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Major Rivers, Mississippi River

Lake Itasca, flatboats, transportation centers, Illinois rivers, improved transportation

As North America’s longest river, the Mississippi River flows 3,770 km (2,340 mi) from its source at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to the Great Lakes system, the Mississippi drainage complex is one of the two largest natural inland waterway systems on the continent. The Mississippi River and its network of tributaries, which includes the Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Red, and Illinois rivers, drains most of the central United States. In some areas, the main channel of the Mississippi reaches a width of nearly 1.6 km (1 mi). The river has a channel ranging in depth from more than 7 m (more than 25 ft) in New Orleans, Louisiana, to 2.7 m (9 ft) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Deepwater vessels can navigate the river as far north as Baton Rouge, Louisiana, while smaller ships can navigate the Mississippi for more than 2,900 km (1,800 mi).

As early settlers moved away from the Atlantic coast, they used the Mississippi River system to travel to interior locations and to ship their agricultural products to markets. New Orleans, situated on the Mississippi about 160 km (about 100 mi) north of the Gulf of Mexico, became an important shipping and trade center. At first people and goods traveled on flatboats, which were powered by oars or poles. Then in the early 1800s, engine-driven steamboats were introduced, offering improved transportation and shorter travel times. Steamboats led to increased trade and travel on the Mississippi, and several urban settlements, including St. Louis, Missouri, quickly grew to become major inland ports.

The Mississippi still serves as an important transportation route to and from America's Heartland, especially for barges loaded with raw materials, crops, and other bulky goods. More than half of the freight transported on inland waterways in the United States travels on the Mississippi. Dams built for flood control and power generation lie along the entire course of the waterway, and locks provide a means for vessels to bypass these structures.

Several large manufacturing, service, and transportation centers have developed along the Mississippi River system because of the traffic along the waterway. These include Saint Louis, Missouri; Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Memphis, Tennessee. New Orleans, Louisiana, has become the busiest port city in the Southeast.

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