Daily Archives: June 25, 2008

M is for Mississippi

The Mississippi River, the raison d’être of most of the river towns on its banks, from St. Paul to New Orleans.

This picture was taken last night on a paddlewheel cruise down the Mississippi on the Julia Belle Swain, a beautiful steam-powered riverboat.  Listening to the steam engine chuffing, and the whistle blow, and going past the sandbanks and riverbanks, I could imagine myself in Mark Twain’s time of Life on the Mississippi.

The Mississippi’s headwaters are said to be in Itasca, a name which is a contraction for veritas caput, “true head”, up in the Northern part of Minnesota.  The Preteen and I have (separately) stepped across the Mississippi in a single step!  (Along with many many thousands of Midwesterners.)  From this gorgeous beginning in the North Woods, the Mississippi flows south then passes through and partially divides the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where I was born (in Minneapolis) and lived for years (both cities). 

The lovely Highway 61 follows the curves of the river as it broadens, and is my preferred travel route.  (My husband refuses to go that way because part of it is two-lane, and almost invariably, for some period of time, you’re stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle.  But I don’t mind so much, when it’s so pretty. )  In the winter, you will see eagles on the way, though I have proved that it is nigh impossible to Kinnear them.  (I keep trying, though.) They especially like the locks and dams where the water doesn’t freeze. 

Part of the Mississippi goes by the name of Lake Pepin, but is just a widening in the river (obviously the French explorers thought it was a lake when they came upon it); famous as the birthplace of waterskiing, and familiar to readers of the Little House books as the vicinity of the first of Laura Ingalls Wilders’ books, Little House in the Big Woods.

Continuing down the Mississippi brings you to La Crosse, the small city I live in, originally a fur trading post.  It grew dramatically during the lumber boom at the turn of the last century, as did so many other river towns, kept in business by the lumber cut upriver and floated downstream.  My house was built in 1891 by a middle-class businessman who owned a laundry downtown, near the banks of the Mississippi, to cater to the needs of the lumbermen who were in town.  (La Crosse was known for beer even then, also, speaking of catering to needs.) 

The Mississippi, giver and means of life in the past, right now is still cresting way downstream, and certainly has caused or contributed to its share of destruction, as all natural forces and features have.   The last big flood of the Mississippi was in 1993 here; there was a smaller one a few years ago.  It happens.  Just like living near the sea or on the beach, that is the down side of living on the river.  (Also the warmer temperatures from being in the river valley, great in the winter, right now? Not so great!)

The river is part and parcel of what this city is, inescapably defined and confined by the Mississippi and by the bluffs of the primordial vast river of the glacial era.   Our downtown is built on the Mississippi; the great riverboats like the Mississippi Queen come up river and stop here in the summers still, just like in the 19th century.  Our biggest park is Riverside Park.  Our Fourth of July celebration coming up next week is Riverfest, and the fireworks are set off over the river (spectacular to watch from a boat).  I can’t see the river from my house for all the trees, though I am just a mile and a half away, except that when the trees are leafless, the sunset light sparkles in the west off the water. But it’s so easy to bike or walk down, especially on these long Northern latitude summer evenings.  And we do.

M is for Mississippi.