Upper Mississippi River in Minnesota

"The Great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun." — Mark Twain

Mark Twain

No North American body of water has created more legend and lore than the Mississippi River. Mark Twain, himself a riverboat pilot for a time, was the author of such classic river tales as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. There was the legendary frontiersman, Daniel Boone, who lived in Defiance, Missouri. Then there was the deep-voiced Paul Robeson singing "Old Man River" in Oscar Hammerstein's and Jerome Kern's Showboat.

As Twain said, the river is "a wonderful book with a new story to tell every day." And there are plenty of them, including your own when you come to visit; so, like Twain always did himself, be sure to bring a journal.

Tour the Mississippi River through the Twin Cities.

While here, do not miss the opportunity to take in as much of the Father of Waters as you can. Take a sightseeing tour along the river. On our river tour, we cover the 14 miles between Minneapolis and St. Paul, a short distance packed with sites, lores, and many photo views.  Millions have traveled this in one mode or another for thousands of years.

The present name for the River is credited to the Ojibwe Indians of Northern Minnesota who called it Messippi meaning Big River. They also called it Mee-zee-see-bee meaning Father of Waters, so its present name came likely from a combination of the two.

It has its humble beginnings 250 miles north of Minneapolis at Lake Itasca. The narrow stream there (below) is ankle deep and naturally it is a favorite activity of visitors to walk across it; A tad harder to do in, say, New Orleans!

 

Start of the Mississippi at Lake Itasca

Minnesota and Louisiana are the only states the river passes through, while it becomes the boundary for eight others: Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi. In addition to the ten states it directly touches, its watershed is so huge that it drains water through wetlands and tributaries from 32 states and two Canadian provinces, a territory of 1.2 million square miles.

The entire length of the MIssissippi is 2,552 miles (4100 km). You may see other distances mentioned elsewhere, but this one is from the Department of Natural Resources. The cause of the confusion is the number of changes in the river's course over time. Take a few hours sometime to follow its course via Google Satellite and you will see the multitude of loops along the way. You will see where at times the river shot through a narrowing neck of a loop, leaving the greater loop body abandoned. Through the years, river towns have suddenly become abandoned ghost towns because the river changed course.

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The Mississippi River in the Twin Cities

Paddlewheel boat on Mississippi in the Twin Cities

Most visitors erroneously assume that the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul face each other from opposite river banks. However, the truth is that Saint Paul is located fourteen miles down river from Minneapolis.

Without the Mississippi River, it is unlikely Minneapolis and Saint Paul would ever have been born, or quite certainly they never would have reached today's important stature as major river cities, rivaling Saint Louis, Memphis and New Orleans.

Saint Paul began because of river shipping, as it was located (in the 1800s) at the northern most spot for practical navigation. Upriver, Minneapolis began because of St. Anthony Falls, exploiting its power for lumber and flour milling industries.

Both cities began in the 1820s to support the construction of Fort Snelling, located at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, located midway between the two cities.

A view today from the riverbank in either city is still a picture of both these original industries.  In St. Paul, you still see lots of boats, barges and marinasl. In Minneapolis, the old Mill District has been restored. You can visit the Mill City Museum or walk across the Stone Arch Bridge which overlooks the upper most lock on the River, St. Anthony Falls, the old mills, and get a great view of the skyline of Downtown Minneapolis.

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The Mississippi River in Minnesota

Heading south down the nascent Mississippi River at Lake Itasca by canoe, or down the Great River Road by car, here are Minnesota towns and cities you will come upon in north-to-south order:

Bemidji - Home of the legendary lumberjack, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox , whose footprints, it is claimed, formed Minnesota's lakes.

Grand Rapids - Home of  Judy Garland, star of The Wizard of Oz. Following the Yellow Brick Road, we head toward...

Aitkin - In the heart of Minnesota's Lake Country.

Brainerd - Known for its first class resorts, golfing, fishing and outdoor recreation.

Little Falls - Boyhood home of famed pilot Charles A. Lindberg, the first to fly solo across the Atlantic.  (Actually, turns out there was a stow-away fly, whose progeny now lives in Europe.)

St. Cloud - The largest river city in Minnesota outside the Twin Cities. Known for its granite quarries.

Elk River - Where the Mississippi is joined by this tributary of the same name. I've never seen an elk here. Deer yes, elk no.

Anoka - aka, Lake Wobegon. This the hometown of Garrison Keillor, of The Prairie Home Companion Show. It was here Keillor grew up and formed many of his memories which he now spins into his "News of Lake Wobegon." The Rum River joins the Mississippi here.

Minneapolis - The largest Mississippi River city north of Saint Louis. Location of St. Anthony Falls, the only true water fall all the way to the Gulf. Beautiful riverfront.

Saint Paul - Still a major river port city; Also state capitol. Saint Paul began because it was located at the northernmost point of practical navigation in the early 1800s. In the 1960s, locks were installed in Minneapolis, 14 miles upstream, making it at long-last possible to reach there.  (However, sadly, in 2015 the two Minneapolis locks were sealed to prevent the upward migration of the invasive asian carp fish.)

Hastings - Where the Mississippi is joined by the St. Croix River. Across the Mississippi is Prescott, Wisconsin.

Red Wing - Gateway to scenic Bluff Country. Fabulous views here from Barn and Soren Bluffs.

Lake City - On Lake Pepin , an unusually wide spot on the river. Water skiis were invented here. The Chippewa River enters here from the Wisconsin side.

Wabasha - Historic steamboat port. Filming site of Grumpy Old Men movies starring Walter Mathau, Jack Lemmon, Sophia Loren and Ann Margaret. It was here Mathau kissed Loren while hunting nightcrawler fishing worms by moonlight.

Winona - More stunning Bluff Country and river port.

Below Minnesota, significant towns and cities include: Dubuque, Rock Island, Davenport, St. Louis, Hannibal (home of Mark Twain), Memphis (Elvis!), Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

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General Mississippi River Facts

The River has changed considerably since the old steamboat days; particularly with the addition of a system of 29 locks and dams between Minneapolis and St. Louis. This has converted the River into, essentially, a series of pools, each maintaining at least a 9-foot channel, which allows for the passage of barges and large river boats.

Speed of flow:At the headwaters, the average surface speed is 1.2 mph. At New Orleans 3.0 mph. A raindrop falling in Lake Itasca would arrive at the Gulf of Mexico in about 90 days.

Volume: At Lake Itasca the river flows 6 cubic feet per second. In Minneapolis, 12,000. At New Orleans, 600,000.

Length: It is difficult to pin down because the river is constantly changing. For example, staff at Itasca State Park say it is 2,552 miles long. The US Geologic Survey has published a number of 2,320 miles, the EPA says 2,320 and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area says 2,350. In kilometers, that is around 4,100. The reason for the varying numbers is that the river is almost constantly changing its course along the way.

Width: At Lake Itasca, it is between 20-30 feet wide, the narrowest stretch for its entire length. It is more than four miles wide at Lake Onalaska by New Orleans. In more modern times, width is greatly effected by locks and dams, which form pools. Historically, before the dams, the widest place was Lake Pepin in Minnesota, which is more than two miles wide. It is a river lake formed by the backup of a natural dam caused by sand build-up at the entrance of the Chippewa River.

Elevation: 1,475 feet at Lake Itasca, dropping to 0 feet at the Gulf of Mexico. More than half of the drop occurs in Minnesota. It drops to 800 feet in the first 250 miles when it reaches Minneapolis, then another 120 feet drop in the next thirteen miles in St. Paul (680 feet).  Beyond St. Paul, the descent slows to a lazy pace the rest of the way.

Sediment Load: It carries an average of 436 tons each day; over a year about 159 million tons.

Watershed area: Drains 41% of US continent. 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces. Total drainage area between 1.2 and 1.8 million square miles.

Wildlife:260 species of fish. 60% of all bird species in North America use the river basin as their migratory flyway. 38 species of mussel; 50 species of mammals; 145 species of amphibians and reptiles.

Locks and Dams: There are 29 total between Minneapolis and St. Louis. The lower 27 are numbered, with Lock and Dam Number One by the Ford Bridge between Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Two more were belatedly added in the 1960s in Downtown Minneapolis (closed in 2015). Since "One" was already assigned, these two became the Upper and Lower St. Anthony Falls Locks and Dams.

The majority of locks are 100 feet wide, wide enough for double-wide barges. Only the three upper most locks in Minneapolis and St. Paul are 56 feet wide, room enough only for single-wides. The need to break down double wide barges is costly and time-consuming.


Barges: One barge holds the equivalent of 15 jumbo rail hoppers, and 58 semi truck trailers. One barge load of wheat is enough to bake 2.25 million loaves of bread. Upriver products include petroleum products, coal, fertilizers, sulfur, cement, aluminum ingots, sugar and molasses. Downriver: grains (corn, wheat, oats, barley and rye) and scrap metal.


Commerce:The fertile Mississippi River valley generates over $7 billion in agricultural and forest products and $29 million in manufactured goods per year. Waterfowl hunting in the flyway is valued at $58 million per year and sport fishing at over $100 million. International visitors spend an estimated $2.6 billion each year throughout the ten river states, generating more than 53,000 jobs.

Tour the Mississippi River through the Twin Cities.

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Hi Doug! My mom, my aunt and my cousin thoroughly enjoyed the tour last Friday! They had so much fun, even though the weather was nasty. They said you were a fantastic tour guide, and really fun! Thanks so much for coming through for us! I'd gladly recommend your tour services.

Susan, Beltsville MD
 
 
 
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