A waterway that irevocably links ten states of this vast country.
My interpretation of the river during my preparation for this ride while still at home in Coffs Harbour, Australia has largely been shaped since reading two books. The first being, River of Conflict, River of Dreams by Biloine Whiting Young and of course Marks Twains, Huckleberry Finn, the language of the day in the unabridged version immerses the reader into the flowing water along with the books’ characters.
Young in his introduction describes the river as having two portions, that of Twains which is the middle to lower river which passes his home town of Hannibal in Missouri and on down to the gulf.
Then there is the upper Mississippi. Early settlement of the new nation by non indigenous peoples were profoundly influenced by the presence of this river.
Towns prospered or became deserted as a result of their relationships with the river.
Curtis Campbell (Wakandhi Sapa – Black Lightning), retired chairman of the Praire Island Dakota community believes that the Oneota people he calls the “kemnichan” who were the ancestors of the Dakota and Winnebago were the earliest residents of this northern portion of the river.
The Spanish discovered the river without interest, 300 years before its source was located. 132 years later the French explored the northern portion.
Henry Schoolcraft reached the source of the Mississippi on July 13, 1832.
The headwaters of the Mississippi are located in Itasca Park, MN. At a point 450 m above sea level this iconic river begins its journey to the gulf, 4107k. The river takes a great look around the countryside, by the time it reaches Crow Wing, MN, it has ambled 603k yet as a Scaly Breasted Lorkeet flies its only 120k. Water from Itasca will take 60 days to get to the gulf of Mexico. NOTE: Plaques in Itasca State Park say 90 days, they are set in stone, so 90 days its is.
Along its way it drains 33 states and two Canadian provinces. This is one eighth of North america, the third largest watershed on our planet.
The first craft used on the river were the indian Birch bark canoes, utilised by the French to explore parts of the river.
Flatboats were later used. These rafts drew about a foot of water and could only drift down stream. Early families loaded all their belongings and livestock and drifted downstream in seach of new homesites.
Then came the keelboats,the need to bring supplies upstream was meet by these craft. They were up to 26m long and about 2.5 to 3.5m wide. They had a keel shaped bottom.They carried heavy timbers bolted to the bottom to protect against collisions with sand banks and obstacles in the river. A crew of ten would move it upstream by poling or pulling it with ropes connected ashore.
The polers cantillated life on the river as they moved upstream with much effort. You know they even “bushwhacked” up river, by grabbing and pulling on riparian vegetation to move upstream.
In 1811 the first steamboat New Orleans plyed the river from Pittsburgh to Natchez.
In 1854 railroads were operating along the river between Rock Island and Chicago.
Furs were the first commercial cargo on the river. By 1837 the trade had declined. It was replaced with lead mined from Dubuque and Galena, as it too declined people and wheat filled the barges.
Then the logging of the white pine forests began, these were the largest stands of pine in the world. At one time covering 38,000,000 acres. These logs were floated down the river in the summer months. One of these logs rafts measured 84m by 440m long, this being nearly 4.5 hectares in area. These rafts were manouvered by sternwheelers (paddle steamers) at the front and rear.
The river was kept navigatable by the Army corps of Engineers. They dammed the river in places, added locks and dredged it.
Native mussels in the river were being gathered for a prosperous button industry beginning in 1891. The mussels were almost wiped out within 25 years. Zebra mussels now infest parts of the river.
Today cities and towns in the upper Mississippi River once seperated from their riverfronts due to flood walls and pollution are coming back to their beloved river in an effort to renew an old relationship.
Each of the ten states along the river is participating in improving this newest cross country bicycle route. The Mississippi River Trail (MRT).
The MRT where possible follows rural roads that will keep cyclists in touch with the river.
I am using Bob Robinsons, Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi RiverTrail during the ride. A great reference I might add.