Monday, February 15, 2021

Rivers and more

TL;DR -- Further look at the Mississippi and the portage area in Wisconsin that links the Fox River with the Wisconsin River. 


As mentioned before, rivers facilitate travel, however they are also barriers to movement. People moving west out of the east coast traversed large chunks of land as well as crossed over major rivers: All that Louisiana brought. That post looked at the Mississippi watershed which covers almost the whole of the continent, as the river came to the U.S. from the area of New France. Getting familiar with specifics reminded us that we need to look at the other colonies. There were New France, New Spain, New Netherland, and New Sweden. The last two were short-lived, albeit the effects of that effort remain visible until today. It was England, France, and Spain who continued in their conflicts for another century plus. 

Before getting to the theme of the post, let's use a better image from Wikipedia that shows the major tributaries of the most major of the water systems in the U.S. This post deals with an area in the north central of this map (that is, to the upper right of the heavy blue line). Later, we will back up and update an earlier post about the Gardner River which is in the upper left (Yellowstone area). To be complete, we have to look at the other major systems in the west that do not drain into the Mississippi (Columbia, Rio Grande, Colorado, and few smaller systems in the west, plus Texas and its rivers - Pecos and all). 

Mississippi River

So, the theme continues to be about rivers. The Wisconsin and the Fox rivers are so close in Wisconsin (see upper center part of the above map, to the right - the Wisconsin is shown) that a portage was established way back in the 1600s (of course, known way before the Europeans arrived at the scene) that allowed travelers (their original location was the St. Lawrence area) to use the Great Lakes to get to the Fox River (via Lake Michigan) and over to the Wisconsin River so as to get to the Mississippi and venture south toward the Gulf of Mexico. That party traveled down past the Missouri River to the Arkansas River which are both carriers of water from the Rockies. 

What was interesting to learn was the height differences from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi Valley plus the short distance of the portage which was less than three miles. The graphic depicts the elevation of the locks that were established to allow transportation to use the route. Prior to that, there would have been manpower in movement of the vehicle as well as other portages in order to bypass rough areas. Albeit, none of that would have been too strenuous in normal conditions, compared to what was coming for travelers as they got past the area of the plains. 

Fox-Wisconsin Waterway

These early travelers (Joliet and Marquette) were French with American Indian guides and turned around at the Arkansas as they saw evidence of Spanish culture. On their return journey, they blew by the Ohio (different culture - we'll get to it as a main waterway from New England) and took the Illinois River back east. They had a bit of a longer portage to get to Chicago and Lake Michigan, however the going was easier. Just for comparison, here is the waterway that was developed later to allow and maintain water traffic from Chicago to the Mississippi River. 

Illinois Waterway

Notice the elevation changes. Chicago is 597' more or less above sea level. Grafton, IL is 435'. At its confluence with the Ohio River, a little further south, the Mississippi River is at 315'. This is a low spot as going west would have had one climbing to the Rockies and beyond, over a long bit of terrain. Lewis & Clark paddled their way up. Later, ingenuous people had flat-bottom boats with power. However, even those could not handle the rough water.  

In the context of these waterways, the later trekkers would have seen these as a barrier which would differ by the time of the year and the weather. Spring runoff in this area can be quite large. It was not too long ago that we saw a huge flood cross the landscape from a large snow melt in the Rockies to the Mississippi along the Missouri River that took months as it went from state to state. When it finally arrived, in an area, everything within the flood plain was under water. There would be no concept of the flash flood unless one was looking at upstream penetration in tributaries as the water rose. Usually, flooding is a downstream affair. But, there can be back up given the right conditions. 

So, in those early times, none of this would have been known. One service that would have been established later was a ferry. The Massachusetts group that went to Lawrence, KS went over the Wakarusa River after they left the Gardner, KS area. Later, there was a ferry put in at that location between Kansas City and the Lawrence area. Imagine a wagon train, though, with each wagon awaiting the back and forth. Gives "all in a day's work" a whole new meaning; rather, it's a forgotten one. 

Remarks: Modified: 11/29/2022

02/16/2021 --  Got to love Wikipedia. This post lists rivers of the U.S. by length. The Missouri tops the Mississippi by a 100+ miles. It's due to those twists and turns in the mountains of the west. Also, for each river, it shows where it drains. Note that six major rivers flow into the Mississippi. Then, each of these has many rivers flowing into it. So, the Mississippi system is huge. 

See also, list of longest rivers by state. For each state, there is a link to the list of all rivers with a map of the river. Again, Wikipedia, and its volunteers, are a marvel of the age. 

The USGS has a nice map that allows attention to details

02/18/2021 -- Our post on trappers shows a W. H. Jackson painting of wagons crossing the South Platte. This was risky. Notice that extra oxen were used. However, in shallow spots, a ferry would be difficult to manage, too. 

11/29/2022 -- Refresh the elevation view of the Illinois Waterway. 

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