Mississippi River is the largest river system in North America. About 2,320 miles (3,730 km) long, the river originates at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, and flows slowly southwards in sweeping meanders, terminating 95 miles (153 km) by river below New Orleans, where it begins to flow to the Gulf of Mexico. Along with its major tributary, the Missouri River, the river drains all or parts of 31 U.S. states stretching from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Appalachian Mountains in the east to the Canada–US border on the north, including most of the Great Plains, and is the fourth longest river in the world and the tenth most powerful river in the world.
The current form of the Mississippi River basin was largely shaped by the Laurentide Ice Sheet of the most recent Ice Age. The southernmost extent of this enormous glaciation extended well into the present-day United States and Mississippi basin. When the ice sheet began to recede, hundreds of feet of rich sediment were deposited, creating the flat and fertile landscape of the Mississippi Valley. During the melt, giant glacial rivers found drainage paths into the Mississippi watershed, creating such features as the Minnesota River, James River, and Milk River valleys. When the ice sheet completely retreated, many of these "temporary" rivers found paths to Hudson Bay or the Arctic Ocean, leaving the Mississippi Basin with many features "oversized" for the existing rivers to have carved in the same time period.
The Mississippi River Delta has shifted and changed constantly since the formation of the river, but the construction of dams on the river has greatly reduced the flow of sediment to the delta. In recent years, the Mississippi's mouth has shown a steady shift towards the Atchafalaya River channel, but because of floodworks at the river's mouth, this change of course—which would be catastrophic for seaports at the river mouth—has so far been held at bay. Some researchers believe that due to natural forces inherent to river plains, it is a matter of time before this event takes places and that it becomes more likely each year.
Hundreds of Native American tribes have depended on the Mississippi River and its tributaries for thousands of years. Although they knew the river by many different names, it was the Ojibwe word misi-ziibi, meaning Great River, or gichi-ziibi, meaning Big River, that ultimately gave the river its present-day name. European explorers reached the mouth of the river as early as the 16th century and 17th century. The river throughout history has served as the border for New France, New Spain, and the early United States—its size and importance made it a formidable boundary as well as a strategic military location, and later, an important artery for steamboats to travel on. Writer Mark Twain was one of the most well-known figures on the river in this period.
Even today, the river serves as partial boundaries for ten states, and most of its course can easily be seen on a political map. The Mississippi has also been known for great flooding events, especially in the 20th century which experienced up to four 100-year floods. This has led to the construction of hundreds of miles of levees along nearly the entire course of the river, although they have not always succeeded in preventing the greatest floods.
Throughout its history, whether for Native Americans, explorers, or modern commerce, the Mississippi has always been a major navigation route through the center of North America. In the 19th and 20th centuries, despite its slow current and relative depth, a series of dams were constructed on the river, one of the most notable of which is at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis. These dams facilitate navigation for a steady stream of barge traffic carrying agricultural products from the fertile Mississippi Basin to the Gulf Coast, and like the Columbia River, most of the upper Mississippi is a cascade of reservoirs, as are many of its tributaries like the Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, and Arkansas.
Most of its big tributaries—the Missouri and Ohio Rivers—have also been developed for navigation. However, the development of the 20th and 21st centuries has also come with environmental problems, the most infamous of which is the enormous Gulf of Mexico dead zone that extends hundreds of miles out to sea from the river's mouth. Because of dredging activity to deepen the Mississippi River channel, many natural features such as sandbars and meanders no longer exist. Efforts are being made to clean up the river and its tributaries, including the establishment of National Park Service sites on the river and the prevention of agricultural waste from flowing into the river.
Ice sheets during the Illinoian Stage 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 Stage.
Other changes in the course of the river have occurred because of earthquakes along the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which lies between Memphis and St. Louis. Three earthquakes in 1811 and 1812, estimated at approximately 8 on the Richter magnitude 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 distributaries diminish in volume and form 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 (25–80 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.
The source of the Upper Mississippi River is Lake Itasca, 1,475 feet (450 m) above sea level in Itasca State Park located in Clearwater County, Minnesota. The name "Itasca" is a combination of the last four letters of the Latin word for truth (veritas) and the first two letters of the Latin word for head (caput). The lake is fed by a number of smaller streams, sometimes considered the river's
The head of navigation on the Mississippi is the Coon Rapids Dam in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Before its construction in 1913 steamboats could occasionally go upstream as far as Saint Cloud, depending on river conditions.
The uppermost lock and dam on the Mississippi River is the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam in Minneapolis. Above the dam, the river's elevation is 799 feet (244 m). Below the dam, the river's elevation is 750 feet (230 m). This 49-foot (15 m) drop is the largest of all the Mississippi River locks and dams. The origin of the dramatic drop is a waterfall preserved adjacent to the lock under an apron of concrete. Saint 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.
The major tributaries of the Lower Mississippi River are the White River, flowing in at the White River National Wildlife Refuge in east central Arkansas; the Arkansas River, joining the Mississippi at Arkansas Post; the Yazoo River, meeting the Mississippi at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and the Red River;.
The Atchafalaya River in Louisiana is a major distributary of the Mississippi.
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 the Rock Island Arsenal 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 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.
John James Audubon Bridge – Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana and West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana is under construction, when finished it will be the longest bridge on the Mississippi River.
Stone Arch Bridge – former Great Northern Railway (now pedestrian) bridge at Saint Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis.
I-35W Saint Anthony Falls Bridge which opened in September 2008. Replacing the I-35W Mississippi River bridge – which collapsed catastrophically on August 1, 2007, killing 13 and injuring over 100.
I-90 Mississippi River Bridge – connects La Crosse, Wisconsin to Winona County, Minnesota, located just south of Lock and Dam No. 7.
Black Hawk Bridge – connects Lansing in Allamakee County, Iowa, to rural Crawford County, Wisconsin, locally referred to as the Lansing Bridge and documented in the Historic American Engineering Record.
Julien Dubuque Bridge – joins the cities of Dubuque, Iowa, and East Dubuque, Illinois and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Savanna-Sabula Bridge – truss bridge and causeway that connects the city of Savanna, Illinois with the island city of Sabula, Iowa. The bridge carries U.S. Highway 52 over the river. It is also the terminus of both Iowa Highway 64 and Illinois Route 64. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
Fred Schwengel Memorial Bridge – 4-lane steel girder bridge that connects LeClaire, Iowa and Rapids City, Illinois. Completed in 1966.
I-74 Bridge – originally known as the Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge, connects Bettendorf, Iowa and Moline, Illinois.
Government Bridge – connects Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa, adjacent to Lock and Dam No. 15 and the fourth crossing in this vicinity, having been built in 1896.
Rock Island Centennial Bridge – connects Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa, opened in 1940.
Norbert F. Beckey Bridge – connects Muscatine, Iowa to Rock Island County, Illinois, became the country's first bridge to be illuminated with light-emitting diode lights decoratively illuminating the facade of the bridge.
Great River Bridge – cable-stayed bridge connecting Burlington, Iowa to Gulf Port, Illinois.
Fort Madison Toll Bridge – also known as the Santa Fe Swing Span Bridge. At the time of its construction, it was the longest and heaviest electrified swing span on the river. It connects Fort Madison, Iowa and unincorporated Niota, Illinois. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1999.
Bayview Bridge – cable-stayed bridge bringing westbound U.S. Highway 24 over the river, connecting the cities of West Quincy, Missouri and Quincy, Illinois. Eastbound U.S. 24 is served by the older Quincy Memorial Bridge.
Clark Bridge – also known as the Super Bridge as the result of an appearance on the PBS program, Nova. This cable-stayed bridge connects West Alton, Missouri and Alton, Illinois and was built in 1994 and carries U.S. Route 67 across the river. It is the northernmost river crossing in the St. Louis metropolitan area and replaces the Old Clark Bridge, a truss bridge built in 1928, named after explorer William Clark.
Chain of Rocks Bridge – located on the northern edge of St. Louis; notable for a 22-degree bend occurring at the middle of the crossing, necessary for navigation on the river and was the route used by U.S. Route 66 to cross over the Mississippi.
Eads Bridge – combined road and railway bridge, connecting St. Louis and East St. Louis, Illinois. When completed in 1874, it was the longest arch bridge in the world, with an overall length of 6,442 ft (1,964 m). The ribbed steel arch spans were considered daring, as was the use of steel as a primary structural material; it was the first such use of true steel in a major bridge project.
Chester Bridge – truss bridge connecting Route 51 in Missouri with Illinois Route 150, between Perryville, Missouri and Chester, Illinois. The bridge can be seen in the beginning of the 1967 film, In the Heat of the Night. In the 1940s, the main span was destroyed by a tornado.
Hernando de Soto Bridge – through arch bridge carrying Interstate 40 across the river between West Memphis, Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee.
Frisco Bridge – previously known as the Memphis Bridge, it is a cantilevered through truss bridge, carrying a rail line across the river between West Memphis, Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee. It was the first crossing of the Lower Mississippi and the longest span in the U.S., when it opened on May 12, 1892. It is listed as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Memphis & Arkansas Bridge – a cantilevered through truss bridge bridge, which carries Interstate 55 to connect Memphis and West Memphis; also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Huey P. Long Bridge – Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, the first Mississippi River span built in Louisiana.
Crescent City Connection – connects the east and west banks of New Orleans; the 5th-longest cantilever bridge in the world.
In 2002, Slovenian long-distance swimmer, Martin Strel, swam the entire length of the river, from Minnesota to Louisiana, over the course of 68 days.
In 2005, the Source to Sea Expedition 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.
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.
Ferde Grofé composed a set of movements for symphony orchestra based on the lands the river travels through in his "Mississippi Suite".
The stage and movie musical Show Boat's central musical piece is the spiritual-influenced ballad "Ol' Man River".
The musical Big River is based on the travels of Huckleberry Finn down the river.
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 the rock group Mountain makes reference to the river.
"Roll On Mississippi" and "Mississippi Cotton Picking Delta Town" are two classics from Charley Pride that refer to the Mississippi River.
In one of his books, DuBose Heyward claims that jazz got its name from a black itinerant musician called Jazbo Brown. Around the turn of the 19th century the semi-legendary Brown is said to have played on boats along the Mississippi River, as suggested in "Jazzbo Brown from Memphis Town", performed by Bessie Smith.
The late Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn collaborated on the song "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man" about lovers separated by the mighty river, but are not afraid to swim it, even at the risk of alligator bites, at a one-mile (1.6 km) wide juncture separating the two states, for a rendezvous.
Usage in popular culture
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 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.