Lower Mississippi River History - Quimby's Cruising Guide

Lower Mississippi River History

The Lower Mississippi River shares a name and flowage with the Upper Mississippi but not much else. From Cairo, Ill., it flows free for 954 miles with no locks and dams to the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite Native Americans living along the river for thousands of years, Hernando de Soto “discovered” it for Spain in the 1500s. Sieur de La Salle led the first successful mission to the Gulf in 1682 and claimed the river basin for France. The French and Spanish traded ownership until 1803, when France sold the area to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.

New Orleans became a major port by the mid-1800s, then railroads became the dominant mode of transportation. But the need to move war material during World War I and II, combined with advances in towboats and barges, renewed interest in river shipping.

The War Department first attempted to control the river in 1824, then significant improvements came after the creation of the Mississippi River Commission in 1879. Now, they work in concert with the Army Corps of Engineers for navigation, flood control and environmental purposes.

An ongoing challenge is to prevent the river from going down the Atchafalaya River below Natchez, which would create “a deteriorating outlet” at New Orleans. During the Great Flood of 1927, more than 26,000 square miles were inundated, with over 130,000 homes lost and 500,000 people displaced.