10 Breathtaking Facts About the Mississippi River

From length to history, there's a lot to learn about the Mississippi River.

Mississippi River at dawn.
John Elk / Getty Images

The Mississippi River is famous for its important role in the industrialization of the United States. The river is a vital source of hydroelectric energy, provides drinking water for millions of people, and supports many ecologically and commercially important fish species. The river's connection to American culture has made it a focal point for a lot of American literature, including Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

From its range of wildlife to its long and fascinating history, discover more facts about the Mississippi River.

1. The Mississippi River Is the Third-Largest River Basin in the World

Encompassing over 1.2 million square miles, the Mississippi River is the third-largest river basin in the world. The Mississippi is only outranked by the Amazon and Congo river basins. The river basin collects water from 31 states. The Mississippi River watershed covers over 40% of the continental United States.

2. The River's Widest Point is Over 11 Miles Across

An aerial view of Lake Pepin along the Mississippi River
Lake Pepin is the widest part of the Mississippi River's shipping channel.

juliannafunk / Getty Images

The Mississippi River's widest point is where the river forms Lake Winnibigoshish, near Bena Minnesota. At its widest point, the Mississippi's Lake Winnibigoshish is over 11 miles across. Within the river's shipping channel, the widest point is Lake Pepin, where the channel is about 2 miles wide.

3. It's Where Water-Skiing Was Invented

The Mississippi River's Lake Winnibigoshish is also where water skiing was invented. At just 18 years old, Ralph Samuelson was the first to translate snow skiing to water. However, Samuelson did not go on to patent the invention. Instead, New York inventor Fred Waller obtained a patent for water skis in 1925, three years after Samuelson's first successful water ski ride. Waller's product was called "Dolphin Akwa-Skees."

4. Two People Have Swum the Entire Length of the River

First, in 2002, Slovenian distance swimmer Martin Strel swam the length of the Mississippi River in 68 days. He went on to swim the length of the Amazon and Yangtze rivers, too.

Then, in 2015, American Navy combat veteran Chris Ring became the second person and the first American to complete a swim of the Mississippi River. Ring's journey took him 181 days.

5. It's Home to 25% of All North American Fish Species

Two spotted fish with pointed noses swimming in underwater vegetation.
The spotted gar is one species of fish found in the Mississippi River.

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The Mississippi River is home to a diversity of animals, including at least 260 species of fish. Together, the river contains around 25% of all North American fish species, about half of which live below St. Anthony Falls, the only major waterfall along the Mississippi River. This section of the river has currents, pools, and backwaters which create habitat to support the large diversity of fish species. Mississippi fish species include carps, catfish, sturgeon, pike, and gar.

6. The River Serves as the Birthplace of Saw and Flour Milling

A view of St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Today, St. Anthony Falls flow over a concrete wall created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Raymond Boyd / Getty Images

In addition to creating an important fish habitat, St. Anthony Falls was also instrumental in the industrialization of Minneapolis. Today, St. Anthony Falls is located near downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.

In the 1700s and 1800s, settlers began using the falls as a power source for lumber and flour mills. Then, in 1869, the falls partially collapsed during an attempt to expand milling operations above the falls. After many failed attempts to repair the existing falls, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers resorted to building a concrete wall in place of the natural falls. The wall was completed in 1876 and remains in place today. With St. Anthony Falls secured, flour milling took off in the area.

7. It's the Second-Longest River in the United States

From its starting point at Minnesota's Lake Itasca to where it enters the Gulf of Mexico in Louisianna, the Mississippi River covers around 2,350 miles. The Mississippi River is only about 200 miles shorter than America's longest river, the Missouri River.

8. It Flows Through Ten U.S. States

The Mississippi River traverses ten states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Two of these 10 states have their capital cities located along the Mississippi: Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and St. Paul, Minnesota.

9. You Can Drive Alongside Most of the River

Curving road along Mississippi River during autumn
Willard / Getty Images

Planning your next road trip? A scenic roadway was built alongside the Mississippi River in 1938. Known as the Great River Road, much of the scenic route is a federally designated National Scenic Byway. The drive is over 3,000 miles long and takes about 36 hours to complete.

10. It Takes 3 Months for Water to Travel the Entire River

The Mississippi River releases over 4 million gallons of water into the Gulf of Mexico every second. The river flows at various speeds along its length due to natural meanders and man-made changes. Overall, it takes about three months for water flowing from the Mississippi River's headwaters at Lake Itasca to reach the Gulf of Mexico.

View Article Sources
  1. "The Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB)." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2021.

  2. Henson, Michael W. et al. "Nutrient Dynamics and Stream Order Influence Microbial Community Patterns Along a 2914 Kilometer Transect of the Mississippi River." Limnology and Oceanography, vol. 63, no. 5, 2018, pp. 1837-1855., doi:10.1002/lno.10811

  3. "Mississippi River Facts." National Park Service, 2021.