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Fairport Hatchery: A Prestigious History

By Steve Suman, DNR Information Specialist

Surrounded by the natural beauty of the Mississippi River Valley, the Fairport Fish Hatchery is now "officially" part of the Iowa DNR's team of six hatcheries. The facility became State of Iowa property in September 1996, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) signed over the deed. Though ownership had been retained by the USFWS, the DNR has operated the hatchery since 1973.

Laying the Groundwork
The facilities and grounds may appear simple and unpretentious, but Fairport Hatchery's history is unique and distinguished. In the early 1900's, the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries found that the expanding pearl button industry was devastating the Mississippi River mussel populations. Although the Bureau encouraged the use of the river's natural resources, the mussels needed protection from overharvest.

The Bureau requested a study of the problems, and assigned a trio of scientists, Dr. Curtis, Dr. Lefevre, and Dr. Evermann, to conduct the research. During the course of their study, the three men talked and dreamed of a research station on the Mississippi River. With the support of button manufacturers and local Congressmen, the dreams turned into reality; plans for a station were developed by the winter of 1907.

Funding was approved by Congress in 1908, and the three scientists began their search for a station that fall with specific conditions in mind. They required a location on the channel side, with a gradual slope to the river and with good access to highways and railroads. A large area for laboratory buildings, ponds and residences was also necessary.

Although Fairport was the site eventually chosen, it was only one of a number of possible sites considered, including Muscatine, Davenport, Clinton, and Camanche, IA; Rock Island, IL; Winona and Homer, MN; and La Crosse, WI. Thought not on the Mississippi, sites were also considered at Terre Haute and Vincennes, IN. Button manufacturers in the Muscatine-Davenport region purchased the land and then donated it to the Bureau. Construction started in 1909, and a formal dedication of the facility took place in 1914.

Early Research
The Fairport research station rapidly developed a reputation far beyond its work on mussels. For nearly 20 years the station was regarded as the national center for freshwater fisheries research, and it became a popular meeting place for conferences on biology.

University scientists were encouraged to spend their summers at the hatchery, working on their own research and problems discovered by hatchery personnel. The names of many researchers who did work at Fairport are well-known in scientific circles, and a number of the researchers became known as outstanding biologists in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries or in colleges.

The hatchery's research efforts centered on the production of fish for midwest lakes and streams, and the development of fish culture techniques. Reproduction research and experiments were also conducted on paddlefish, lake sturgeon, and freshwater turtles.

The Birth of Channel Catfish Culture
Fish culturists had been unable to get catfish to reproduce in a hatchery setting, and the first successful reproduction of channel catfish in confinement was achieved at Fairport. Dr. Coker, the bureau's assistant director of scientific inquiry in Washington, recalled his experience while fishing a Michigan lake when he snagged a broken pitcher containing a catfish and nest of eggs. Researchers adapted the idea to the hatchery facilities by pushing pieces of hollow tile into the sides of ponds, and the catfish took to these "nests" quickly.

Fairport Fish HatcheryFire Destroys Laboratory
In 1917, a fire destroyed the main laboratory building and most of the records. The library was located in the main laboratory building, and many rare and one-of-a-kind books housed there were destroyed in the fire. A new, fireproof lab built of concrete, stone and brick, was constructed in 1920. The new building contained a library, chemical laboratory, photographic room, museum, kitchen and mess hall, tank and aquarium room, and accommodations for 16 researchers. Though rebuilt, the research lab never achieved the previous status and prestige it once had. The button industry declined, and the station's attempts to save the mussel resources were abandoned following the establishment of a nine-foot river channel.

In the 1930's, the research station was converted to a warm-water hatchery. The laboratory building was then used for a number of "other" purposes - including the housing of German prisoners of war - and in 1952 it was turned over to a church group for use as a home for the elderly. The building eventually fell into a state of ill-repair and was finally demolished in the early 1970's.

1960's Renovation
The U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife spent more than $200,000 renovating and modernizing the hatchery in the late 1960's, but the Bureau suffered from severe budget cuts and abolished its federal farm pond stocking program. The Bureau turned the operation of the hatchery over to the DNR in 1973, adding an excellent and well-managed hatchery to the state's hatchery system without cost to Iowa anglers.

Fairport Today
Eighteen earthen ponds, some as large as two acres, are used to hatch and rear angler favorites such as largemouth bass, bluegill and walleye. Each year, the Fairport hatchery produces approximately 700,000 bass fry and 200,000 fingerlings; one million one-inch bluegill; and 500,000 two-inch walleye. All largemouth bass used for DNR stocking are produced at Fairport. The hatchery also administers the farm pond program, stocking nearly 600 acres of ponds with largemouth bass, bluegill, and channel catfish annually.

Fairport Fish Hatchery, new additionThe picture to the right shows a new addition to the hatchery grounds. In 2002, the University of Iowa completed construction of the Lucille A. Carver Mississippi Riverside Environmental Research Station. Thanks to an agreement made between the State of Iowa and the University and a donation from the Carver foundation, the new building was erected at the hatchery, positioned where the old laboratory once stood. IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering Department of the University is managing the property. Head of the station is Dr. Doug Schnoebelen, who can be reached at 563-288-2888 for any questions or you can visit the department’s web site linked above. A new relationship has begun, which brings hydrologists and biologists together to gain a better understanding of the rivers, their flows, and the animals that live in them.

Fairport Fish Hatchery is located along Iowa Highway 22 in Muscatine County, eight miles east of Muscatine. Visitors are always welcome, and group tours can be arranged.

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