The Mighty Mississippi

July 19th, 2007

The acclaimed headwaters of the Mississippi start at Lake Itasca so we took a short drive north with my brother’s family to visit Itasca State Park.

We discovered, though, a great deal of controversy on the subject of the true headwater or starting point of the Mississippi River. Wikipedia’s article on Lake Itasca tells the story: Henry Schoolcraft identified Lake Itasca as the river’s source in 1832. He had been part of a previous expedition in 1820 led by General Lewis Cass that had named nearby Cass Lake (which is downstream from Itasca) as the source of the river…The western arm of the lake is fed by two small streams on its south end. Nicolett Creek, which is considered too small to be considered as the headwaters, starts in a nearby spring. Another small stream leads into Itasca from Elk Lake, which in turn is fed by two other streams. In1887 Williard Glazier promoted a campaign to consider Elk Lake, which he called Glazier Lake, as the true source of the Mississippi. These streams, however, are generally considered too small to be categorized as the headwaters of the river. The decision was made by Jacob V. Brower, a land surveyor and president of the Minnesota Historical Society, who after spending five months exploring the lakes ruled that the lakes and streams further south of Lake Itasca were not the true source of the Mississippi.

This led us all to wonder what really did constitute the beginnings of a river. Was it the first trickle of water? Was it the earliest lake from which is originates? Or something else? And we also wondered when rivers join, how it is decided which river it is at that point.

Regardless, the headwaters are now officially located at Lake Itasca at a very obvious point. It is obvious because in the 1930’s the Civilian Conservation Corps actually moved the channel of the Mississippi as it emerged from the lake to make a more pleasant experience for visitors. They drained the swamp, dug the new channel and installed a man-made rock barrier to create rapids from the lake to the channel. Now tourists who visit the site wade across the rock barrier.


One comment to “The Mighty Mississippi”

  1. What a treat to read through your postings about your trip to our area and see your wonderful photos!

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