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200 years past to 200 years future, Mississippi River a vital asset


This year marks the 200th anniversary of an event that probably is little known save to historians and dedicated riverphiles — the first successful steamboat trip down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans.

The vessel, the New Orleans, was built from a design by Robert Fulton, portrait painter/gunsmith/rocket builder/inventor/engineer, and the man credited with developing the first commercially successful steamboat (and later, the first practical submarine in history, the Nautilus, commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte). Robert Livingston, U.S. ambassador to France for a time, worked with Fulton on building steamboats and had a hand in the design of the New Orleans.

The Ohio/Mississippi River trip began in October 1811 at Pittsburgh, with Nicholas Roosevelt, the great uncle of President Teddy Roosevelt, as captain, and ended at New Orleans in January 1812.

It was such an unprecedented venture that many labeled it an impossible achievement, including a goodly number who never expected to see the boat again.

Instead, it pioneered the steamboat era and opened not only the Mississippi and Ohio, but other rivers, to a booming commerce and the glamorous travel and riverboat gamblers that would become the stuff of legend.

“Steamboats stimulated manufacturing and economic development along the inland rivers, launching the Ohio Valley’s industrial revolution and moving the nation’s freight … carrying Americans to new homes and converting agricultural villages into boat construction centers, manufacturing emporiums, and ultimately, cities, altering the social fabric of both native American and Euro-African settlers alike,” wrote Dr. Leland Johnson. “The voyage of the New Orleans changed not only the lives of its passengers and crew — it changed ours.”

The New Orleans operated in the river trade for several years before sinking near Natchez, Miss. (More on the steamboat story can be found at

Today, the Mississippi River and its 250-plus tributaries are a vital component of the nation’s and the world’s commerce, and the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which oversees the waters of the 1.25 million square mile river basin, is already planning for the next two centuries.

“Some people can’t think in 200-year increments,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division and president of the Mississippi River Commission, which recently held a public hearing at Greenville, Miss.

“But for the world’s third largest waterway, a 200-year time frame may not be adequate. We need to be looking at how we can address problems and issues so this system can serve the needs of our grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.”

The 200-Year Vision, developed in recent years, includes national security and reliable flood control; environmental sustainability and recreation; infrastructure and energy; water supply and water quality; and movement of goods, agriculture, and manufacturing.

“All this isn’t just going to happen,” Walsh says. “We need to be looking at this plan not just on the basis of today’s needs, but from the viewpoint of the next 200 years.” 

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