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Centuries of engineering has altered the Mississippi River. A new book examines the effects

The Mississippi River seen during a Lighthawk flight on Wednesday, April 24, 2024, in Missouri.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
The Mississippi River seen during a Lighthawk flight on April 24 in Missouri.

Spanning more than 2,300 miles, the Mississippi is one of the longest rivers in the world. The waterway has the distinction of being both a significant ecosystem and a commercial navigation route, which often leads to tension and competing visions for its future.

In his new book “The Great River: The Making and Unmaking of the Mississippi,” author and journalist Boyce Upholt traces the history of the river from its formation thousands of years ago to the human-focused waterway we know today.

The Mississippi River basin drains 41% of the contiguous United States. It's likely the most engineered river system in the world, Upholt said. It features a levee that is the second-longest human-made structure after the Great Wall of China. This engineering is the result of decades of “river improvement” efforts, largely led by the Army Corps of Engineers, which Upholt chronicles in the book.

“I found it difficult to even conceive of all that we've done on the river,” Upholt said. “I've visited all these different floodways. I've walked, driven and biked the levee in many different places, and the scale of all these different interventions together — it's just mind-boggling.”

The Great River, book by author Boyce Upholt, photographed on Monday June 10, 2024.
Theo R. Welling/Theo R. Welling
St. Louis Public Radio
The Great River, by author Boyce Upholt, photographed on Monday.

Still, Upholt writes, there is nature to be enjoyed on the river.

“I have canoed from St. Louis down to the Gulf of Mexico, and you don't have to get very far outside of the city to find yourself in strikingly wild-feeling places,” he said.

Much of what was built was put in place before scientists and engineers fully understood the consequences of their projects and how climate change would test them.

“Once you put in engineering, you alter the conditions, and you’re going to have ripple effects that [are] hard to guess,” Upholt said. “We are starting to see that in the amount of flooding that’s been happening in Missouri.”

Now the people responsible for the Mississippi are considering a different future.

“The Great River” winds through the river’s history in a way that is true to its subject — it is not always a straight path. Many lesser-known stories of this system pass through the St. Louis region, with familiar names like Mark Twain, James Buchanan Eads and Thomas Jefferson. Upholt also brings new insight to famous local stops, like the Cahokia Mounds, and some that are less well-known, like a drainage system in Missouri’s bootheel that may be the largest in the world.

Upholt presents deep questions about the consequences of infrastructure and where the boundaries of nature lie. He hopes the book will inspire people to get to know the river up close, by canoeing some of the same stretches he traveled during his research.

Boyce Upholt spoke with Kate Grumke on St. Louis on the Air. Listen to the conversation on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube or by clicking the play button below.

New book explores the Mississippi River's rich history

Related Event
What: “The Great River” book signing and conversation between author Boyce Upholt and St. Louis-based author Dean Klinkenberg
When: 6 p.m. June 18
Where: Schlafly Public Library (225 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, MO 63108)

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.