Let's Reminisce: Miss River

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

Having just completed a weeklong riverboat cruise from New Orleans to Vicksburg and back (a distance of 684 miles roundtrip), I have a wealth of information to share.

The Mississippi River is one of the world’s major river systems in size and habitat diversity. It is also one of the world’s most important commercial waterways and one of North America’s great migration routes for both birds and fishes. It is home to 360 species of fish, 326 of birds, 145 of amphibians, and 50 of mammals.

Native Americans lived along its banks and used the river for sustenance and transportation. The river received its official title from the Anishinaabe, a group of indigenous people from Canada and the US. They named it “Misi-ziibi,” meaning “Great River” or “gathering of waters.”

Early European explorers used the Mississippi to explore the interior and northern reaches of what later became the US. Fur traders plied their trade on the river and soldiers of several nations garrisoned troops at strategic points along the river when the area was still on the frontier.

White settler from Europe and the US (and often their slaves) arrived on steamboats, dispossessing the Native Americans of their lands and converting the landscape into farms and cities.

Today the Mississippi River powers a significant segment of our economy in the upper Midwest. Barges and their tows on the river move approximately 175 million tons of freight each year through a system of 29 locks and dams. The river is also a major recreational resource for boaters, canoeists, hunters, anglers and birdwatchers.

The Mississippi is the second longest river in North America, flowing 2,350 miles from its source at Lake Itasca (Minnesota) through the center of the continental United States to the Gulf of Mexico. The Missouri River, a tributary of the Mississippi, is about 100 miles longer. If the length of the Missouri and Ohio (another of its tributaries) Rivers are added to the Mississippi’s main stem, then it is the third longest river system in the world.

When compared to other world rivers, the Mississippi-Missouri River combination ranks fourth in length, following the Nile, the Amazon, and the Yangtze Rivers. At any river’s delta, the reported length may increase or decrease as deposits and erosion occur. The Mississippi has been described as “like a giant fire hose with no one controlling the end where the water comes out at high speed”: thus it is under constant pressure to change its course and has done so countless times.

At its source the river is between 20 and 30 feet wide, the narrowest stretch, and the average surface speed of the water is about 1.2 mph (one half as fast as people walk). At its widest point it is more than 11 miles wide. The widest navigable section in the shipping channel is approx. 2 miles wide. At New Orleans the river flows about 3 mph. It takes about three months for water that leaves the river’s source to reach the Gulf of Mexico.

Another way to measure the size of a river is by the amount of water it discharges. By this measure the Mississippi is the 15th largest in the world. At its source the average flow rate is 6 cubic feet per second. At New Orleans the flow rate is 600,000 cfs. Regarding the size of its watershed, the river drains an area of about 1.2 million sq. miles, including all or part of 32 states and two Canadian provinces. For comparison, the Amazon drains 2.7 million sq. miles.

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in American history, with 27,000 sq. miles inundated over the course of several months. The uninflated cost of the damage was estimated at up to 1 billion dollars. Over 630,000 people were directly affected, most in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. More than 200,000 African Americans were displaced from their homes, and as a result of this disruption, many of them joined the Great Migration from the south.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.