Chances are if you’ve traveled through the mid-section of our nation you’ve driven over, flown above or floated the greatest river in North America — the Mississippi.
In southwestern Illinois at Alton, you may have crossed the beautiful, incomparable Clark Bridge, so named for William Clark, a leader of the Corps of Discovery. Local folks refer to this area as the River Bend, where the Great River flows west to east before turning south to St. Louis.
Many people pass over the Mighty Mississippi on a daily basis and it’s my concern that they never give her notice, not even a glance. Perhaps I’m wrong; hopefully I am. The Mississippi is similar to a wonderful lady. By the way, all rivers should be referred to in the female gender. Why in the world Jerome Kern ever thought to write a song with the title and lyrics “Old Man River” is beyond me. Rivers are like women; they have hidden beauty, matchless shapes, individual grandeur, colorful frills, unpredictable temperament and the need to be embraced.
Obviously, America’s river has not gone unnoticed. De Soto gets the credit for discovery, Marquette and Joliet, the honor of exploration, and Mark Twain, the distinction of making all aware of her charm and splendor. Her history speaks of feast, famine, plantations and riverboats, plus Lewis and Clark, the Civil War, bridges and the Army Corps of Engineers. Included in her past and present are fact, fiction, myth, and legend. In today’s world of Internet access, the www at your fingertips, there are 935,000 references to the Mississippi. (Make that 935,001.)
Our river begins as a small stream, flowing rather inauspiciously out of Minnesota’s Lake Itasca. Meandering through marsh and wetland, she gains personality, strength and identity, moving southward to proclaim her might and majesty as the greatest of America’s rivers. Notable during her journey through the heartland are the major cities and hamlets born of her banks. Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans derived their existence and success as centers of trade and commerce from her. They depend on the river for their reputation, distinction and eminence. Small riverside towns and villages have withstood her torture for centuries, most coming back for more but some finally giving up for good.
During the 2,350-mile trip, the huge watershed is joined by more than 250 tributaries and is embraced and encouraged by significant sisters: the Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Wabash, Ohio, Arkansas and Red. Her travel ends some 120 miles south of New Orleans while forming the Atchafalaya River Basin and the fertile Mississippi Delta. Before completing the course at the Gulf of Mexico, nearly two-thirds of the United States has been drained through her vast network of waterways. Folks drink her water, eat her fish, watch her birds, hunt her animals and farm her fertile soil. Man has polluted the water, plowed the shores, diked the banks, diverted the current and dammed the flow, but the Mississippi continues on undauntedly and forever.
There are times she becomes temperamental, even angry, spilling her banks to remind mankind of her power and the Army Corps of Engineers of her disdain of attempts to be tamed and her power over man. During the spring and summer of 1993, she took total control, flooding, destroying, raging and reshaping the land and the people who love her. For those who experienced the 1993 onslaught, please read the book, “Rising Tide, the Flood of 1927” by John Barry. Perhaps you’ll find some consolation in his words and the description of the event that rewrote and revamped American history. According to Mr. Barry, during the 1927 flood, the Mississippi carried 3 million cubic feet of water per minute past St. Louis. In the flood of ’93, (only) 1 million cubic feet per minute flowed past the city of the Arch. Of course, in 1927 there were no dams and few levees. Needless to say, the flood of 1993 also left its scar on America and its river folk along with footnotes in history.
Speaking of river books, my friend, the late John Madson, wrote his masterpiece, “Up On the River,” in 1985. His writing focuses mainly on the saints and sinners of the upper Mississippi River. The book is about us and the people who live and love the great waterway, as well as the plants and wildlife that call the contents and surroundings home. According to Madson and his research, the Native American Algonquin nation named the river.
“The Chippewa and their close relatives often called it ‘Mis-sipi’ or ‘Misisipi,’ ‘Misi’ being a rather broad term signifying ‘big,’ while ‘sipi’ was plainly their word for ‘river.’” Madson further states that “two Miami guides” gave Marquette and Joliet the name and the two explorers kept the name as they went downstream. If I were in charge, “Up On the River” would be required reading for every high school senior, not only to give them knowledge but also inspiration.
Viewing the river from our home located on the limestone bluffs high above the dark water, I’m reminded daily just how much the Mississippi has been an integral part of my life. Jan and I reared our children hunting, fishing, boating and camping in the grandeur of nature afforded by the river. Albums of photos, pages of notes and diaries chronicle our journey through this wonderful life.
Again, it’s noteworthy to mention the west-to-east direction the Mississippi takes for almost 20 miles after greeting the Illinois River at Grafton. Nowhere during the 2,350-mile journey does the great river stay a course of west to east for this distance until the wide Missouri enters the flow above St. Louis, across from Lewis and Clark’s Camp
Du Bois, where the Corps of Discovery began its historic journey up the Missouri. Scientists have offered theories as to the reason for the river bend and its topography, but it seems evident that, just like a lady, she simply decided to do it.
So, my friend, the next occasion you have to view my River, your River, America’s River, please be reminded of her power, beauty and remarkable existence. She is a national treasure equal to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and the Rocky Mountains. Some would say she is in a class by herself.
The legions of us who belong to the beloved “Royal Fraternity of River Rats” are best described by the poet, T. S. Eliot, when he wrote, “The sea is around us; the river is in us.”
Larry Reid is host of “Outdoors with Larry Reid,” which airs Sundays at noon on WBGZ Radio, 1570 AM.