"The Mississippi’s mighty, but it starts in Minnesota
At a place where you can walk across from five steps down."
Excerpt from the Indigo Girls
fine song titled Ghost
A brief history of the river…
The Mississippi River has its humble beginnings at place called Lake Itasca in Minnesota. Known as Big River and “Father of Waters” to the Native Americans, the river then covers anywhere between 2,300 and 2552 miles, depending on which survey one takes as fact. It served as inspiration to many of the tales woven by Mark Twain and remains as one of the, if not the most, important waterway in the United States. Let’s take a look at some of the history of the river and facts about this amazing body of water.
Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Mississippi River served as a central artery for Native Americans. This group of Native Americans, known as the “Temple Mound Builders” for the religious structures they built on top of flat topped earthen mounds, lasted about 900 years. Located across from present day St. Louis was “Cahokia”, the largest urban center in North America before the nineteenth century. It was situated near the confluence of the Missouri, Mississippi, and Illinois rivers and was a center for culture and trade for over 300 years. More than 100 pyramids and earthen mounds have been discovered and Cahokia called itself home to more than 10,000 people.
The first Europeans to explore the Upper Mississippi River were a Jesuit missionary named Jacques Marquette and explorer Louis Joliet. They were soon followed by fur traders and other explorers. The original method was the canoe, later followed by keelboats. A keelboat was flat bottomed and could be poled or pulled from the shore.
It wasn’t until about 1811 that steamboats began to appear on the scene in other rivers in North America. In order to clear lands and provide fuel for the steamboats, forests that bordered the bank of the Mississippi were cleared and its width was increased from 3,600 feet in 1821 to about 5,300 feet in 1888. This eroded the banks of the river and caused channels to shift. At the time, Mark Twain has this to say about the mighty Mississippi.
“Ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here or Go there, and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced, cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over and laugh at.”
It wasn’t due to lack of effort. Robert E. Lee
, then in charge of the Army Corp’s in St Louis was the first to lead many of the efforts to tame the Mississippi. Construction of dikes began in 1832
that intended to divert the river’s current to a central channel. In 1838/9, channels were blasted in order to aid navigation and in 1854
the Corps was called upon to clear snags and other hazards. The mindset of times was to change the river to suit the boats rather than change the boats to suit the river. It wasn’t long before the emergence of railroads, coupled with the risks incurred with navigating the river, that the “steamboat era” came to an end.
Today, the river acts as a central artery for commerce, generating power and serves as a storm water collection system for about two-thirds of America. More than 90 million tons of cargo make their way between Saint Paul and Saint Louis. More than 4 million people rely on the Mississippi for their drinking water as well as their waste disposal system
Now for some facts about the river…
How fast does it move?
At the headwaters of the Mississippi, the average surface speed of the water if about 1.2 miles per hour – or about one third as fast as most people walk.
How long is it?
Since the river channel is constantly changing, this is subject to debate. At Lake Itasca in Minnesota, where the river begins, estimates put it 2,552 miles long. The U.S. Geological Survey published the number at 2,300 miles or about 3,705 kilometers. The EPA guesstimates the number at 2,320.
How wide is it?
At its origin in Lake Itasca, it goes anywhere from 20 to 30 feet across. At its confluence with the Missouri River, its nearly a mile across.
How deep is it?
At its headwaters – about 3 feet. Between Governor Nicholls Wharf and Algiers Point in New Orleans – about 200 feet deep.
How much sediment does it move?
On an average day -about 436,000 tons. Over the course of a year, it averages 159 million tons of sediment.
How much does it drain?
The Mississippi River Basin drains about 41% of the continental United States. This includes 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces. Total area drained by the watershed is between 1.2 and 1.8 million square miles.
What’s the volume of water?
To put this in perspective, volume is measured in cubic feet of water. There are 7.489 gallons that weigh 65.4 pounds in a cubic foot. At Lake Itasca, the average flow rate is about 6 cubic feet per second. At Upper St. Anthony’s Falls, the average flow rate is 12,000 cubic feet per second. Finally, at New Orleans, the average volume clocks in at 600,000 cubic feet per second. Noders, I leave it up to you to do the math if you want.
So who/what lives there?
How ‘bout 260 species of fish which represent about 25% of all fish species in North America
40 % of the nation’s migratory birds such as ducks and geese use the river in their spring and fall migrations
More than 12 million people live in the 125 counties and parishes that border the Mississippi.
At least 37 species of mussel, 45 amphibian and 50 mammal species call the river home.