If you want to get a feel for what it means to be America’s great river, travel it via the Great River Road.
We didn’t do the whole thing, but we got a taste in October when we meandered four of the five Minnesota sections. The breadth of the scenery and disparity of lifestyles were a microcosm of the state and, I suspect, the nation. It was a way to think about the country – just before an election – and take a measure of the River’s mysterious connection to American life.
The Great River Road itself has a colorful history. 75 years since its presidential inception, it’s had moments of measured progress against a backdrop of inertia. The brainchild of Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior under FDR, it started as a planning board. From 1939 to 1949, it was the subject of congressional study, resulting in a recommendation for a Parkway for the Mississippi River in 1951. The 1956 Federal Highway Act came along just in time to fund it, but it wouldn’t be until the 1973 Federal Aid Highway Act that congress would allocate over $314 million for the Great River Road, $250 million of which was directly allocated to the 10 main stem states. (Take heart, those working on change for the Mississippi River today!)
The states took up the task of selecting their own Great River Road routes using federal guidelines. “The Great River Road should be located within designated segments to take advantage of scenic views and provide the traveler with the opportunity to enjoy the unique features of the Mississippi River and its recreational opportunities.”
So it is today that we have, in most of the 10 Mississippi River states, active Mississippi River Parkway Commissions and a national body as well. Dedicated to promoting tourism, they strive to meet the criteria of the federal guidelines with marked routes, highlighted destinations, printed background material and a web site. In most states, they work with other state agencies such as the highway departments and the historical societies to make the river accessible and to inform the public of its significance.
Taking advantage of this guided experience goes beyond visiting specific locations and tourism though. Traveling the Great River Road, like traveling rivers everywhere, gives authentic glimpses we seldom can see from interstates or in the miniscule media clips on TV or the internet. That we weave together our lives at all is still a testament to the human inclination to live in society and to make it good. And, the Great River Road shows us how the Mississippi River has been and continues to be at the heart of that quest.