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Mississippi River

The Mississippi River is the chief river of the largest river system in North America. Flowing entirely in the United States (though its drainage basin reaches into Canada), it rises in northern Minnesota and meanders slowly southwards for 2,530 miles (4,070 km) to the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico. With its many tributaries, the Mississippi's watershed drains all or parts of 31 US states and 2 Canadian provinces between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains. The Mississippi ranks as the fourth longest and tenth largest river in the world. The river either borders or cuts through the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Native Americans lived along the Mississippi and its tributaries. Most were hunter-gatherers or herders, but some, such as the Mound builders, formed prolific agricultural societies. The arrival of Europeans in the 1500s changed the native way of life as first explorers, then settlers, ventured into the basin in increasing numbers. The river served first as barrier – forming borders for New Spain, New France, and the early United States – then as vital transportation artery and communications link. In the 19th century, during the height of Manifest Destiny, the Mississippi and several western tributaries, most notably the Missouri, formed pathways for pioneers partaking in the western expansion of the United States.

Formed from thick layers of this river's silt deposits, the Mississippi River Valley is one of the most fertile agricultural regions of the country, which resulted in the river's storied steamboat era. During the American Civil War, the Mississippi's capture by Union forces marked a turning point towards victory because of this very importance as a route of trade and travel, not least to the Confederacy. Because of substantial growth of cities and the larger ships and barges that have supplanted riverboats, the decades following the 1900s saw massive engineering works applied to the river system, such as the often in-combination construction of levees, locks and dams.

Since modern development of the basin began, the Mississippi has also seen its share of pollution and environmental problems – most notably large volumes of agricultural runoff, which has led to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone off the Delta. In recent years, the river has shown a steady shift towards the Atchafalaya River channel in the Delta; a course change would prove disastrous to seaports such as New Orleans. A system of dikes and gates has, so far, held the Mississippi at bay but, due to fluvial processes, the shift becomes more likely each year.

Physical geography:
The geographical setting of the Mississippi River includes considerations of the course of the river itself, its watershed, its outflow, its prehistoric and historic course changes, and possibilities of future course changes. The New Madrid Seismic Zone along the river is also noteworthy. These various basic geographical aspects of the river in turn underlie its human history and present uses of the waterway and its adjacent lands.

River course:
The Mississippi River is divided into the Upper Mississippi, the Middle Mississippi, and the Lower Mississippi, with the Upper Mississippi upriver of its confluence with the Missouri River, the Middle Mississippi from there downriver to the Ohio River, and the Lower Mississippi from there downriver to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Mississippi River is known as the Upper Mississippi from its headwaters to its confluence with the Missouri River at St. Louis, Missouri. The Upper Mississippi is divided into two sections:
  • The headwaters, 493 miles (793 km), from the source to Saint Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • A navigable channel, formed by a series of man-made lakes between Minneapolis and St. Louis, Missouri, 664 miles (1,069 km)
The source of the Upper Mississippi branch is traditionally accepted as Lake Itasca, 1,475 feet (450 m) above sea level in Itasca State Park in Clearwater County, Minnesota. The name "Itasca" is a combination of the last four letters of the Latin word for truth (veritas) and the first two letters of the Latin word for head (caput). However, the lake is in turn fed by a number of smaller streams, of which one might be selected as the river's ultimate source.

Upper Mississippi:
From its origin at Lake Itasca to St. Louis, Missouri, the waterway's flow is moderated by 43 dams. Fourteen of these dams are located above Minneapolis in the headwaters region and serve multiple purposes, including power generation and recreation. The remaining 29 dams, beginning in downtown Minneapolis, all contain locks and were constructed to improve commercial navigation of the upper river.

Taken as a whole these 43 dams significantly shape the geography and influence the ecology of the upper river. Beginning just below Saint Paul, Minnesota, and continuing throughout the upper and lower river, the Mississippi is further controlled by thousands of wing dikes that moderate the river's flow in order to maintain an open navigation channel and prevent the river from eroding its banks.

Middle Mississippi:
The Mississippi River is known as the Middle Mississippi from the Upper Mississippi River's confluence with the Missouri River at St. Louis, Missouri, for 190 miles (310 km) to its confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois.

Lower Mississippi:
The Mississippi River is called the Lower Mississippi River from its confluence with the Ohio River to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. Measured by water volume, the Lower Mississippi's primary branch is the Ohio River. At the confluence of the Ohio and the Middle Mississippi, the Ohio is the bigger river, with its long-term mean discharge at Cairo, Illinois being 281,500 cu ft/s (7,970 m3/s), while the long-term mean discharge of the Mississippi at Thebes, Illinois (just upriver from Cairo) is 208,200 cu ft/s (5,900 m3/s). Thus, by volume, the main branch of the Mississippi River system at Cairo can be considered to be the Ohio River (and the Allegheny River further upstream), rather than the Middle Mississippi.

Watershed:
The Mississippi River has the world's fourth largest drainage basin ("watershed" or "catchment"). The basin covers more than 1,245,000 sq mi (3,220,000 km2), including all or parts of 32 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. The drainage basin empties into the Gulf of Mexico, part of the Atlantic Ocean. The total catchment of the Mississippi River covers nearly 40% of the landmass of the continental United States.

Outflow:
The Mississippi River discharges at an annual average rate of between 200 and 700 thousand cubic feet per second (7,000–20,000 m3/s). Although it is the 5th largest river in the world by volume, this flow is a mere fraction of the output of the Amazon, which moves nearly 7 million cubic feet per second (200,000 m3/s) during wet seasons. On average, the Mississippi has only 8% the flow of the Amazon River.

Recreation:
The sport of water skiing was invented on the river in a wide region between Minnesota and Wisconsin known as Lake Pepin. Ralph Samuelson of Lake City, Minnesota, created and refined his skiing technique in late June and early July 1922. He later performed the first water ski jump in 1925 and was pulled along at 80 mph (130 km/h) by a Curtiss flying boat later that year.

There are seven National Park Service sites along the Mississippi River. The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area is the National Park Service site dedicated to protecting and interpreting the Mississippi River itself. The other six National Park Service sites along the river are (listed from north to south):
  • Effigy Mounds National Monument
  • Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (AKA: The Arch)
  • Vicksburg National Military Park
  • Natchez National Historical Park
  • New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park
  • Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve