Earlier this year, as the Ohio and Mississippi River flooding worsened, many turned their attention on the Old River Control Structure in Louisiana. This set of 3 dams is all that is keeping the Mississippi River from changing course and making a new path towards the Gulf of Mexico via the Atchafalaya River.
As it so happens, the large amount of silt the Mississippi River carries tends to settle and forces the river to seek new paths. As of today, the Mississippi has been traveling past New Orleans for about a millennia and is overdue for a major course correction. One epic flood is all that it will take to wipe out Morgan City and leave the port of New Orleans high and dry.
St. Louis once had a scare of its own with the wild nature of the Mississippi River. In 1798, a small gravel bar appeared in the river near where the Poplar Street Bridge stands today. The gravel bar slowly grew north to become its own island and, over the next 40 years, began to threaten to leave St. Louis without a port.
Over the course of its existence, this Mississippi island was the site of many duels, owing to its uncertain “no man’s land” position between Missouri and Illinois, earning it the name Bloody Island. The island itself finally met its match when a young engineer named Robert E. Lee devised a system of dikes and dams that kept the Mississippi flowing through its main channel and eventually joined Bloody Island to the Illinois side.
A casual look at satellite imagery of the St. Louis region can reveal an entire canvas of paths the Mississippi River once took before man “tamed” the mighty river. Horseshoe Lake is one of the most visible remnants of its former meandering ways.
The map on the left is something I had fun drawing up many years ago. It’s my imagination of the Mississippi on a different course and how it may have affected the highways that St. Louis built. It’s also a reminder to me that one day, no matter how hard man tries to contain it, the Mississippi River will unleash a mighty fury and break free of its cage.
There's a great essay in 'Common Fields' about the effect of steamboat operators collecting wood on the banks of the rivers as they went up and down them. The eliminating of trees and eroding of banks caused some huge shifts, and the elimination of the town of Kaskaskia with all its archeological remnants is a good example of that.
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