River in the USA, the main arm of the great river system draining the USA between the Appalachian and the Rocky mountain ranges. The length of the Mississippi is 3,778 km/2,348 mi; with its tributary the Missouri it totals 6,020 km/3,740 mi. It has the second largest drainage basin in the world and incorporates all or part of 30 US states and two Canadian provinces. The Mississippi rises in the lake region of northern Minnesota in the basin of Lake Itasca, and drops 20 m/65 ft over the St Anthony Falls at Minneapolis. Below the tributaries of the Minnesota, Wisconsin, Des Moines, and Illinois rivers, the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi occurs at St Louis. Turning at the Ohio junction, it passes Memphis, and takes in the St Francis, Arkansas, Yazoo, and Red tributaries before reaching its delta on the Gulf of Mexico, beyond New Orleans. Altogether the Mississippi has 42 tributary streams and the whole Mississippi river system has a navigable length in excess of 25,900 km/16,100 mi.
The Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto reached a point on the Mississippi near present-day Memphis in 1541. The European discovery of the Mississippi proper was made by a French missionary, Jacques Marquette, in 1673. Robert de la Salle, a French explorer, reached the river's mouth in 1682 after descending from the Great Lakes. Before the coming of the railroad, river commerce was of greater importance, and the securing of the Mississippi (1861–63) in the American Civil War was a vital objective of the Union forces. The river is open to ocean-going vessels as far up as Baton Rouge, via an 11 m/7 mi channel to its huge oil refineries. Traffic on the New Orleans–Baton Rouge stretch increased by 150% during the 1960s, and the system as a whole plays a vital role in the internal communications of the USA. St Louis is the chief central port on its banks.
Waterborne commerce consists mainly of bulk commodities such as petroleum and petroleum products, grain, and iron ore. Passenger traffic was important during the 19th century; today excursion boats, especially paddle-wheel craft, provide day trips or longer cruises. The river was listed in 1994 as being in danger of ecological collapse, due to pollution from towns, mines, farms, and barge traffic, and the fact that its water flow is impeded by dams and levees (artificially raised banks). The Friends of the Mississippi River are one of a number of pressure groups set up to protect and restore the river. Levees extend over more than 1,600 mi/2,575 km of its course because of the potentially dangerous spring flooding, as in 1993. In spring, warm air from the Gulf of Mexico collides with cold fronts from the north to create tornadoes along the Red River, a western tributary.
Drainage basins and flooding
Twain, Mark: From Life on the Mississippi
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Mississippi will drink wet and vote dry—so long as any citizen can stagger to the polls. —Will Rogers , attributed,...