The Mississippi River looms large in our history. Early on, it marked the nation's westernmost boundary. As the country expanded, the river became the eastern border of the western frontier. "The Mighty Mississippi" linked far-flung places in trade and traffic and sustained the small towns and large cities that lined its banks. Control of the Mississippi River was considered key to winning the Civil War. Union and Confederate strategies each made the river a major focus of its western campaign.
Looking out at the river today - especially when the water is low and lazy - it is sometimes easy to forget the Mississippi's grandeur, power, and importance. Yet, it remains a vivid part of our collective memory - the mighty and mysterious waterway brought to life by writers, composers, artists, and those living within its reach.
"When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman...(on) the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi..."
Samuel Clemens - writing under the pen name Mark Twain, in "Old Times on the Mississippi" - 1875
(Captions under photos on the right):
River traffic - around A.D. 1000
The background scene shows a small hamlet that was part of a larger village. Who was living here then? To find out, come inside to The Town that Broke Kentucky's Neutrality.
River traffic - circa 1800
View upriver - 1864
This photograph was taken during the last years of the Civil War, when the Union occupied Columbus. When the Confederacy held this position, Union gunboats would have approached from the north.
Union gunboat fleet - 1860s
This photograph shows some of the Union's western river navy at Cairo, Illinois. The "brown-water" fleet included armored gunboats and converted steamships or ferries used as transport ships.
River traffic - 1886
This lithograph romanticizes life on the Mississippi River during the latter 19th century. Mark Twain captured the excitement felt in small river towns when all attention focused on traffic up and down river. "Once a day a cheap, gaudy packet arrived upward from St. Louis, and another downward ... Before these events had transpired, the day was glorious with expectancy; after they had transpired, the day was a dead and empty thing. Not only the boys, but the whole village, felt this."