Lake Itasca, part of the residue the glaciers left behind in
Minnesota, is about 250 miles northwest of St. Paul. Out of the
northern end of the lake, water bubbles between boulders along the
shoreline. These are the headwaters of the Mississippi River. By the
time the river has a defined channel, about 40 feet downstream, it
is no more than six-to-eight feet wide. I watched a teenage boy wade
across without getting his knees wet.
Two thousand five hundred fifty-two miles later, it empties into
the Gulf of Mexico. At New Orleans, a hundred miles above the Gulf,
the river is 200 feet deep and considerably more than a mile wide.
The flow at New Orleans is 44,853,116 gallons every second.
This flood comes from 31 states and two Canadian provinces. The
river dumps 495 million tons of silt a year into the Gulf. Most of
it comes from the Missouri River which empties into the Mississippi
a short distance above St. Louis. Mark Twain described it as "too
thick to drink and too thin to plow." One might say that the
Mississippi and the Missouri jointly are the instrument by which
soil from the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains is transferred to
I recently spent two weeks on a paddle-wheel steamboat, the
Mississippi Queen, going down the river from St. Paul. There were
about 300 passengers on board, many had been there before. One woman
said she had been on 50 cruises down the river, her was when her
grandmother took her as a little girl. As a group, we were from all
over the country, from the East Coast to Hawaii.
My original intention for joining the cruise was to go all the
way to New Orleans, but hurricane Katrina made that impossible.
Instead, we turned up the Ohio at Cairo, Ill., to Paducah, Ky., and
then up the Tennessee River to Chattanooga.
This is a formidable river system. It has a hypnotic effect. You
can (and I did) spend endless hours on deck simply watching the
shoreline pass by - isolated houses, little towns, an occasional
city, highways, lots of long freight trains. Many of the trains are
carrying wheat that ordinarily would go on barges to New Orleans for
export. Since Katrina, this wheat has been going by train to
The traffic on the river is mainly barges, each carrying 1,500
tons, heavy with coal to fuel electric power plants in the Tennessee
Valley but also weighted down with just about anything else -
butter, syrup, and molasses.
It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of the Mississippi
River system as a transportation artery. One reason Jefferson made
the Louisiana Purchase was to secure free passage through the port
of New Orleans. But the river is more than a means of cheap
transportation. It has military, political, social, and cultural
importance as well.
The Union won the Civil War after it controlled the Mississippi,
Ohio, and Tennessee rivers. Andrew Jackson's victory over the
British in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 did a lot to
propel him into the White House. Herbert Hoover's relief work in the
flood of 1927 had the same effect on his presidential ambitions.
After more than a century, Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn" remains a classic of American literature and one of the first
sensitive treatments of racism. Mississippi cities - New Orleans,
Memphis, St. Louis - gave the world jazz, the quintessential
Small towns along the river have their own pet prides. A
talkative cab driver in Winona, Minn., bragged that Winona State
College has students from India and Bangladesh. (What these students
take home with them will probably be good, too, for the American
image in South Asia. …