Template:Geobox River

The Mississippi River is the second longest river in the United States, with a length of 2,320 miles (3,734 km) from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. (The longest is its tributary the Missouri River measuring 2565 miles.) 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 (6,275 km or 3,900 miles), it is the fourth longest, and by average discharge (16,200 m³/s), it is the tenth largest. The longest of the many long Mississippi tributaries is the Missouri River with the Arkansas River as second longest. Measured by water volume, the largest of all Mississippi tributaries is the Ohio River. The river starts in Minnesota and then empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The name Mississippi is derived from the Ojibwe word misi-ziibi meaning 'great river' (gichi-ziibi 'big river' at its headwaters).


The source of the Mississippi River on the edge of Lake Itasca

From its source at Lake Itasca, 1,475 feet (450 m) above sea level in Itasca State Park located in Clearwater County, the river falls to 801 feet (244 m) prior to St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis. There it drops to 725 feet (220 m), creating the only waterfall along the river's course. The Mississippi is joined by the Minnesota River in Minneapolis, the Wisconsin River in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, the Illinois River and the Missouri River near St. Louis, and by the Ohio River at Cairo. The Arkansas River joins the Mississippi in the state of Arkansas. The Atchafalaya River in Louisiana is a major distributary of the Mississippi.

The Mississippi drains most of the area between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains, except for the areas drained by Hudson Bay via the Red River of the North, the Great Lakes and the Rio Grande. It runs through two states — Minnesota and Louisiana — and was used to define the borders of eight states. The river has since shifted, but the state borders of Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi have not changed. The river empties into the Gulf of Mexico about 100 miles (160 km) downstream from New Orleans. Measurements of the length of the Mississippi from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico vary, but the EPA's number is 2,320 miles (3,733 km). The retention time from Lake Itasca to the Gulf is about 90 days.[1]

Confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at Cairo.

The river is divided into the upper Mississippi, from its source south to the Ohio River, and the lower Mississippi, from the Ohio to its mouth near New Orleans. The upper Mississippi is further 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.

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 foot (2.7 m) deep channel for commercial barge traffic.[2][3] 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.

Through a natural process known as delta switching the lower Mississippi River has shifted its final course to the ocean 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 miles (25 to 80 km).

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 of the large scale of high energy water flow through the Old River Control Structure threatening 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 Army Corps Of Engineers.

The Great River Road in Wisconsin; Minnesota is in the land mass across the Mississippi River at Lake Pepin

Course changes[]

The Illinoian Glacier, about 200,000 to 125,000 years before present, blocked the Mississippi near Rock Island, diverting it to its present channel farther to the west (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, the current Illinois River is actually following the ancient channel of the Mississippi River to Alton 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 the cities of 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 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.


Mississippi Watershed

The Mississippi River has the third largest drainage basin ("catchment") in the world, exceeded in size only by the watersheds of the Amazon River and Congo River. It drains 41% of the 48 contiguous states of the United States. The basin covers more than 1,245,000 square miles (3,225,000 km²), including all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces.

Major tributaries of the Mississippi:

Major sub-tributaries include the Tennessee River (a tributary of the Ohio River) and the Platte River (a tributary of the Missouri River).

Mississippi - Missouri river system[]

The longest named river in North America is the Missouri River, with a length of 2,341 miles (3,767 km) from the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin to the Mississippi River. Taken together, the Jefferson, Missouri, and Mississippi form the largest 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 3,900 miles (6,275 km), making the combination the 4th longest river in the world. The uppermost 207 mi (333 km) of this combined river are called the Jefferson, the lowest 1,352 mi (2,175 km) are part of the Mississippi, and the intervening 2,341 mi (3,767 km) are called the Missouri.


Sequence of NASA MODIS images showing the outflow of fresh water from the Mississippi (marked by arrows) into the Gulf of Mexico.

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 Mississippi river discharges at an annual average rate of between 200,000 and 700,000 cubic feet per second (7,000 to 20,000 m³/s).[4] Although it is the 5th largest river in the world by volume, this flow is a mere fraction of the output of the Amazon, which moves nearly 7 million ft³/s (200,000 m³/s) during wet seasons. On average the Mississippi has only 1/11th the flow of the Amazon River, but is nearly twice that of the Columbia River and almost 6 times the volume of the Colorado River.



The word Mississippi comes from Messipi, the French rendering of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe or Algonquin) name for the river, Misi-ziibi, which means "great river."[5][6] The Ojibwe name Misi-ziibi applied only to the portion below the Crow Wing River, but the ever-changing names of the river seemed illogical to the English speakers. After the expeditions by Giacomo Costantino Beltrami and Henry Schoolcraft, the longest stream above the juncture of the Crow Wing River and Gichi-ziibi was named "Mississippi River".

Early American[]

On May 8, 1541, 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). (The river is now called Rio Misisipi in Spanish.[2]) French explorers Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette began exploring the Mississippi. He traveled with a Sioux named "Ne Tongo" (which in Sioux means big river) in 1673. Marquette proposed calling it the River of the Immaculate Conception. In 1682, René Robert Cavelier and Henri de Tonty claimed the entire Mississippi River Valley for France, calling the river Colbert River after Jean-Baptiste Colbert and the region Louisiana, for King Louis XIV. In 1718, New Orleans was established by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville.

France lost all its territories on the North American mainland as a result of the French and Indian War. The Treaty of Paris gave the Kingdom of Great Britain rights to all land in the valley east of the Mississippi and Spain rights to land west of the Mississippi. Spain also ceded Florida to England to regain Cuba, which the English occupied during the war. Britain then divided the territory into East Florida and West Florida.

Article 8 of the Treaty of Paris 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. France reacquired 'Louisiana' from Spain in the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800. The United States bought the territory from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

The 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 Mark Twain devoted an entire chapter to him in his book Life on the Mississippi, and Murrell was rumored to have an island headquarters on the river at Island 37.

Shifting sand bars in the Mississippi, such as these in Arkansas and Mississippi, made navigation in the river difficult.

19th century[]

Twain's book also extensively covered the steamboat races which took place from 1830 to 1870 on the river before more modern boating methods replaced the steamer. It 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 & Co. in 1885. The first steamboat to travel the full length of the Mississippi from the Ohio River to New Orleans, Louisiana, 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 twentieth 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.

In 1815, America defeated Britain at the Battle of New Orleans, part of the War of 1812.

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 1863 was pivotal to the Union's final victory of the Civil War.

In 1848, the Illinois and Michigan Canal was built to connect the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan via the Illinois River near Peru. 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.

20th century[]

On The Mississippi, music sheet cover for a 1912 song

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, 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.

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 square miles (70,000 km²) to a depth of up to 30 feet (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, to Luling. Seventy-eight passengers and crew died; only eighteen survived the accident.

The Great Flood of 1993 was another significant flood, although it primarily affected the Mississippi above its confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois.

Two portions of the Mississippi were designated as some of the American Heritage Rivers in 1997: The lower portion around Louisiana and Tennessee, and the upper portion around Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri.

21st century[]

In 2002 the Slovenian long-distance swimmer Martin Strel swam the entire length of the river, from Minnesota to Louisiana, over the course of 68 days.

Canoers' campsite on a sandbar in the Mississippi River near Old Town, Arkansas.

In 2005, the Source to Sea Expedition ( paddled the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers to benefit the Audubon Society's Upper Mississippi River Campaign.[7][8]

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 Lock & Dam at Dubuque.

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 1866. Earlier projects began as early as 1829 to remove snags, close off secondary channels and excavate rocks and sandbars. 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 miles (18 km) long and just above the mouth of the Des Moines River at Keokuk. The Rock Island Rapids were between Rock Island and Moline. Both rapids were considered virtually impassable.

On a side note, it is at this Quad Cities area of the Mississippi River that the river flows East to West as opposed to its normal course North to South.

The Corps recommended excavation of a 5 foot (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 foot (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.

To improve navigation between St. Paul, and Prairie du Chien, the Corps constructed several dams on lakes in the headwaters area, including Lake Winnibigoshish and Lake Pokegama. The dams, which were built beginning in the 1880s, stored spring run-off which was released during low water to help maintain channel depth.

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.

In 1913, construction was complete on a dam at Keokuk, Iowa, the first dam below St. Anthony Falls. Built by a private power company to generate electricity, the Keokuk dam was one of the largest hydro-electric plants in the world at the time. The dam also eliminated the Des Moines Rapids.

Boats lined up at Lock and Dam No. 2, Hastings

Dam No. 27 is a low water rock dam that creates a pool for the Chain of Rocks canal and its Lock No. 27 which take traffic around exposed bedrock north of St. Louis.

Lock and Dam No. 1 was completed in Minneapolis in 1917 and Lock and Dam No. 2 at Hastings, 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 so wrong that communities threatened by the flood began to make their own levee breaks to relieve the tension of the rising river.

The Corps now actively creates floodways to divert periodic water surges into backwater channels and lakes. The main floodways are the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway; the Morganza Floodway, which directs floodwaters down the Atchafalaya River; and the Bonnet Carré Spillway which directs water to Lake Pontchartrain. 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.

The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1930 authorized the 9 foot (2.7 m) channel project, which called for a navigation channel 9 feet (2.7 m) deep and 400 feet (120 m) wide to accommodate multiple-barge tows.[9][10] 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 several miles, but few barges go past the city of Saint Paul today.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Corps applied hydrology transport models to analyze flood flow and water quality of the Mississippi.

The Mississippi River just north of St. Louis

Until the 1950s, there was no dam below Lock and Dam 26 at Alton. Lock and Dam 27, which consists of a low-water dam and an 8.4 mile (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.

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.

Cities along the river[]

The cities below have either historic significance or cultural lore connecting them to the Mississippi River. They are ordered from the beginning of the river to its end.

People live year-round in this community of boathouses on the Mississippi River in Winona

In Minnesota, the Mississippi River runs through the Twin Cities and defines part of each city's border.

Bridge crossings[]

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.[11] The first railroad bridge across the Mississippi was built in 1856. It spanned the river between Arsenal Island at Rock Island and Davenport. Steamboat captians 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 a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln defending the railroad. The lawsuit went all the way up to the Supreme Court, 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.

The Dubuque-Wisconsin Bridge. The bridge connects Dubuque with Grant County.


The Stone Arch Bridge, the Third Avenue Bridge, and the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, in Minneapolis

Popular culture[]

The Mississippi River is a commonly cited natural boundary for purposes of dividing the United States into eastern and western sections, with places often being described as east or west "of the Mississippi".


Due to its size and historical significance, the Mississippi has many nicknames. Among these are:

Boaters on Hogback Island, north of Quincy, Illinois.

  • The Father of Waters
  • The Gathering of Waters
  • The Big Muddy (more commonly associated with the Missouri River)
  • Big River
  • Old Man River (a nickname immortalized by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern in their song from the classic musical Show Boat)
  • The Great River
  • Body of a Nation
  • The Mighty Mississippi
  • El Grande (de Soto)
  • The Muddy Mississippi
  • Old Blue
  • Moon River

Literature and music[]

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 due to 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. Twain's most famous work, Huckleberry Finn, is largely a journey down the river. The novel works as an episodic meditation on American culture with the river as the central metaphor.

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 ("The Master of the Mississippi") of Don Rosa's famous comic book The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck about the "Last of the Clan McDucks" is set on the Mississippi. Scrooge works here for his Uncle Angus "Pothole" McDuck on a wheel steamer and has his first encounter with The Beagle Boys.

The stage and movie musical Show Boat's central musical piece is the spiritual-influenced ballad "Ol' Man River".

Ferde Grofe composed a set of movements for symphony orchestra based on the lands the river travels through in his Mississippi Suite.

The Johnny Cash song "Big River" is about the Mississippi 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.

"Moon River" from the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's refers to the Mississippi River.

See also[]


  1. ^ "General Information about the Mississippi River". Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. National Park Service. 2004. Retrieved 2006-07-15. 
  2. ^ "Mississippi River". USGS: Status and trends of the nation's biological resources. Retrieved 2007-02-03. 
  3. ^ "U.S. Waterway System Facts, December 2005" (PDF). USACE Navigation Data Center. Retrieved 2006-04-27. 
  4. ^ Americas Wetland: Resource Center [1]
  5. ^ "Freelang Ojibwe Dictionary". 
  6. ^ {{cite web |url= |title=Mississippi |accessdate = 2007-03-06 |work=American Heritage Dictionary
  7. ^ "Upper Mississippi River Campaign". National Audubon Society. 2006. Retrieved 2006-11-29. 
  8. ^ "Paddling the Mississippi River to Benefit the Audubon Society". Source to Sea: The Mississippi River Project. Source to Sea 2006. 2006. Retrieved 2006-11-29. 
  9. ^ "The Mississippi and its Uses". Natural Resource Management Section, Rock Island Engineers. Retrieved 2006-06-21. 
  10. ^ "Appendix E: Nine-foot navigation channel maintenance activities". National Park Service, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area Comprehensive Management Plan. Retrieved 2006-06-21. 
  11. ^ Costello, Mary Charlotte (2002). Climbing the Mississippi River Bridge by Bridge, Volume Two: Minnesota. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications. ISBN 0-9644518-2-4. 

Further reading[]

  • Penn, James R. (2001). Rivers of the World. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-57607-042-5. 
  • Bartlett, Richard A. (1984). Rolling Rivers: An encyclopedia of America's rivers. R. R. Donnelley and Sons. ISBN 0-07-003910-0. 

External links[]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:

Online maps and aerial photos[]

Mouth or other endpoint (Gulf of Mexico)

Source (Lake Itasca)

This page uses content from the English language Wikipedia. The original content was at Mississippi River. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with this Familypedia wiki, the content of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons License.