Life by the Mississippi

By Mueller, William; Burton, Marda | The Saturday Evening Post, April 1989 | Go to article overview

Life by the Mississippi


Mueller, William, Burton, Marda, The Saturday Evening Post


On Mud Island at Memphis there is a model of the Mississippi River. Not a tabletop thing, but five city blocks of concrete that scale every curve and contour, width and depth of the lower thousand miles in bold relief. More than 1.5 million gallons of water fuel the model. Slate slabs with streets of steel ribbons represent towns and cities. More than 300 bits of information along the model describe how man, nature, or both conspired to create history.

The notes and the flowing waters help explain how pirates once used a treacherous narrows to prey on passing boats, or how pilots inched their boats and barges past sand bars and other dangers. The role of the levees is dramatized when the model undergoes its daily "flood stage." The visitor even hear the river, though the gurgles are but faint echoes of the real thing.

The Mississippi, even combined with its major tributary, the Missouri, is still only the world's third longest river, behind the Nile, lifegiver to desert and birthplace of civilization, and the Amazon, in the center of the rain forest, largest supplier of oxygen. Neither this model, nor the neighboring museum at Mud Island, nor any statistics, explains the true role of Old Man River in our lives and our imagination.

How important has the river been to our development? Our settlers had in the Mississippi and its tributaries an ideal blue highway, linking 31 states to the Gulf. The Ohio River would give important areas in several states an avenue large enough to accommodate big steamboats. The Missouri would be even more important, slashing a thousand miles through forbidding northwestern prarie to the mountains. Access to markets permitted Americans to develop as fast as their audacity and ingenuity would allow. That effect on the economy still exists here in the heartland. Farmers this past summer were affected (and still are) by low water levels on the river. As the drought worsened, many argued for tapping the Great Lakes to raise levels to the necessary 9 feet in parts of the upper channel and 12 feet below Cairo, Ilinois. So much tonnage passes along the river that the port of New Orleans surpasses new York's in shipping. A single tank barge can be more than 1,000 feet in length, and its 9 million-gallon capacity exceeds that of 1,000 railroad tank cars; a single coal barge can hold up to 60 railroad car loads, and ten barges can be joined together in one tow.

The Mississippi for travelers has one further distinction from the Nile or the Amazon. Few adventurers have ever seen the birthplace of those two rivers, but anyone can drive the entire length of the Mississippi on the Great River Road and see for himself the interplay of history, culture, and environment. He sees less of the river itself, less of Mark Twain's steamboat highway, and more of how the great river has shaped its environs. The traveler must press on, seeking to know more.

* * *

The journey begins in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. One finds the Mississippi leaking out of Lake Itasca. Then the Mississippi is off, meandering southeasterly and gathering volume through a rich watershed, until by St. Cloud it is a true river; and by Minneapolis-St. Paul it is broad enough, a nine-foot channel gouged into its bottom, to accommodate the millions of tons of ore, coal, and grain barged toward the ocean more than 2,000 miles away.

At the St. Croix there is a confluence of rivers, and then the Mississippi turns sharply southward to form Minnesota's eastern boundary. Here it takes on its classic upperriver characteristics. Wooded hills and bluffs gently press in, seeming to keep the channel true to south, while broad valleys let the river sprawl into shallow moving lakes half a mile acros with marshes and wetlands that make this still the world's premier migratory flyway.

The river roads here--in the states of Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Missouri--run near the actual river.

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