The Mississippi River has meandered its way
from one end of this country to the other long before man was around to notice.
It has carried Indian canoes, flatboats, riverboats, gunboats and barges and has
torn down mountains and filled in the sea. It has given life and taken life . .
. and like the people who have crossed it and cursed it . . . it has never been
tamed. It's the Mighty Mississippi . . . and there's no other river like it in
As rivers weave their way through the landscape of town and
country, civilization and wilderness, so the history of mankind has been
intertwined with the history of rivers. Rivers, like all water resources,
nourish us and shape our very lives.
One river has shaped America more
than any other--the Mighty Mississippi,--fourth largest river system in the
world and the largest river in the United States.
Hernado de Soto, the Spanish explorer, probably the first White man to find this river, discovered it near the present Memphis, Tennessee, in 1541.
[The Hernando DeSoto Bridge linking Tennessee and Arkansas is a famous
Memphis (river)-landmark; readily recognized as the Memphis "M-Bridge".] Indians, who compared it with other streams they knew, named it the "great river."
The Mississippi, a clear little stream about 18 feet wide and less than a foot deep, rushes out of the northern end of Lake Itasca in north-central Minnesota and later in its course stretches about a mile from shore to shore, digging a bed deeper than 100 feet in many places. Twisting and bending through a region of small lakes and swamps, the
River finally settles into its generally southeastward flow at the rate of about
2 miles per hour. Steep limestone bluffs line the banks of the river's course in
many parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.
The Mississippi and its chief tributary, the Missouri River, together make up one of the longest river systems in the world (about 3,710 miles). The entire river system affords
about 14,000 miles of navigable waterways and drains about 1,250,000 square miles, or about one-third of the total area of the Unites States.
Before the Mississippi pours its waters into the Gulf of Mexico below New Orleans,
Louisiana, it is joined by more than 250 tributaries. Some of these branches are
as large as, or larger than, the Mississippi when they meet. These tributaries
spring from as far west as Montana and Wyoming, and from as far east as western
New York and western North Carolina. From the East come the Ohio River, The
Illinois River, The Wisconsin, and the Yazoo. From the West flow the Arkansas,
the Red, and the Missouri. The Ohio, with an annual rainfall of 40 to 50 inches,
pours the greatest amount of water into the Mississippi. The river is connected
to the Great Lakes by the Illinois Waterway, which includes the Illinois River
and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
The Mississippi reaches its greatest width after the Missouri joins it north of St. Louis, Missouri. For miles, the two big rivers flow side by side in one bed while their waters
scarcely mingle. The red waters of the Missouri are in sharp contract to the clear current of the Mississippi. Later, the waters mix, and the Mississippi shows the muddy color for which it is famous in the South. Finally, the Mississippi reaches its present delta below New Orleans where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The average amount of water carried to the Gulf during a year is 611,000 cubic feet per second.
Normal floodwaters rise as much as 50 to 55 feet above the river's lowest stage. In the spring of 1927, one of the worst floods drowned over 300 people and destroyed about $250 million in property. Homes and barns were swept downriver and crops were ruined. Attempts
to prevent these floods have included the dredging of the riverbed to make it deeper and the building of levees and dams. Levees made of earth and strengthened with metal cables and mesh, sometimes held together with asphalt, protect the banks of the Mississippi south of Cairo, Illinois. Some levees are built only of earth and brush. These are meant to be weak so that the waters may break through and flood regions where there are no farms or villages. For thousands of years, the floodwaters have brought fertile silt to the lower part of the Mississippi Valley. The area the river drains is one of the richest farming regions in the world.
The Mississippi River system is a national highway for grains, fuels and petrochemicals, a well from which hundreds of industries quench their thirst, a major flyway for American birds and waterfowl, a valuable recreation area and a source of drinking water.
The Mississippi carried the rafts and boats of the early settlers who established homesteads in its valley. Over a century ago, more than 11,000 paddlewheelers plied the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, exchanging the products of the towns and cities that sprang up along the riverbanks from north to south. This was an era of discovery and grandeur. Poets, novelists and songwriters gathered material from the rich history of the Mississippi. Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi is a famous description of the river. The Mississippi River is affectionately called "Old Man River" by those who live along its banks in gracious plantations, humble shanties and thriving cities.