For three or four
months in the year, you can walk across long parts of the Mississippi;
in fact, you
can walk along it too, or drive horses across it.
Motionless in the
winter's icy grip, the surface
of North America's most famous river lies hidden for weeks on end
beneath a cold white blanket of snow.
But below the
surface the water flows on in silence, moving relentlessly
through the frozen heartland of North America, towards warmer and more
"Old Man River" is
no more than a child in the state of Minnesota, where he is born among
the lakes and the forests not far from the Canadian border. If he had
chosen to move north or west, he would have finished up in the Atlantic
Ocean, part of America's other great river, the Saint Lawrence. But the
child that is to turn into Old Man River moves south.
He makes his way
towards the Gulf of Mexico. It's a distance of 1,500 miles as the crow
flies, but more like 2,500 miles along the meandering
course that he chooses. It will be several weeks before the waters that
rise in Minnesota eventually flow out past the ocean-going ships tied
up at New Orleans,
with the salt of the sea.
Of course, Old Man
River has been making more or less the same southward journey for
thousands of years: long before anyone thought of calling him "Old Man
River", he had no name. It was the Algonquin Indians who gave him the
name "Mississippi"; in their language, the name meant Great River. The
name has stuck.
The first European
to set eyes on the great river was a Spanish explorer, called De Soto,
who came across the mouth of the river in 1541; yet it was not until
over a century later that the Mississippi river began to take a
significant place in the history of North America. In 1682 a French
explorer called La Salle set off from
the Great Lakes region, followed the Ohio river, and eventually reached
the coast. Having established an alternate route from the Great Lakes
to the sea, La Salle claimed the whole of the Mississippi basin for the
French king Louis XIV, and called it Louisiana in his honour.
For almost a
century, the Mississippi valley was French territory, sandwiched
between the British colonies to the east, and "New Spain" and the
unexplored prairies to the west. Little French colonies appeared along
the banks of the river, but in most cases their names are the only
things about them that remain from their early days: St. Cloud, La
Crosse, Prairie du Chien, St. Louis, and many more. It is only at the
mouth of the river, round New Orleans and Baton Rouge, that the river's
French past still lives on, to a limited degree. New Orleans' "Mardi
Gras" celebrations are among the most colorful in the United States, a hybrid
fusion of old French tradition and Afro-American celebration.
In 1783, the land
to the east of the Mississippi became the western frontier of the newly
born United States of America. As for the much larger area of land to
the west, it was sold to the United States by Napoleon in 1803, for the
sum of $11.5 million, in the historic "Louisiana Purchase".
before the Louisiana Purchase, American settlers had begun pushing
across the river, searching for places to settle
in the virgin territory beyond. And as the great wide valley filled up
with more and more farms, towns and markets, so the importance of the
During the cotton
boom of the early nineteenth century, the river and its tributaries
allowed plantation owners to get their produce easily down to New
Orleans, where it could be exported to markets all over the world, and
particularly to the textile mills
of Lancashire, England.
The Mississippi drains a basin
covers 41% of
the continental United States (excluding Alaska), stretching from
Montana in the West to New York in the East. It is the third largest
river basin in the world, after the Nile and the Congo.
With such a large continental basin, the
Mississippi is a river whose flow
can be erratic;
at the mouth of the river, the average flow is about 13,000 cubic
metres per second. However, experts estimate that the maximum flow
could reach 85,000 cubic metres per second under exceptional
circumstances; currently, river engineers are working on "Project
Flood", to make sure that outlets into the Gulf of Mexico can cope with
a flow of this magnitude.
The risks of flooding have been clearly
from the day people first began to settle beside the river. Many of the
towns and settlements beside the river are situated on "bluffs",
others are protected. It was French engineers who first began
protecting the land beside the river by building up long dikes,
which they called "levees", a French word meaning "raised banks";
today, thousands of square miles of
farmland and dozens of towns and are protected by levees.
Most of the time, the levees do their
job; but not
always. In 1993, hundreds of square miles of land were flooded, and
millions of dollars' worth of damage done when the mighty river became
too mighty, and broke through the defenses.
- relentless: unstoppable, irresistable - meander: curve continually - mingle: mix - set off: depart - hybrid: mixed - settle: establish a home - mills: factories - flow: flux, movement of water
small hill -
Gras in New Orleans
► Mississippi Music
for the Firefox
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ADVANCED ENGLISH - STUDENT
to complete this extract from the text using the original words. Some
of the words you will need are in this list; but not all of them!
And be careful: this list
also contains words you
will not need!
currently larger largest many
most much outlets outputs
so such that
what which whose
The Mississippi drains a basin __________ covers 41% of the continental
United States (__________ Alaska). It is the third __________ river
basin in the world, after the Nile and the
With __________ a large continental basin, the Mississippi is a river
__________ flow can be erratic; at the mouth of the river, the
__________ flow is about 13,000 cubic metres __________ second.
However, experts estimate that the __________ flow __________ reach
85,000 cubic metres __________ second under exceptional circumstances;
__________, river engineers are working on "Project Flood", to make
sure that __________ into the Gulf of Mexico can __________ __________
a flow of __________ magnitude.
__________ of the
towns and settlements __________ the river are situated on
"bluffs", others are protected by levees. __________ of the time, the
levees do their job; but not __________ . In 1993, hundreds of
__________ __________ of land were flooded, and millions of dollars'
__________ of damage done when the mighty river became __________
mighty, and broke __________ the defenses.