The Mississippi River is the second longest river in the United States, with a length of from its source in Lake Itasca in Minnesota to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. The longest river, a Mississippi tributary, is the Missouri River measuring .
The Mississippi River is part of the Jefferson-Missouri-Mississippi river system, which is the largest river system in North America and among the largest in the world: by length it is the fourth longest, and by its average discharge of 572,000 cu ft/s (16,200 m³/s), it is the tenth largest river.
The name Mississippi is derived from the Ojibwe word misi-ziibi ("Great River") or gichi-ziibi ("Big River") at its headwaters.
The Missouri River flows from the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin to the Mississippi River. Taken together, the Jefferson, the Missouri, and the Mississippi form the longest river system in North America. If measured from the source of the Jefferson at Brower's Spring, to the Gulf of Mexico, the length of the Mississippi-Missouri-Jefferson combination is approximately , making the combination the 4th longest river in the world. The uppermost of this combined river are called the Jefferson, the lowest are part of the Mississippi, and the intervening are called the Missouri.
The widest point of the Mississippi River is Lake Winnibigoshish, near Grand Rapids, Minnesota at over across. Also of note is Lake Onalaska, near La Crosse, Wisconsin, where the river is over wide (created by Lock and Dam No. 7) and Lake Pepin at more than two miles (3 km) wide. However, these areas are lakes or reservoirs rather than free flowing water. In areas where the Mississippi is a flowing river, it exceeds one mile (1.6 km) in width in several places in its lower course.
The Mississippi River runs through 10 states and was used to define portions of these states' borders. The middle of the riverbed at the time the borders were established was the line to define the borders between states. The river has since shifted, but the state borders of Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi have not changed; they still follow the former bed of the Mississippi River as of their establishment.
The upper Mississippi is divided into three sections: the headwaters, from the source to Saint Anthony Falls; a series of man-made lakes between Minneapolis and St. Louis, Missouri; and the middle Mississippi, a relatively free-flowing river downstream of the confluence with the Missouri River at St. Louis.
The uppermost lock and dam on the Mississippi River is the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Above the dam, the river's elevation is . Below the dam, the river's elevation is . This drop is the largest of all the Mississippi River lock and dams. The origin of the dramatic drop is a waterfall preserved adjacent to the lock under an apron of concrete. St. Anthony Falls is the only true waterfall on the entire Mississippi River. The water elevation continues to drop steeply as it passes through the gorge carved by the waterfall. By the time the river reaches St. Paul, Minnesota, below Lock and Dam #1, it has dropped more than half its original elevation and is above sea level. From St. Paul to the Gulf of Mexico the river elevation falls much more slowly and is controlled and managed as series of pools created by locks and dams.
The first bridge across the Mississippi River was built in 1855. It spanned the river in Minneapolis where the current Hennepin Avenue Bridge is located.
The first railroad bridge across the Mississippi was built in 1856. It spanned the river between Arsenal Island at Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa. Steamboat captains of the day, fearful of competition from the railroads, considered the new bridge "a hazard to navigation". Two weeks after the bridge opened, the steamboat Effie Afton rammed part of the bridge and started it on fire. Legal proceedings ensued, with Abraham Lincoln defending the railroad. The lawsuit went to the Supreme Court of the United States and was eventually ruled in favor of Lincoln and the railroad.
Below is a general overview of bridges over the Mississippi which have notable engineering or landmark significance with its city. They are ordered from the source to the mouth.
Major tributaries of the Mississippi:
The Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico about downstream from New Orleans. Measurements of the length of the Mississippi from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico vary somewhat, but the United States Geological Survey's number is . The retention time from Lake Itasca to the Gulf is about 90 days.
Fresh river water flowing from the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico does not mix into the salt water immediately. The images from NASA's MODIS to the right show a large plume of fresh water, which appears as a dark ribbon against the lighter-blue surrounding waters.
The images demonstrate that the plume did not mix with the surrounding sea water immediately. Instead, it stayed intact as it flowed through the Gulf of Mexico, into the Straits of Florida, and entered the Gulf Stream. The Mississippi River water rounded the tip of Florida and traveled up the southeast coast to the latitude of Georgia before finally mixing in so thoroughly with the ocean that it could no longer be detected by MODIS.
The Illinoian Glacier, about 300,000 to 132,000 years before present, blocked the Mississippi near Rock Island, Illinois, diverting it to its present channel farther to the west, the current western border of Illinois.
The Hennepin Canal roughly follows the ancient channel of the Mississippi downstream from Rock Island to Hennepin. South of Hennepin, Illinois, the current Illinois River is actually following the ancient channel of the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois, before the Illinoian glaciation.
Other changes in the course of the river have occurred because of earthquakes along the New Madrid Fault Zone, which lies between Memphis and St. Louis. Three earthquakes in 1811 and 1812, estimated at approximately 8 on the Richter Scale, were said to have temporarily reversed the course of the Mississippi. The settlement of Reverie, Tennessee was cut off from Tipton County, Tennessee, during the 1811 and 1812 earthquakes and placed on the western side of the Mississippi River, the Arkansas side. These earthquakes also created Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee from the altered landscape near the river. The faulting is related to an aulacogen (geologic term for a failed rift) that formed at the same time as the Gulf of Mexico.
Through a natural process known as delta switching the lower Mississippi River has shifted its final course to the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico every thousand years or so. This occurs because the deposits of silt and sediment begin to clog its channel, raising the river's level and causing it to eventually find a steeper, more direct route to the Gulf of Mexico. The abandoned distributary diminishes in volume and forms what are known as bayous. This process has, over the past 5,000 years, caused the coastline of south Louisiana to advance toward the Gulf from 15 to 50 mi (25 to 80 km). The currently active delta lobe is called the Birdfoot Delta, after its shape, or the Balize Delta, after La Balize, Louisiana, the first French settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi.
On May 8, 1541, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto became the first recorded European to reach the Mississippi River, which he called Rio de Espiritu Santo ("River of the Holy Spirit"), in the area of what is now Mississippi. In Spanish the river is called Rio Mississippi.
French explorers Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette began exploring the Mississippiin the 17th century. Marquette traveled with a Sioux named Ne Tongo ("Big river" in Sioux language) in 1673. Marquette proposed calling it the River of the Immaculate Conception.
In 1682, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and Henri de Tonty claimed the entire Mississippi River Valley for France, calling the river Colbert River after Jean-Baptiste Colbert and the region La Louisiane, for King Louis XIV. On March 2, 1699, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville rediscovered the mouth of the Mississippi, following the death of La Salle. The French built the small fort of La Balise there to control passage.
In 1718, about upriver, New Orleans was established along the river crescent by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, with construction patterned after the 1711 resettlement on Mobile Bay of Mobile, the capital of French Louisiana at the time.
Article 8 of the Treaty of Paris (1783) states, "The navigation of the river Mississippi, from its source to the ocean, shall forever remain free and open to the subjects of Great Britain and the citizens of the United States." With this treaty, which ended the American Revolution, Britain also ceded West Florida back to Spain to regain the Bahamas, which Spain had occupied during the war. Spain then had control over the river south of 32°30' north latitude and, in what is known as the Spanish Conspiracy, hoped to gain greater control of Louisiana and all of the west. These hopes ended when Spain was pressured into signing Pinckney's Treaty in 1795.
So many settlers traveled westward through the Mississippi river basin, as well as settled in it, that Zadok Cramer wrote a guide book called The Navigator detailing the features and dangers and navigable waterways of the area. It was so popular that he updated and expanded it through 12 editions over a period of 25 years. The Navigator (1801 guide book)
Mark Twain's book Life on the Mississippi covered the steamboat commerce which took place from 1830 to 1870 on the river before more modern ships replaced the steamer. The book was published first in serial form in Harper's Weekly in seven parts in 1875. The full version, including a passage from the unfinished Huckleberry Finn and works from other authors, was published by James R. Osgood & Company in 1885.
The first steamboat to travel the full length of the Mississippi from the Ohio River to New Orleans was the New Orleans in December 1811. Its maiden voyage occurred during the series of New Madrid earthquakes in 1811–12.
Steamboat transport remained a viable industry (both in terms of passengers and freight) until the end of the first decade of the 20th century. Among the several Mississippi River system steamboat companies was the noted Anchor Line, which from 1859 to 1898 operated a luxurious fleet of steamers between St. Louis and New Orleans.
The river played a decisive role in the American Civil War. The Union's Vicksburg Campaign called for Union control of the lower Mississippi River. The Union victory at the Battle of Vicksburg in Warren County, Mississippi in 1863 was pivotal to the Union's final victory of the Civil War.
In the spring of 1927, the river broke out of its banks in 145 places during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and inundated 27,000 sq mi (70,000 km²) to a depth of up to 30 ft (10 m).
On October 20, 1976, the automobile ferry MV George Prince was struck by a ship traveling upstream as the ferry attempted to cross from Destrehan, Louisiana, to Luling, Louisiana. Seventy-eight passengers and crew died, only eighteen survived the accident.
In 1988, record low water levels provided an opportunity and obligation to examine the climax of the wooden-hulled age. The Mississippi fell to below zero on the Memphis gauge. Four and a half acres of water craft remains were exposed on the bottom of the Mississippi River at West Memphis, Arkansas. They dated to the late 19th to early 20th centuries. The State of Arkansas, the Arkansas Archeological Survey, and the Arkansas Archeological Society responded with a two-month data recovery effort. The fieldwork received national media attention as good news in the middle of a drought.
Two portions of the Mississippi were designated as American Heritage Rivers in 1997: the lower portion around Louisiana and Tennessee, and the upper portion around Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri.
In 2005, the Source to Sea Expedition (http://sourcetosea.net) paddled the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers to benefit the Audubon Society's Upper Mississippi River Campaign.
On August 1, 2007, the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis collapsed during the evening rush hour.
Also in 2007, it is expected that more than 150 pleasure boats will travel down the river from Grafton to Cairo while participating in the Great loop, which is circumnavigation of Eastern North America by water.
The sport of water skiing was invented on the river in a wide region between Minnesota and Wisconsin known as Lake Pepin. Ralph Samuelson of Lake City, Minnesota, created and refined his skiing technique in late June and early July 1922. He later performed the first water ski jump in 1925 and was pulled along at 80 miles per hour (128 km/h) by a Curtiss flying boat later that year.
A clear channel is needed for the barges and other vessels that make the mainstem Mississippi one of the great commercial waterways of the world. The task of maintaining a navigation channel is the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers, which was established in 1802. Earlier projects began as early as 1829 to remove snags, close off secondary channels and excavate rocks and sandbars.
Steamboats entered trade in the 1820s, so by the period of the 1830-1850 became the golden age of steamboats. As there were few roads or rails in the lands of the Louisiana Purchase river traffic was an ideal solution. Cotton, timber and food came down the river, as did Appalachia coal. The port of New Orleans boomed as it was the trans-shipment point to deep sea ocean vessels. As a result, the image of the twin stacked, wedding cake Mississippi steamer entered into American mythology. Steamers worked the entire route from the trickles of Montana, to the Ohio river; down the Missouri and Tennessee. To the main channel of the Mississippi. Only the arrival of the railroads in the 1880s did steamboat traffic diminish. Steamboats remained a feature until the 1920s. Most have been superseded by pusher tugs. A few survive as icons--the Delta Queen and the River Queen for instance.
A series of 29 locks and dams on the upper Mississippi, most of which were built in the 1930s, is designed primarily to maintain a 9 ft (2.7 m) deep channel for commercial barge traffic. The lakes formed are also used for recreational boating and fishing. The dams make the river deeper and wider but do not stop it. No flood control is intended. During periods of high flow, the gates, some of which are submersible, are completely opened and the dams simply cease to function. Below St. Louis, the Mississippi is relatively free-flowing, although it is constrained by numerous levees and directed by numerous wing dams.
In 1829, there were surveys of the two major obstacles on the upper Mississippi, the Des Moines Rapids and the Rock Island Rapids, where the river was shallow and the riverbed was rock. The Des Moines Rapids were about 11 mi (18 km) long and just above the mouth of the Des Moines River at Keokuk, Iowa. The Rock Island Rapids were between Rock Island and Moline, Illinois. Both rapids were considered virtually impassable.
In 1848, the Illinois and Michigan Canal was built to connect the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan via the Illinois River near Peru, Illinois. In 1900, the canal was replaced by the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The canal allowed Chicago to address specific health issues (typhoid, cholera and other waterborne diseases) by sending its waste down the Illinois and Mississippi river systems rather than polluting its water source of Lake Michigan. The canal also provided a shipping route between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.
The Army Corps of Engineers recommended the excavation of a 5 ft (1.5 m) deep channel at the Des Moines Rapids, but work did not begin until after Lieutenant Robert E. Lee endorsed the project in 1837. The Corps later also began excavating the Rock Island Rapids. By 1866, it had become evident that excavation was impractical, and it was decided to build a canal around the Des Moines Rapids. The canal opened in 1877, but the Rock Island Rapids remained an obstacle.
In 1878, Congress authorized the Corps to establish a 4.5 ft (1.4 m) deep channel to be obtained by building wing dams which direct the river to a narrow channel causing it to cut a deeper channel, by closing secondary channels and by dredging. The channel project was complete when the Moline Lock, which bypassed the Rock Island Rapids, opened in 1907.
In 1907, Congress authorized a 6 foot (1.8 m) deep channel project on the Mississippi, which was not complete when it was abandoned in the late 1920s in favor of the 9 foot (2.7 m) deep channel project.
Lock and Dam No. 1 was completed in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1917.
Lock and Dam No. 2 at Hastings, Minnesota, was completed in 1930.
Prior to the 1927 flood, the Corps' primary strategy was to close off as many side channels as possible to increase the flow in the main river. It was thought that the river's velocity would scour off bottom sediments, deepening the river and decreasing the possibility of flooding.
The 1927 flood proved this to be so wrong that communities threatened by the flood began to create their own levee breaks to relieve the force of the rising river.
This was achieved by a series of locks and dams, and by dredging. Twenty-three new locks and dams were built on the upper Mississippi in the 1930s in addition to the three already in existence.
Two new locks were built north of Lock and Dam No. 1 at Saint Anthony Falls in the 1960s, extending the head of navigation for commercial traffic by several miles, but few barges go past the metropolis of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota today.
Until the 1950s, there was no dam below Lock and Dam 26 at Alton, Illinois. Lock and Dam 27, which consists of a low-water dam and an 8.4 mi (13.5 km) long canal, was added in 1953 just below the confluence with the Missouri River, primarily to bypass a series of rock ledges at St. Louis. It also serves to protect the St. Louis city water intakes during times of low water.
U.S. government scientists determined in the 1950s that the Mississippi River was starting to switch to the Atchafalaya River channel because of its much steeper path to the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually the Atchafalaya River would capture the Mississippi River and become its main channel to the Gulf of Mexico, leaving New Orleans on a side channel. As a result, the U.S. Congress authorized a project called the Old River Control Structure, which has prevented the Mississippi River from leaving its current channel that drains into the Gulf via New Orleans.
Because the large scale of high-energy water flow threatened to damage the structure, an auxiliary flow control station was built adjacent to the standing control station. This US$300 million project was completed in 1986 by the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers.
Beginning in the 1970s, the Corps applied hydrology transport models to analyze flood flow and water quality of the Mississippi.
Dam 26 at Alton, Illinois, which had structural problems, was replaced by the Mel Price Lock and Dam in 1990. The original Lock and Dam 26 was demolished.
The Old River Control Structure also serve as a major floodgates that can be opened to prevent flooding. Some of the pre-1927 strategy is still in use today, the Corps actively cuts the necks of horseshoe bends, allowing the water to move faster and reducing flood heights.
William Faulkner uses the Mississippi River and Delta as the setting for many hunts throughout his novels. It has been proposed that in Faulkner's famous story, The Bear, young Ike first begins his transformation into a man, thus relinquishing his birthright to land in Yoknapatawpha County through his realizations found within the woods surrounding the Mississippi River.
Many of the works of Mark Twain deal with or take place near the Mississippi River. One of his first major works, Life on the Mississippi, is in part a history of the river, in part a memoir of Twain's experiences on the river, and a collection of tales that either take place on or are associated with the river. The Mississippi River was noted for the number of bandits which called its islands and shores home, including John Murrell who was a well-known murderer, horse stealer and slave "re-trader". His notoriety was such that author Twain devoted an entire chapter to him in Life on the Mississippi, and Murrell was rumored to have an island headquarters on the river at Island 37. Twain's most famous work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is largely a journey down the river. The novel works as an episodic meditation on American culture with the river having multiple different meanings including independence, escape, freedom, and adventure.
Herman Melville's novel The Confidence-Man portrayed a Canterbury Tales-style group of steamboat passengers whose interlocking stories are told as they travel down the Mississippi River. The novel is written both as cultural satire and a metaphysical treatise. Like Huckleberry Finn, it uses the Mississippi River as a metaphor for the larger aspects of American and human identity that unify the otherwise disparate characters. The river's fluidity is reflected by the often shifting personalities and identities of Melville's "confidence man".
The second chapter of Don Rosa's famous comic book The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck is named "The Master of the Mississippi", it is set on the Mississippi River. Scrooge works here for his Uncle Angus "Pothole" McDuck on a wheel steamer and has his first encounter with The Beagle Boys.
In Langston Hughes' poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" the Mississippi River is mentioned.
The Johnny Cash song "Big River" is about the Mississippi River, and about drifting the length of the river to pursue a relationship that fails.
"Mississippi Queen" by Mountain makes reference to the river.
The song "When the Levee Breaks", made famous in the version performed by Led Zeppelin on the album Led Zeppelin IV, was composed by Memphis Minnie McCoy in 1929 after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Another song about the flood was "Louisiana 1927" by Randy Newman for the album Good Old Boys.
The Mississippi River has a certain historical tie to the music genre Jazz. Author DuBose Heyward states in one of his books that the music genre Jazz has taken its name from a black itinerant musician called Jazbo Brown. Around the turn of the 19th century the semi-legendary Jazbo Brown is said to have played on boats (as suggested in "Jazzbo Brown from Memphis Town", performed by Bessie Smith) and along the Mississippi River.
The Hold Steady frequently make references to the river in their songs.