section of the Great River Road was officially dedicated in 1952, the entire project completed in 2002.

Founder, MRHA

Successful Bellevue entrepreneur and inventor, Joe Young (1871-1959) was a recognized, respected, and honored pioneer of the Mississippi River Parkway, now the Great River Road. From youth, he worked to conserve the Mississippi River and introduce visitors to its beauty and wealth of resources.

Circa 1921 to 1926, Joe served as International Vice President of the Mississippi River Scenic Highway Association founded by Truman Pierson, a wealthy Minnesotan. As that organization faded, Young used valuable lessons learned and contacts made to found the Mississippi River Highway Association (MRHA), based in Bellevue.

During this time, he was active in Iowa  conservation work and spearheaded efforts to secure a state park in Bellevue (1928). In 1933, Joe represented and spoke for Iowa governor Clyde Herring at the dedication of the new Sabula–Savanna bridge.

First Iowa MRPC Chair

In 1938, when the federal government became involved in the river road idea, Joe was appointed first chairperson of what is now the Iowa Mississippi River Parkway Planning Commission, which continues today under the auspices of the National MRPC.  In 1939, he was the only nongovernment witness from Iowa to promote the Mississippi River Parkway before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Public Lands. Owing to Joe, a companion MRPC bill was introduced days later in the U.S. Senate.

Following serious illness that forced his retirement in 1948, Joe was named “president emeritus for life” by the Mississippi River Highway Association. In 1952, prior to dedication of the first section of the Great River Road, he was named honorary member of the National Mississippi River Parkway Commission for “...faithful and careful services that he rendered in pioneering our great project.”  

Changes at the Young Museum

Work continues at the Young Museum to develop this new story of the national importance of Joe Young to the Great River Road and to determine whether this is the only existing early GRR historical collection, as thought by the Iowa MRPC. As COVID permits, efforts continue to develop new exhibits and ready the Young Museum for worldwide visitors when the Great River Road fully reopens.

Donations to Friends for Preservation of Bellevue Heritage, the nonprofit organization administering the Young Museum, remain welcome and appreciated through this time of unplanned delays and continued expenses. Donations are tax deductible and will be formally acknowledged. The mailing address is FPBH, 603 Market Street, Bellevue, IA  52031. Questions may be addressed to or 563-258-3917.

(Article and photo material courtesy Young Museum)