In a previous life, before kids and before Nashville, I was a Third Mate in the Merchant Marines and worked on oil tankers. I have tried for years to explain what it was like to my kids but I’m not sure they fully understood. Then, we visited the River Discovery Center in Paducah, KY. While the Center is focused on inland waterways and barges it was enough, that my kids got to experience some of what I did before they were born. It is a world that your kids and family may enjoy too!

Located 2.5 hours north of Nashville off I-24, Paducah, KY is on the bank of the Ohio River. River commerce is a big part of the city’s identity and the River Discovery Center has exhibits on both the history and the future of the inland River business. The Center is located downtown, only steps away from the Ohio. It is housed in a historic home which hides the true size of the Center. You can park for free on the street in front of the building and start your adventure.

River Discovery Center view

View of the Ohio River from the River Discovery Center

After paying admission at the front desk, start your tour by walking through exhibits tracing the history of America’s inland waterways. Several of the model boats are interactive with buttons to make them move or light up in their display cases. As you walk through time there are also music stations and listening stations throughout the rooms where you can hear stories and music inspired by the River. If you read through all the signs this section will take 30 to 45 minutes.

(Click on the images for a full-sized gallery)

At the back of the exhibit area is a sign that will direct you to the museum’s theater. There, you can watch a 15-minute film about Inland Waterways featuring many images of Ingram Barges, which is headquartered here in Nashville. The company has an operations center in Paducah and are big supporters of the Center.

When you have finished touring the Center’s exhibits, try your hand at piloting a push boat, pilot boat (which can travel at up to 55 MPH) or a Coast Guard Cutter in the Center’s simulator. It is the same type simulator that is used by the Navy, Maritime Colleges and Maritime Training Centers. It’s as close an experience as you can get to driving a push boat and barge without actually being on one. The morning we visited we were the only guests so we took advantage of it and played on the simulator for over 90 minutes.

River Discovery Center - simulator

Driving a Pilot Boat in the Simulator

There is a small gift shop on your way out with maritime themed toys, items, and books if you want to take some of the fun home. My whole family came out with a better understanding of how goods move through the country and my kids now see the barges that travel through Nashville in a different light.

Family Fun Facts

River Discovery Center – Paducah, KY (Map)

Hours: Monday-Saturday 9:30 AM – 5PM

Sundays (April – November) 1 PM – 5 PM

Cost: $8/Adults, $7/Seniors (60 and up), $5/Children (Under age 12)

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