For centuries, the Mississippi River has been a well for industry, culture and society. Along its banks grew grand cities and picturesque towns, it inspired musicians and writers, and it made lumber and flour barons massively wealthy.
Today in the Midwest, the Upper Mississippi River plays the same role. It’s a central shipping highway, a show-stopping natural beauty, and a place where people gather and dream.
“Your livelihood can come from the river: you can either fish, you can work on the barges, you can work on the tow boats,” Ruth LaMaster, a blues musician said. “Conversely the river can take your life. It can flood. It can damage your crops. It can drown you with the tremendous undertows.”
This story explores the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Northern Minnesota to St. Louis, Missouri. Along the way you’ll meet women who both shape life along the river and have their lives shaped by it.
“As you keep going down, you meet the diversity of people but they’re all the same. They’re all drawn to the river, maybe they eat different food, maybe they listen to different music, maybe people have drawls or the Northern Minnesota Finnish, Scandinavian accent,” Connie Cox, lead naturalist at Itasca State Park, said. “But everyone has the same feelings about the river.”
In the late 1800s, a land surveyor named Jacob V. Brower headed to northern Minnesota in search of the source of the Mississippi River. Brower fell in love with the area’s pine forests and lobbied the Minnesota legislature to create a park at the headwaters of the Mississippi. In April of 1891, the park passed by one vote and Itasca was born.
We talked to Connie Cox, Itasca’s lead naturalist, about the history of girl-power and the immense natural beauty in the park.
The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota sprung up from the banks of the Mississippi River. Flour and saw mills relied on the power of St. Anthony Falls, the only true waterfall on the Mississippi, that runs through the middle of the two cities.
With 2.9 million residents, the Twin Cities make up the largest urban metro on the Mississippi river.
La Crosse, Wisconsin is a city famous for its bluffs– towering hills that line the banks of the Mississippi. One company, the La Crosse Queen, takes visitors on cruises up the river from La Crosse to get a better look at the nature and wildlife of the area.
“A lot of business we get is because of the natural beauty of the La Crosse area,” Kathy Jostad, owner and manager of the La Crosse Queen. “I grew up here so I’m used to it. It’s always fun to see it through new eyes.”
Tourism is an essential component to local economies around the Mississippi River. According to a paper by American Rivers and Environmental Defense, “12 million people annually recreate on and along the Upper Mississippi River, spending $1.2 billion.”
Kathy and the La Crosse Queen try to have a variety of cruise price options so that their river tours are accessible for everyone. They have a formal dinner cruise, a more casual pizza cruise and a daily sightseeing cruise, where riders usually get a glimpse of bald eagles.
Most of the cruisers are families or older adults looking to relax and enjoy the view. After 25 years working with the Queen, Kathy says, “It’s fun. You enjoy coming to work.”
For one weekend each summer, the Mississippi river bank in Keokuk, Iowa turns into a blues party. The Rollin’ on the River Festival celebrated their 28th annual blues weekend this year with musical guests like Hurricane Ruth.
“When the lights go down on the stage, probably about the time we start hitting the stage at 8:15 [p.m.], you’ll feel the breeze come up from the river, you’ll be able to smell the river, you’ll smell the earth,” Ruth LaMaster, the frontwoman of Hurricane Ruth, said.
Keokuk itself is the site of Lock and Dam #19 on the Mississippi River. The system of locks (basically water elevators for ships) and dams (structures built across rivers to control the flow of water) allows for reliable shipping on the river. Without locks and dams, some sections of the Upper Mississippi would be too shallow or narrow for large barges to pass through.
And that same industry aided by the locks and dams, also contributed to culture along the river.
Ruth is from Illinois and she noted that blues music started further south in the Mississippi Delta and worked its way up. “Even if you were a musician you had to find work no matter what it was, so you had to go north and that’s how the music spread up the Mississippi,” she said.
This is the third year that Hurricane Ruth has performed at Rollin’ on the River and she loves coming back. Being on the Mississippi reminds her of her youth growing up on the Illinois River.
“It all begins with water in my world,” she said.
Hannibal, Missouri was founded in 1819 as a major port for steamboats traveling up the river. It flourished thanks to industries like livestock and lumber which used the river for transportation.
The historic town is most famous for being the childhood home of Mark Twain. People travel from all over the world to see the river town that influenced his writing.
On the banks of the Mississippi in the 18th century, St. Louis flourished as a fur trading post. Today it’s a major metropolis home to industry, agriculture and recreation. All of those things depend on the river.
They also depend on the river not flooding. It’s the job of the Army Corps of Engineers to regulate river levels and do their best to keep the river from getting too high or too low that it affects the transit network that runs up and down the river.
Liz Norrenberns is a water control manager in the St. Louis District of The Army Corps of Engineers.
One of the jobs of Water Control is to make sure the river stays navigable. “We actually regulate the locks and dams throughout our district,” Liz said. “And that’s to keep the channel open.”
Liz and her team also work to prevent flooding along the river. They do that by using a series of reservoirs. The Army Corps dammed some of the tributary rivers that flow into the Mississippi. They use that dam to hold water from the tributary back. This creates a reservoir behind the dam and keeps too much water from flowing into the Mississippi when it’s near flood state.
The team also does a lot of work coordinating with people who live and work along the river. “It’s a lot of dealing with the public and helping them out,” Liz said. “This is their resource, so they’re out there. They live by it.”
That means that she’s on call 24/7 to address public concerns and make sure the water levels stay where they need to be. And Liz also has to manage the competing interests of the people who use the river. Sometimes the shipping industry might want the river to be wider while a conservation organization doesn’t want the habitat in that area to be destroyed.
“People have their passions and what they would like to see done and then there’s someone on the opposite spectrum that has their passions and what they would like to see done. And so sometimes it’s not always very peaceful,” Liz said.
“It’s amazing how much water impacts people.”
All along the Upper Mississippi River, life in the Midwest has flourished. The river with its cultural and economic impacts are an essential piece of the region. In fact, the Midwest supplies over 90 percent of American agricultural exports and they all travel down the Mississippi, into the Gulf of Mexico and around the world.
If the Midwest is America’s Breadbasket, the Mississippi is America’s conveyor belt.
Of course, the river itself continues on further south from St. Louis, but the economic and cultural landscape of the river changes. Levees and dikes create a literal separation wall between the communities along the river and the water itself. The water is deep enough to not need locks and dams, so communities that thrive around those points on the upper river don’t exist in the south.
But all the same, the river remains a place of magic. Connie Cox recently had a conversation with a man who kayaked the whole length of the Mississippi.
“All the sudden there I was and there was the Gulf of Mexico. I got such a void in me,” she recounted. “There were no more people. There was no more community. There wasn’t the wild life. There wasn’t the plants, the animals, the interaction of being a part of the river. There was just this big, vast body of water and all he wanted to do was get back on the river and be a part of it again.”
By | Hannah Doksanksy, Josie Hollingsworth and Samantha Harrington. Clay Harrington contributed video.