A View from the River in the Middle of America ; the Mississippi Rolls on as One of Our Greatest National Treasures

By Holt, Pat M. | The Christian Science Monitor, January 2, 2006 | Go to article overview

A View from the River in the Middle of America ; the Mississippi Rolls on as One of Our Greatest National Treasures


Holt, Pat M., The Christian Science Monitor


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 southern Louisiana.

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 Portland, Ore.

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 American music.

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. …

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