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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Center of commerce, recreation and environmental concern--the Mississippi River
MISSISSIPPI RIVER. Principal river of the Midwest, named by the Ojibway "mis" meaning "great" and "isipi" meaning "river." An estimated 2,348 miles long, the river drains 1, 243,700 square miles, equaling one-eighth of the entire United States. Approximately 600,000 cubic feet of water per second are emptied by the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico. Through its entire course, from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, the river falls a total of 420 feet. The designation of "Upper Mississippi" is given to that section of the river north of where the Ohio River enters the Mississippi. The section of the river south of the convergence with the Ohio is called the Lower Mississippi.

Geologists believe the Mississippi has existed for two hundred million years. Native Americans discovered it approximately 19,000 years ago. Hernando de Soto, in the spring of 1541, was the first European to discover the river.

The history of white inhabitants along the Mississippi begins with the voyage of Louis JOLLIET and Father Jacques MARQUETTE and their entry into the river on June 17, 1673. Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan friar, later managed a phonetic spelling of "Meschasipi" on his maps. In 1703 William Delisle, a French cartographer, changed the spelling to the word we recognize today. The source of the mighty waterway was not known until Henry Rowe SCHOOLCRAFT discovered it flowing from Lake Itasca in 1832.

The Mississippi created a barrier to expansion westward in the early years of American colonization. Development of the Mississippi River Valley was also halted by battles between England and France for control of the area. In 1798 the Mississippi Territory was created by Congress. The LOUISIANA PURCHASE in 1803 opened the river and lands west to settlement.

Postcard of the Mississippi River. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
The economic value of the Mississippi River was recognized by the early French trappers who carried their loads of furs along its currents. American farmers' concerns about French control of the river and the right of deposit in New Orleans led to the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. By 1840 an estimated 50 percent of all commercial vessels in the nation were used on the Mississippi and its tributaries. STEAMBOATS opened the river commerce to high class travel through the middle of the 19th century. Today COMMERCIAL FISHING and CLAM HUNTING remain valuable industries.

Control of the Mississippi was of vital concern to both the North and South during the CIVIL WAR. Disruption of river commerce out of Dubuque ended with the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. This decisive battle led to Union control of the Mississippi and isolation for the forces of the Confederacy west of the river.

Growth of RAILROADS led to a decline in the use of the Mississippi for the LUMBER INDUSTRY. Great fleets of barges revitalized river commerce. Most of the bulk cargo of the Midwest is now carried on the river.

Navigation on the Mississippi is possible from the Falls of St. Anthony in Minnesota to the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico. Never easily navigable, the river frequently changed course and left many boats marooned on sandbars or snags. The first navigation project on the Upper Mississippi was the improvement of the Dubuque ICE HARBOR by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in 1844 with a cost of $7,500.

The federal government, founding the Mississippi River Commission in 1879, created a seven-member group of engineers interested in navigational improvement and flood control. A four-and-one-half-foot channel project was begun in 1878. The depth of the channel was to be maintained by clearing the channel and constructing wing dams. Finding the depth of the channel insufficient, a second project was initiated in 1907 that called for a six-foot channel maintained by the construction of additional wing dams.

There are now twenty-seven federal LOCKS between Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Gulf of Mexico. The creation of the new river system submerged an estimated 125,000 acres of land, converted a free-flowing stream into a series of marshes and standing pools, altered the populations of some types of aquatic life such as clams, and dramatically increased urban growth along the river.

In 1917 the first federal flood control acts were passed. Hundreds of millions of new dollars poured into the system after disastrous FLOODS in 1927. Dubuque's FLOODWALL cost $10.8 million. Despite preventive measures, unexpected floods continue to be a problem today. A severe drought in 1988, a reverse situation, led barges to be stranded with tons of cargo until new channels could be dredged.

Concern continues about society's impact on the river. In 1980 a report prepared for the Upper Mississippi River Basin Commission concluded that the river system would cease to exist in the next century if current amounts of navigation were continued. Studies indicated that backwaters were filling with silt at a rate of between 1.5 and 2.0 inches annually. The annual commercial harvesting of fish indicated a gradual decline in catches resulting from pollution, silt built-up, and disruptions in fishing caused by pleasure and commercial vessels. Some species of clam are no longer found in sections of the Mississippi below cities guilty of pollution.