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River System

Upper Mississippi River

The Upper Mississippi River has been the subject of many fictional tales and is the subject of hundreds, if not thousands, of non-fictional reports, studies, articles and books. From the earliest adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the latest in ecosystem management practices, the river has captured the attention and imagination of people from all walks of life from all over the world.

In the early 1800s the Upper Mississippi River was an untamed, unreliable means of transportation for both commodities and people. There were no locks and dams to inhibit its flow, and the river was extremely temperamental. During floods, the river was treacherous and deep. And frequently though, extended dry weather made the river too shallow to navigate, and many areas existed where the river could be crossed on foot.

Adding to the perils of the Upper Mississippi River were its uncharted banks, sandbars, rapids, and snags which presented a constant danger to the Native Americans, explorers, traders, lumbermen, and steamboat captains who plied the river’s waters.

The Upper Mississippi River connects major metropolitan cities throughout the Upper Midwest and has been used for navigation as early as 900 A.D. Commodities shipped on the river can be transshipped via the Illinois Waterway and the St. Lawrence Seaway to Canada and Europe, or via the lower Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

The Upper Mississippi River begins as a stream near Lake Itasca in north-central Minnesota. From there, it flows through the Upper Midwest for more than 500 miles until it reaches the St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minn., area, where the stream becomes a navigable waterway. As the river flows south from St. Paul to St. Louis, Mo., approximately 670 miles downstream, its banks help form the boundaries of five states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri.

Along its way, the Upper Mississippi River is fed by many tributaries including the Minnesota, St. Croix, Chippewa, Wisconsin, Rock, Iowa, Des Moines and Illinois rivers. Just above St. Louis, the Upper Mississippi River joins with the Missouri River and from just below St. Louis at Cairo, Illinois, the river flows for approximately 170 additional miles until it meets the Ohio River. At this point, the Upper Mississippi River becomes the Lower Mississippi River.

Illinois Waterway

Nowhere near as historically well known as the Mississippi River, the Illinois Waterway has pulled its share of the navigation load. The Waterway connects the Great Lakes with the Upper Mississippi River and has been used for navigation since 1822. Commodities shipped on the Waterway can be transshipped via the St. Lawrence Seaway to Canada and Europe, or via the Mississippi to the Upper Midwest or to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

The Illinois Waterway is comprised of the Illinois River from its mouth to the confluence of the Kankakee River; the Des Plaines River from the Kankakee to Lockport, Ill.; the Chicago River from Lockport to the Chicago Harbor; and the Calumet-Sag Canal from four miles above Lockport to Lake Calumet.

Starting from the Chicago metropolitan area, the Illinois Waterway flows past or through more than 60 cities, towns and villages. The vast majority of the area the waterway passes through is rural farmland. Today the Illinois Waterway is a narrow channel over most of its length with levees abutting much of the shoreline. Throughout the length of the river valley are many significant cultural and natural resources. Natural resources are mostly restricted to the main river channel border and designated refuges.

As a part of the Upper Mississippi River System, the Illinois Waterway and the Upper Mississippi River have been recognized by the United States Congress as "nationally significant ecosystems." Significantly recognized natural resources of the rivers include backwaters and wetlands, fish, mussels, aquatic plants, aquatic invertebrate life, and waterfowl. Along with the natural resource values of the system are extensive recreational opportunities including boating, fishing and hunting.