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The Mississippi River

Chicago’s commercial, maritime history includes important navigable waterways, including the Mississippi River. ‘The Mighty Mississippi River’ is the internal link to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s considered the dividing line between the Eastern and Western U.S. It remains a vital trade and transport route.

Mississippi River images
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Mississippi River begins at Lake Itasca in Itasca State Park, Clearwater County, Minnesota at an elevation of 1,475 feet. Its headwaters at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis MN, are located 493 miles from the source. The river flows for 2,340 miles, and it’s divided into three major sections titled Upper, Middle and Lower Mississippi. The mouth of the river, which changes every thousand years, is currently located at Pilottown, Plaquemines Parish, LA. Elevation at the mouth is at sea level (0 ft.).

The Mississippi River Basin extends for 1,151,000 square miles, and numerous states and two Canadian provinces are drained partly or completely by the river. The river is the fourth longest river in the world and the tenth largest of the world’s rivers.

Man-made changes were necessary to enable navigation and travel on the river. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was established in 1802, was charged with developing and maintaining the navigation channel. Steamboats began to traverse the river as early as 1820. By 1829, engineering projects closed off secondary channels, removed debris and excavated sandbars.

Before 1913, steamboats could travel to St. Cloud, MN, provided conditions on the river were favorable. In 1913, the Coon Rapids Dam enabled navigation much farther north to Coon Rapids, MN. The swiftly moving river is also controlled by 42 other dams and thousands of dikes. The navigation channel must be maintained at a depth of at least nine feet for barges. Twenty-nine locks were built in 1930 to keep the channel deep enough.

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