Upper Mississippi River History – Quimby's Cruising Guide

Upper Mississippi River History

The Mississippi River System is the third largest river system in the world. It has played a significant role in our country’s history, commerce, agriculture, art, literature and recreation. Beginning as a trickle at Lake Itasca, Minn., it flows 2,348 miles to the Gulf of Mexico and is divided into two distinct sections: the Upper Mississippi and the Lower Mississippi.

The Upper Mississippi is navigable for 857.6 miles from just above Minneapolis to Cairo, Ill., at the confluence of the Ohio River. At that point it becomes the Lower Mississippi.

The river was formed during the last ice age roughly 12,000 years ago, and people have lived along it almost that long, including a variety of Native Americans. They gave it names like Big River, Great River and Father of Waters.

In 1673, Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet explored it for the French, partly hoping it would lead to a route to China.

In the 1920s, the Army Corps of Engineers began to build a series of 29 locks and dams to better serve navigation over the 420-foot fall from the first to last lock. They now maintain a 9-foot-deep navigation channel with a combination of dredging and water control structures.

The river meanders through areas of high limestone bluffs, past broad flood plains, rich farmland and a great number of towns, large and small.

Migrating birds, including the American Bald Eagle, have made it the largest and most heavily traveled flyway in North America.

Of the numerous parks, public use areas, preserves and wildlife refuges along the banks, the most notable is the 261-mile Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge from Wabasha, Minn., to Rock Island, Ill. This is America’s most heavily visited wildlife refuge.