It is a very difficult question to answer, because many rivers in United States attain different widths during their flow depending on the topography. Mississippi river in the United States is first in terms of discharge (5,93,000 cubic feet/sec) and has an average width of two miles during its entire flow. Many other rivers in the United States are wider than the Mississippi at some point of time.

For example the Delaware River at some point during its flow reaches a width of 3-4 miles, but has an average discharge much below than that of the Mississippi- 11,550 cubic feet/second. Also the flooded width of Missouri River (Discharge of 86,300 cubic feet/second) is over 13 miles at some places, but the Missouri is technically a tributary of the Mississippi. Therefore, we will consider the Mississippi as the widest river in the United States, based on its average discharge as well as average width.

Interesting Facts about the Mississippi River

  • Mississippi in French means ‘Great River’.
  • Originates from the Lake Itasca in Minnesota.
  • Itasca is a glacial lake.
  • The drainage basin of Mississippi reaches into Canada.
  • River has a total length of 2320 miles (3730 Km).
  • The watershed of the Mississippi river is enormous, draining 31 states in the US and 2 Canadian Provinces.
  • Fourth longest river in the world.
  • Fifteenth largest river in the world in terms of discharge.
  • The flow of Mississippi is only 8% of the flow of Amazon.
  • In Earlier times the river served as a natural boundary between United States and France.
  • Hernando De Soto was the first European to reach the Mississippi river.
  • The river runs through the states of Iowa, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Missouri, Minnesota, Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas.
  • The great Mississippi flood in the spring of 1927 made the river to break banks in 145 places and submerged an area of 70000 sq km under water.
  • Mississippi’s silt deposit has resulted in a most fertile agriculture region in United States, ranging from Central Louisiana to southern Missouri.
  • Mississippi is often used as the reference for other landmarks, such as – the biggest city west of Mississippi etc.
  • The Upper Mississippi has a length of 1862 Kms from Lake Itasca to St Louis Missouri.
  • The Upper Mississippi passes through 43 dams.
  • Saint Anthony Falls in Minneapolis is the only waterfall in the Mississippi river.
  • The upper Mississippi is joined by Minnesota River at Fort Snelling.
  • Middle Mississippi has a total length of 310 kilometers.
  • Middle Mississippi has only three major tributaries- Missouri, Meramac Rivers of Missouri and Kaskaskia River of Illinois.
  • Lower Mississippi runs for a length of 1600 Km.
  • Almost 70% of the Mississippi river is diverted into Atchafalaya River in Louisiana by a flood gate system making Atchafalaya a major distributary of the Mississippi.
  • Only 30% of the total Mississippi river flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • The river has world’s fourth largest drainage basin.
  • The total catchment area of the Mississippi covers 40% of the United State’s land.
  • It empties into the Gulf of Mexico about 160 kilometers from New Orleans.
  • The lower Mississippi has shifted its final course to the Gulf of Mexico every 1000 years.
  • In March 1876 the Mississippi suddenly changed course near Reverie, Tennessee.
  • The lakes of the Mississippi are used for recreational purposes and fishing.

 

The Origin of Mississippi

The source of the Mississippi is the Lake Itasca in Minnesota, a state in the upper mid west- northern region of United States. Lake Itasca is located in the southeastern Clear Water County and is approx 1.8 square miles (4.7 square kilometers) in area and has an elevation of 450 meters. It is a glacial lake having its primary inflows from Nicollet Creek Elk Lake out let stream. The Mississippi begins its journey from a small dam made up of rocks on the northern parts of the Lake. The Mississippi during its flow to the Gulf of Mexico meets number of tributaries, making it the largest United States River in terms of discharge.

Lake Itasca is fed by many tributaries, but researchers found them too small to be considered as the true source of the Mississippi. The area surrounding Lake Itasca is a State Park and a pleasant tourist spot. The Lake is located at the junction of the great plains of America, the Coniferous forests of North and the deciduous forests of the south and the topography of these three is witnessed around the park.

Flow of the Mississippi

The total length of the Mississippi is divided into three parts, namely

  • The Upper Mississippi – from its source in Lake Itasca to its confluence with the Missouri river.
  • The Middle Mississippi – From its confluence with Missouri to its confluence with Ohio River.
  • The Lower Mississippi – From its confluence with Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico.

We will briefly go through the topology of all the above parts of Mississippi River and all the vital information during its entire flow from its source to mouth. The river generally flows south from its source, draining 31 and passing through 10 states in United States and also draining two Canadian Provinces.

The Upper Mississippi

The Mississippi River has 43 dams during its course of nearly 1157 miles to St Louis, Missouri. Nearly 14 of the dams located in the headwaters near Minneapolis region serve purposes like electric power generation. While the remaining dams downstream were constructed for improving commercial navigation. The Flow of the Mississippi is further controlled by the man made barrier also called ‘Wing Dam’ from St Pauls Minnesota in upper parts continuing till its lower parts.

 

Wing Dams are constructed along the banks of the river to reduce its overflow. The farthest navigable point from the head of Mississippi lies in its Upper parts- Coon Rapids Dam, Minnesota.  The elevation of River falls gradually while passing through a number of lock dams. The upper portion of the Mississippi also has the only waterfall along the full length of the river- Saint Anthony falls in Minneapolis.

These numerous locks and dams along the upper Mississippi has resulted in many natural as well as artificial lakes, like- Lake Winnibigoshish ( approx 20 km in diameter), Lake Onalaska ( across 7 km) and Lake Pepin ( across 3 km).

Another interesting fact about the flow of Upper Mississippi from its source to St Paul’s in Minnesota is that its elevation drops to about 209 meters, which is half of the initial elevation of the river.

The upper Mississippi after its confluence with St. Croix River in Iowa passes through a number of step banks formed due to the river erosion on both sides. The upper Mississippi is a multi threaded stream with many islands and bars. Some important tributaries of the Upper Mississippi river are- Minnesota River, Cannon River, Croix River, Wisconsin River and Skunk River etc.

The Middle Mississippi

The middle Mississippi has a length of 190 miles (310 kilometers), from the upper Mississippi’s confluence with the Missouri river at St Louis to its confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo Illinois. The middle Mississippi falls further to an elevation of 96 meters from sea level from its initial elevation of 209 meters. The middle Mississippi encounters only three tributaries during its entire flow from St Louis to Illinois- Missouri, Meramec Rivers of the state of Missouri and the Kaskaskia River of Illinois.

The Lower Mississippi

The lower Mississippi has a length of 1000 kilometers (1600 miles) from its confluence with the Ohio River to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. It is during the lower regions of its flow that the Mississippi river meets its major tributary in terms of discharge, which is the Ohio River. The lower Mississippi also has the widest points in some places where it reaches to a width of approx 2-3 km.  Some main tributaries of the lower Mississippi are – Ohio River, White River, Arkansas River and Big Black River. A flood gate constructed on the Mississippi in Louisiana restricts much of the river’s water from reaching the Gulf of Mexico, diverting nearly 70% of it into the Atchafalaya River, making it a major distributary of the Mississippi.

Confluence with the Gulf of Mexico

The Mississippi drains into the Gulf of Mexico, around 150 KM from New Orleans. Upon its confluence in the Gulf of Mexico, which is a part of the Atlantic Ocean, the Mississippi river water is not straight away mixed with the salt water. It rather flows through the Gulf of Mexico into the Florida Strait located south- southeast of North American mainland and rounding up travels to Georgia before finally mixing up with the ocean. The average annual discharges of the Mississippi river is 7000-20000 m3/second.

Human Settlements and Ecology

The Native American tribes of hunters and gatherers were the first to settle along the Mississippi river basin. They were also the first in domesticating other species to derive natural resources such as milk, wool etc. The Mississippi was used as a prime mode of transport since 200 CE. The Mississippi sustained tremendous agricultural activity during 800 BCE, with maize, squash and beans being the chief produces. Large scale agriculture activities along the river pose a serious threat to its purity and results in fish kills. Pollutants from the farm fertilizers run off into the water of Mississippi polluting it.

Despite the threats the Mississippi river basin sustains huge number of fish species (more than 300), many species of the turtle (snapping, mud, cooter and soft shell turtles) and alligators. Some famous fish species of the Mississippi basin are- Paddlefish, Bow Fin, Gar etc.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

You can get the answer of these questions under FAQs:

Where the Mississippi does originates?

The Mississippi river originates from Lake Itasca in Minnesota.

What is the total length of the Mississippi?

The Mississippi flows south for a length of 2320 miles (3730 km).

What is the river’s total drainage area?

The total drainage area of the Mississippi river is 1,245,000 square miles or 3,220,000 square kilometers.

What North American states does the river pass through?

The river passes through the states of Iowa, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Missouri, Minnesota, Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas.

How many states in US does it drains?

The catchment area of river drains completely 31 states of US including two Canadian Provinces.

 What is the origin of the name ‘Mississippi’?

The name Mississippi is derived from the French word ‘Messipi’ or ‘Misi-Ziibi’ meaning Great River.

Into how many sections the Mississippi river can be divided?

The flow of Mississippi is divided into the upper, middle and lower sections.

Which section of the Mississippi has the largest number of dams?

The upper section of the river from Lake Itasca to Missouri has 43 dams.

How many of dams are used for power generation?

14 dams located in the headwaters are used for various purposes including power generation.

What is the purpose of remaining dams?

The remaining 29 dams are basically check dams constructed to improve commercial navigation.

Which is the farthest navigation point on the Mississippi?

Coon Rapids Dam in the Coon Rapids, Minnesota is the farthest point of navigation in the Mississippi river.

Passing through which dam the drop in elevation of Mississippi is the largest?

Upper St. Anthony Falls lock and dam in Minneapolis, a drop of about 15 meters.

Which is the only waterfall on Mississippi river and where?

St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis is the only waterfall along the complete length of the Mississippi river.

Which lake is the widest in upper Mississippi?

Lake Winnibigoshish in Minnesota, which is nearly 18 km wide.

Name some major tributaries of the upper Mississippi.

Some of the main tributaries of Mississippi River are-Minnesota River, Cannon River, Croix River, Wisconsin River and Skunk river etc.

Name the chief tributaries of the middle Mississippi.

The chief tributaries of the middle Mississippi areMissouri, Meramec Rivers of the state of Missouri and the Kaskaskia River of Illinois.

What are the main tributaries of lower Mississippi?

Some important tributaries of the lower Mississippi areOhio River, White river, Arkansas River and Big Black River.

Where the Mississippi river does empties itself?

The Mississippi river empties into the Gulf of Mexico, 150 Km away from New Orleans.

What is the discharge rate of Mississippi river into the Gulf of Mexico?

The discharge rate of the Mississippi is 7000-20000 m3/second.

When was the earliest bridge across the Mississippi was constructed?

The earliest bridge across the Mississippi was constructed in 1855 in Minneapolis, where the present Hennepin Avenue Bridge is located.

When was the first rail road bridge across the Mississippi constructed?

The first rail road bridge across the Mississippi was constructed in 1856, between Illinois and Iowa.

What are the rare turtle species found in the Mississippi basin?

Some rare species of turtle found in the Mississippi basin aresnapping, mud, cooter and soft shell turtles.