The Mississippi River: The Backbone of America

Mississippi RiverPhoto: rmadlo119

America’s cultural canon has a special place in its heart for life along the Mississippi River. From the writings of Mark Twain to the scenes in Show Boat, depictions of life along the Mississippi River have represented life in America like nothing else.

American music draws heavily from this area. New Orleans jazz and Mississippi music, including the songs of Elvis, sprung near its banks. So what makes this region so important to the nation?

Sometimes dismissed as flyover country, other times embraced as part of the heartland, the Mississippi River watershed rests between the Allegheny Mountains in the east and the Rocky Mountains in the west. Rain that falls on this watershed eventually flows through the Mississippi River. The 1.2 square-mile Mississippi watershed extends into 31 American states as well as two Canadian provinces. One tributary, the Ohio River, flows through Pennsylvania, while another, the Missouri River, originates in Montana.

MontanaPhoto: brewbooks

The Mississippi and its tributaries are important sources of freshwater, and sinks for municipal waste, for millions of people. Farmers have also made themselves part of the hydrologic cycle of the Mississippi basin by growing crops in the watershed. They produce 92% the USA agricultural exports, and 60% of USA grain exports float down the Mississippi River to the Port of South Louisiana and Port of New Orleans.

LouisianaPhoto: Ken Lund

The National Parks Service writes that Louisiana can boast the largest port district on the planet in terms of tonnage shipped. Metals, fossil fuels and their derivatives, and the fruits of the lumber and agriculture sectors all pass through the Mississippi River Delta. The longest possible freshwater journey to the USA’s Gulf Coast goes from the headwaters of the Missouri River to the Mississippi Delta, a 3,710 mile (5,970 km) route that makes the Mississippi-Missouri River combination the fourth longest river on Earth.

Like neural impulses traveling through the nerves of a spinal column, culture and commerce cruise up and down the Mississippi River. Just as a misaligned vertebrae can caused pinched nerves, less than ideal sections of the Mississippi River can cause traffic jams and floods. In 1879, the USA Congress decided to improve the Mississippi River by establishing the Mississippi River Commission to prevent floods and facilitate navigation.

FloodPhoto: D. L.

Despite decades of working towards these goals, a 1927 flood inundated 26,000 square miles (around 67,000 km sq) of the Lower Mississippi Valley, an area nearly as large as Ireland. The natural disaster prompted Congress to authorize additional flood control measures. The Mississippi River and Tributaries Project upgraded the Mississippi River with levees, floodways, channel improvements, stabilization, and tributary basin improvements.

The massive scale of the Mississippi River makes it an impressive natural phenomenon. The waters of the Mississippi River had the natural potential to carry commerce and destroy communities. Thanks to engineering projects that tamed this river system, the former is common and the latter is rare. A people who can rebuild after disaster have good reason to stand up tall.