The Alabama River Museum is owned and operated by the Monroe County Heritage Museum (MCHM). Located at Claiborne Lock and Dam in Franklin, Monroe County, on 60-mile-long Claiborne Lake, the museum features a fossil collection taken from the Gosport Sandstone as well as Native American artifacts found in the county. The Alabama River Museum opened in 1999 in the former resource manager's building at the Claiborne Lock and Dam, with initial displays of artifacts and fossils that formerly had been in storage.
The museum's most notable collection contains Eocene fossils from the Gosport Sandstone, a sedimentary rock layer underlying Claiborne, Monroe County, that is known for the great number and variety of its fossils, representing more than 150 species. During the Eocene, the entire area was covered by ocean, and typical marine species included boney fishes, cephalopods, echinoderms, and bivalves. The fossils were collected in the late 1820s by Charles Tait, who was Alabama's first federal district court judge, and many are now located in museums worldwide. Tait's studies of the fossils earned him election as a corresponding member of the Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia in July 1832. Tait also hosted Timothy Conrad of Philadelphia during Conrad's two-year exploration of the fossil beds; Conrad shipped cases full of fossils back to Philadelphia for identification. Charles Lyell, known as the father of modern geology, also visited Alabama in 1846 to see the formation. The museum's collection includes fossilized shells and fossilized remains or tracks of numerous marine animals of the Eocene period.
The museum also features numerous Native American artifacts collected in Monroe County. A large part of the collection was donated by R. B. Williams III from the site of Claiborne Lock and Dam, after the finds were excavated and documented by archaeologists; Williams was the former owner of the land on which the lock and dam were constructed. The collection includes projectile points, tools, clothing, and decorative pieces spanning a period from prehistory to Creek Indian removal in the 1830s.
A third exhibit pays tribute to the steamboat era on Alabama rivers, which ranged from about 1818 to 1920, during which time steamboats were a primary mode of transportation for people and goods throughout the state. This exhibit includes a small replica of the steamboat Nettie Quill and displays of relics recovered from sunken or burned steamboats. Finally, the museum also includes the "bone" room, a favorite of visiting children, which includes bones and skulls of animals commonly found in Monroe County, including a huge alligator skull, as well as some taxidermy examples of native animals, including the head and skin of a black bear.
Each March, the museum hosts the Alabama River Festival, which celebrates life along and on river in the early 1800s. Activities include a re-enactment frontier camp outside the museum that features people in period dress demonstrating skills and activities necessary to survival on the frontier.
Until 2011, the museum was open one day a week between March and October and was staffed by a part-time employee. In 2010, the museum had more than 2,300 visitors. Because of funding shortfalls, the museum is currently open only by appointment for tours with a staff member of the Monroe County Heritage Museum and during the Alabama River Festival.
In addition to the Alabama River Museum, the Monroe County Heritage Museum operates the Old Courthouse Museum, the Alabama River Museum, the C. L. Hybart House Museum and Cultural Center, Bethany Baptist Church, and the Faulk Property.