The History of Transportation
on the Mississippi River
Part One
by Richard Moore, IWLA

The Mississippi River courses from the northwoods of Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, thousands of miles through America's heartland. We know the river today as a priceless natural resource, an important artery of commerce, and the cradle of some of some of the Midwest's largest metropolitan areas.

The river's rich history dates back long before the first European explorers ever set foot in the region. Since 9000 B.C., native peoples lived and farmed along the rivers banks and traveled its waters. The Mississippi and its tributaries have always been an important trade route, and large native settlements sprang up where larger rivers like the Minnesota, the Chippewa, the Illinois and the Missouri joined the gathering waters on their journey southward. One of the largest of these communities was located near the present-day St. Louis, Missouri, where as many as 20,000 people made their homes almost 2,000 years ago.

By the time the modern exploration began, these great cities were only a memory, and the reasons for their disappearance is not known. But the importance of the Mississippi as a travel corridor continued to shape the course of the region's history as the development of continent's vast interior unfolded.

Entering the Upper Midwest via the Great Lakes, the French made the first forays into the Upper Mississippi Region. In 1673, French explorers Marquette and Joliet made a circuit through the area via the Wisconsin and Ilinois Rivers, returning with reports of extensive fur resource on the rivers of the Upper Midwest. Trapping and trading were the impetus behind the first settlements, and thousands of Europeans poured into the region.

By the time the United States acquired the territory through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, settlements were well established throughout the southern portions of the Mississippi River basin, but the northern region remained rather sparsely settled. In 1805, the US Army sent Zebulon Pike to explore the newly American lands. Soon thereafter, the Army established Fort Snelling on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers in what is now Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1823, the first steamboat reached the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. During the early 1800s, a flood of new immigrants entered the territory, some remaining in Minnesota and Wisconsin, others making to journey downstream to St. Louis and then westward.

Throughout this entire early settlement period, the rivers of the region remained the principle transportation routes. The northern stands of virgin timber were felled to make way for farms and villages, and the lumber thus created travelled down the rivers to the burgeoning southern markets. Passengers and goods were shuttled up and down the Mississippi in ever increasing numbers. A period of rapid growth was upon the Upper Midwest, and the Mississippi River was the great river highway that had made it all possible.

The seemingly limitless boom in river traffic was short-lived. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the growing network of railroads was capturing the market that once belonged only to the rivers. More and more settlers bypassed the Upper Midwest in favor of lands opening up on the Great Plains.

The Mississippi's importance as a highway of commerce continued to decline through the 1800s. When the timber resources finally ran out in around 1900, river commerce, while still important, was only a fraction of what it had been in the century's early years.

The reason for this decline was two-fold. First, other modes of transportation like the railroads and the growing shipping industry on the Great Lakes, was able to successfully compete with river transportation. In part, this was because the railroads in particular enjoyed a great deal of economic support from the US Government.

But another important reason was that the Mississippi, although always available, was still relatively untamed and river transportation was still dangerous. Rapids and obstructions in the river posed great hazards to navigation.

As early as 1824, the US Government, through the US Army Corps of Engineers, had begun to take steps to make river transportation more reliable. These efforts gained momentum through the 1800s, and ultimately led to the Mississippi River we know today.

to be continued...

History of Mississippi River Transportation
Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9 - Part 10

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