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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. The Mississippi River, one of the world’s major river systems in size, habitat diversity and biological productivity, is the third longest river in North America. It flows approximately 2,350 miles from its source at Lake Itasca through the center of the continental United States to the Gulf of Mexico. There are competing claims as to the Mississippi's length. The staff of Itasca State Park at the Mississippi's headwaters say the river is 2,552 miles long. The US Geologic Survey has published a number of 2,300 miles, the Environmental Protection Association says it is 2,320 miles long, and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area suggests the river's length is 2,350 miles. The reported length of a river may increase or decrease as deposition or erosion occurs at its delta, or as meanders are created or cutoff. (1)

At Lake Itasca, the river is between 20 and 30 feet wide, the narrowest stretch for its entire length. The widest part of the Mississippi can be found at Lake Winnibigoshish near Bena, MN, where it is wider than 11 miles. The widest navigable part of the Mississippi is Lake Pepin, where it is approximately 2 miles wide. (2)

At the headwaters of the Mississippi, the average surface speed of the water is near 1.2 miles per hour - approximately one-third a person's walking speed. At New Orleans the river flows 3 miles per hour on average. (3)

The Mississippi River watershed is the fourth largest in the world. It extends from the Allegheny Mountains in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west. The watershed includes all or parts of 31 states and 2 Canadian Provinces. The watershed measures approximately 1.2 million square miles, covering about 40% of the lower 48 states. (4)

The upper Mississippi reach extends from St. Paul to the mouth of the Missouri River near St. Louis, Missouri. The river in this area led Algonquian-speaking Indians to name it the “Father of Waters” (literally misi, “big”; sipi, “water”). Below the Missouri River junction, the middle Mississippi follows a 200-mile (320-km) course to the mouth of the Ohio River. The turbulent and cloudy-to-muddy, Missouri, especially when in flood, adds enormous quantities of silt to the clearer Mississippi. Beyond the confluence with the Ohio at Cairo, Illinois, the lower Mississippi the Mississippi swells to more than twice the size it is above. Often 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from bank to bank, the lower Mississippi becomes a brown, lazy river, descending toward the Gulf of Mexico. (5)

The river was discovered by Hernando DeSoto in 1541. 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. (6) Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan friar, later managed a phonetic spelling of "Meschasipi" on his maps. (7) In 1703 William Delisle, a French cartographer, changed the spelling to the word we recognize today. (8) The source of the mighty waterway was not known until Henry Rowe SCHOOLCRAFT discovered it flowing from Lake Itasca in 1832. (9)

These voyagers were warned by the Indians before going onto the river that it was inhabited by demons and giant fish that would most certainly destroy them. Mark Twain believed Indian traditions were based on the presence of giant sturgeon, paddlefish and catfish. In "Life on the Mississippi," he wrote of having seen monstrous-sized catfish "six feet long, weighing 250 pounds." (10)

When white men first visited Iowa, the Mississippi was a major source of food for the native Indians. The great burial mounds along the Mississippi River contain evidence that prehistoric tribes depended greatly on this "Father of Waters" for stable food supplies of both freshwater mussels and fishes. Geologists believe the Mississippi has existed for two hundred million years. (11)

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.

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. STEAMBOATING 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.

Mississippi levee at Dubuque (1912).
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. Navigation of the river was also impacted by rapids. It was George Wallace JONES who first raised the issue in Congress as a delegate in Congress from the Territory of Michigan. (12) In 1834 he introduced an appropriations bill for $75,000 for the "improvement of the rapids on the Mississippi River." President Jackson was convinced by Jones not to veto the bill which led to the first survey of the rapids. The first navigation project on the Upper Mississippi, however, 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. (13) This project was of special interest to the UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVER IMPROVEMENT ASSOCIATION.

Looking north from Eagle Point, the pool behind the lock and dam is obvious.
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 flooding in 1927. Dubuque's FLOOD WALL 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.

Swimming in the Mississippi River was considered great fun in the 1920s when bathing suits could be rented. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
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.



1. "Mississippi," National Park Service, Online: http://www.nps.gov/miss/riverfacts.htm

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. "Mississippi River," Encyclopedia Britannica, Online: http://www.britannica.com/place/Mississippi-River

6. "Mississippi River," Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Online: http://www.iowadnr.gov/Fishing/Where-to-Fish/Mississippi-River

7. "Louis Hennepin," Canadian Museum of History, Online: http://www.historymuseum.ca/virtual-museum-of-new-france/the-explorers/louis-hennepin-1678-1680/

8. "Guillaume Desisle," Wikipedia, Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guillaume_Delisle#/media/File:Iowa_1718.jpg

9. "Henry Rowe Schoolcraft," The State Historical Society of Missouri, Online: http://shs.umsystem.edu/historicmissourians/name/s/schoolcraft/index.html

10. "Mississippi River," Iowa Department of Natural Resources

11. Ibid.

12. "Local History," Dubuque Herald, September 17, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760917&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

13. "Mississippi River Division-MRC History," U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Online: http://www.mvd.usace.army.mil/About/MississippiRiverCommission%28MRC%29/History.aspx