The Mississippi River and Expansion of America

Mississippi River Levees

Mississippi River Levees

The importance of the Mississippi River to the Nation had, by now, become firmly established. Congress had shown an increasing interest in flood control and navigation problems on the Mississippi, and legislation designed to improve this mighty stream for the use of the Nation was rapidly taking form. In 1874, Congress authorized certain surveys of transportation routes to the seaboard. Five years later, Board of Engineer officers concluded that a complete levee system would aid commerce during periods of high water only.

In that same year, in June, 1879 the Mississippi River Commission was created by Act of Congress as an executive body reporting to the Secretary of War. The Commission is composed of seven men nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate.

Since the enactment of the Flood Control Act of May 15, 1928, the Commission has served as an advisory and consulting – rather than executive – body responsible to the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army. The general duties of the Commission include the recommendation of policy and work programs, the study of and reporting upon the necessity for modifications or additions to the flood control and navigation project, recommendation upon any matters authorized by law, making inspection trips, and holding public hearings.

Barges on the Mississippi River, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Barges on the Mississippi River, Minneapolis, Minnesota

The work of the Commission is directed by the President of the Commission, acting as its executive officer, and carried out by U.S. Army Engineer Districts at St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans.

During World War II, Mississippi River transportation assumed an even more important role than ever before. The principal commerce on the lower Mississippi River consisted of the upstream movement of gasoline, oil, sulphur, and other products and materials vital to the war effort. In addition, nearly 4,000 Army and Navy craft and other vessels for use in the war moved from inland shipyards down the Mississippi to the sea.

Without question the Nation’s principal river, the Mississippi, is the main stem of a network of inland navigable waterways maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This giant waterways system of some 12,350 miles, includes the Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, and Tennessee Rivers, among others. It extends into the agricultural midwest and the industrial east, making Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans close neighbors of Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Chicago.

The Mississippi River continues to be a powerful form of transportation today as large towboats haul barges filled with steel, ores, grain, sand and gravel, petroleum products, chemicals, and more.

The Great River Road

The Great River Road

Today, the history of the Mighty Mississippi is commemorated at National and State parks, museums, interpretive centers, and at numerous events. The Great River Road National Scenic Byway runs through ten scenic states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

This historic byway of the Mississippi River is one of the oldest, longest and most unique scenic byways in North America, providing some nearly 3,000 miles of the Mississippi River Valley’s great history, the blending of cultures, charming river towns. lush forests, magnificent bluffs, and more. The Great River Road follows the Mississippi River from its humble headwaters in the northwoods of Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Great River Road dates back to 1938 when the concept of a transcontinental Great River Parkway along the Mississippi River was developed by the governors of the ten river states. Wishing to conserve precious resources, it was decided that rather than building a new continuous road, the existing network of rural roads and then-fledgling highways that meandered and crisscrossed the river would become the Great River Road. The green Pilot’s Wheel road sign that marked the route of the new byway decades ago still heralds the byway today.

Along the way, there are eight National Park Service sites including the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in Mississippi that is dedicated to protecting and interpreting the river itself. The other six National Park Service sites along the river are (listed from north to south):

  • Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry, Iowa
  • Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (aka: The Arch) in St. Louis, Missouri (Note: In February 2018, President Donald Trump signed legislation renaming the Memorial “Gateway Arch National Park”) 
  • Arkansas Post National Memorial in Gillett, Arkansas
  • Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, Mississippi
  • Natchez National Historical Park in Natchez, Mississippi
  • New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park in New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in New Orleans Louisiana


Jefferson Expansion National Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri

Jefferson Expansion National Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri

Numerous more state, county and city parks and museums also commemorate the great river’s history. Just a few of these include the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas; the Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island, Illinois; the National Great River Museum in East Alton, Illinois; Fort de Chartres State Historic Site in Prairie du Rocher, Illinois; Old Fort Madison in Ft. Madison, Iowa; Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site in Wickliffe, Kentucky; Poverty Point State Historic Site in Pioneer, Lousiana; the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center at Itasca State Park in Minnesota; Historic Fort Snelling in Minneapolis, Minnesota; the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi; Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Missouri; the Great River Road Interpretive Center in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri the Mississippi River Museum at Mud Island in Memphis, Tennessee; the Stonefield State Historic Site in Cassville, Wisconsin, the Fort Crawford Museum in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and dozens more.


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated February 2018.

Primary Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

See our Great River Road Photo Gallery HERE

Beaver Island, site of old Kaskaskia, Illinois

Beaver Island, site of old Kaskaskia, Illinois

Also See:

Hernando De Soto

Louisiana Purchase

Missouri River

A Sketch of the Early “Far West”

1 thought on “The Mississippi River and Expansion of America”

  1. You sure have a lot of information here and a nice layout. I may use a few of your ideas. How long have you been collecting and posting this information? We just started a site on with a little different flavor. We want to concentrate on issues in history that are more or less warning signs of what may be coming. Sort of a take off from some of our past presidents who said, “an educated country is a free country.” … Dennis

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