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They don’t call it the Mighty Mississippi for nothing: The Mississippi River flows more than 2,000 miles through 10 states, providing water for 18 million people and serving as a vital trade route for 175 million tons of freight each year. It has long been intertwined with the history and expansion of America, providing crucial resources and transportation links. Native Americans have lived along the Mississippi River since at least the fourth millennium BCE, and the Indigenous Anishinaabe peoples called it the Misi-ziibi, meaning “Great River.” And, of course, it’s a critical habitat for numerous animal species, including the 260 types of fish and 326 species of birds that make their home in or beside the water. But while all of us have heard of it, how much do you really know about the Mississippi River? Here are seven surprising facts about the Mighty Mississippi.
It's Part of the Fourth-Longest River System in the World
The source of the Mississippi River is Minnesota’s Lake Itasca; from there, it flows about 2,350 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Its journey takes it through 10 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It is the second-longest river in North America, after the Missouri River, which is about 100 miles longer. However, the Missouri River is considered a tributary of the Mississippi. Therefore, when combined, the Mississippi-Missouri river system measures 3,710 miles long — the fourth-longest in the world after the Nile River in Africa, the Amazon River in South America, and the Yangtze River in China.
Counting its watershed (or the land drained by the river and its tributaries), the Mississippi covers an even more impressive area — 1.2 million square miles, which represents 40% of the continental United States. That includes part or all of 32 states, plus two Canadian provinces, making it the fourth-largest watershed in the world.
A Droplet of Water Takes an Average of 90 Days to Travel Its Length
Fluviologists (those who study watercourses) estimate that a single droplet of water would take around three months to travel the entire length of the Mississippi. The current moves at about 1.2 miles per hour near its source and typically about 3 miles per hour by the time it reaches New Orleans. Of course, the river’s velocity changes according to other factors, such as width or depth. At its narrowest, near the source, the Mississippi is 20 to 30 feet wide, but at other points it stretches as wide as 11 miles and as deep as 200 feet.
The fastest human to swim the length of the Mississippi beat this time by a considerable margin. In 2002, Slovenian Martin Strel, whose nicknames include “Big River Man,” “Hero in a Speedo,” and “Human Fish,” took 68 days to complete his marathon effort from start to finish. In 2015, former Navy Seal Chris Ring became the first American to swim the length of the Mississippi, but at a more leisurely pace, taking 181 days to cover the same distance.
Ice on the Mississippi Has Floated Past New Orleans
While it’s common for northerly parts of the Mississippi to freeze over, it’s very rare for ice to reach Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico. But in February 1899, large chunks of ice floated past New Orleans to the shock of its citizens, who were shivering through unprecedented snowstorms and temperatures that had fallen as low as 6.8 degrees Fahrenheit. However, that was nothing compared to the weather upstream: Everywhere north of Cairo, Illinois, the river itself had turned to solid ice. In Minnesota, temperatures plummeted to -59 degrees Fahrenheit. Extreme conditions were also present during the 1918-1919 Big Freeze, when the impact on river traffic led to widespread coal shortages. Another memorable year was 1936, when the Mississippi froze solid in St. Louis, Missouri.
Occasionally, the River Flows Backwards
Normally, the Mississippi flows south into the Gulf of Mexico, but several hurricanes have reversed the Mississippi’s flow. For a few hours in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina pushed the water in the wrong direction. That day, the river was 13 feet above its usual level. Something similar happened in 2012, when Isaac moved water upstream for an entire 24-hour period. The powerful winds shifted 182,000 cubic feet of water per second, close to its regular flow but in the opposite direction.
Hurricanes aren’t the only natural hazards that mess with river currents. On February 7, 1812, the U.S. experienced one of its most powerful earthquakes ever, estimated now to measure about 8.8 on the Richter scale. Its effects were felt as far away as Boston. On the Mississippi, the quake created instant waterfalls, flinging boats over sheer drops. It also caused something known as a fluvial tsunami, which reversed the river’s flow for several hours.
Water Skiing Was Invented on the Mississippi
We have a Minnesotan named Ralph Samuelson to thank for introducing us to the joys of water skiing. Samuelson came to Lake Pepin, which is actually a wide stretch of the Mississippi River, in the summer of 1922, having already mastered aquaplaning. This time he was determined to figure out how to balance on two skis instead of a single board.
At first, he could complete only a few yards before tumbling into the water. After five days of failed attempts, however, Samuelson finally tried pushing the back of his water skis down into the water. Tips up, he achieved his goal on July 2, the day before his 19th birthday. Almost three years later, he became the first to manage a water ski jump off a floating diving platform on Lake Pepin. A monument to his achievements stands in nearby Lake City.
Natchez Is the Oldest Permanent Settlement on the River
The city of Natchez has been around for so long, it predates the founding of the state of Mississippi by over a century. The French settled on the riverbanks here in 1716, but the Indigenous Natchez peoples (and before them, the Plaquemine peoples) had lived in the area far earlier. Today, visitors can learn more at the Grand Village of the Natchez, which contains a replica of a traditional home and earthen mounds once used for religious and political ceremonies.
Historic homes dating from the 19th century are located throughout the city. Most notable is the William Johnson House. William Johnson, a free Black barber and diarist, lived there until he was tragically murdered in 1851. Visitors today can learn more about the lives of free African Americans in the pre-Civil War South, as well as Johnson's diaries, which detailed everyday life in Natchez. The Melrose estate, another fascinating National Park Service site, was built in the 1840s in the Greek Revival style for a wealthy attorney named John T. McMurran.
The Mississippi Inspired Several of Mark Twain’s Stories
Several locations along the Mississippi provide the setting for Mark Twain’s best-known novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The story begins in St. Petersburg, Missouri (a fictional place based on Twain’s real-life hometown, Hannibal), but later shifts to Illinois, Kentucky, and Arkansas, following main characters Huck and Jim as they travel the course of the Mississippi. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn wasn’t the only time Mark Twain drew inspiration from the mighty river; his earlier bestseller The Adventures of Tom Sawyer chronicled what it was like to grow up, as he had, in 19th-century riverside Missouri. A third book, Life on the Mississippi, drew on Twain’s firsthand experience as an adult working as a steamboat pilot.
Twain wasn’t the only author waxing poetic about the mighty Mississippi, either. In 1926, Edna Ferber wrote Show Boat, a novel that revolved around the lives of performers and stagehands working on a show boat called Cotton Blossom. The tale was turned into a hit Broadway musical a year later and featured the famous song “Ol’ Man River,” whose lyrics were written by Broadway legend Oscar Hammerstein. This haunting song not only anchors the narrative, but also acts as a metaphor for the Mississippi itself, emphasizing the seemingly endless flow of the river.