To cross the Mississippi River between Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island, Illinois you must travel across the Arsenal Bridge. Beneath the bridge is Lock and Dam Number 15, one of twenty nine operating along the Mississippi River. Since the 1930s, the series of locks and dams have controlled the flow of commerce up and down the river, making travel safe and efficient for captains of barges and riverboats. However, this was not always how commerce traveled the river. Before the mighty river was tamed, dangers to shipping lurked below the waters and claimed many lives when we first started navigating it. Although it took centuries to develop a safe way to travel the river, the Mississippi has become the heartbeat of agriculture and industry in the heartland of the United States.
Before the European powers ever reached the New World, the natives of the Americas lived along the Mississippi River. Many different tribes, cultures, and cities lived along the mighty waterway. Across the river from St. Louis, Missouri, the great city of Cahokia still stands. Nearly 900 years ago, the city was thriving and far larger than what remains today. The Mississippi would be a great resource for all people living along it, and those living on other rivers that connect to it. Many great cultures developed along its banks, as did our nation many years later. It would be the knowledge and experience of these people that would later help build our industry and agriculture along the river.
After the colonies fought for their independence, the Louisiana territory was purchased from France in 1803. Lewis and Clark explored the area west of the Mississippi. Many began to settle along the river, farming its fertile lands. They would travel by land, or by rafts along the river to sell their crops. This slow economy would soon be changed as the steamboats began journeying along the river. The first steamboat to travel the Mississippi was the New Orleans, which made its way from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to New Orleans, Louisiana in 1811. With steamboats transporting goods up and down the river, farmers could transport and sell their crops quicker and easier, bringing an economic boom for agriculture and industry along the Mississippi, and other rivers across the United States.
Travel along the Mississippi was not without its dangers. Sand bars, along with trees and debris were the bane of early riverboats. With the river becoming the trade hub of the Midwest, something had to be done to make river travel safer. In 1829, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work clearing debris and other snags from the river, as well as excavating rocks and sand bars. The mid 1800s saw the golden age of steamboats, which became the main way to travel the river. Up until the 1880s, there were no railroads crossing the river, so trade and travel relied on the steamboats. Slowly, the steamboat would be replaced by modern pusher tug boats, which travel the river now. In 1930, work began on creating a series of locks and dams, authorized by Congress to maintain a channel 9 feet deep for commercial travel. This was the last step to taming the river, and making travel and trade as safe as possible.
While industry boomed along the Mississippi, and farmers sold their crops to a growing market spanning the country, cultures spread up and down the country. In 1885, Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi was published. The book covered the history and commerce of the steamboat that traveled the river. Thirty years later, Jazz from the South would play in each city that the Mississippi reached, which led to the proliferation of big bands in the Roaring 20s.
Although we do not pay much attention to the river between Davenport and Rock Island, it is that very river that shaped our nation, and is the heartbeat of it. The farmers of the Midwest rely on it, as well as our state and country’s infrastructure and economy. There is no doubt that the Mississippi River is one of the defining notes in human history.