Today I return to the northern part of the Mississippi River. Last week, I looked at the Mississippi River from its middle section. The River looks very different physically in these two locations. But one thing that Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri share when they look out at the Mississippi River is their tie to America’s pioneering experience.
The Missourians take a more overt approach to this. The museum at the base of St. Louis’ arch celebrates the role this community played in the westward expansion of the United States. The exhibit pays homage to the explorers, both Native and European, who risked life and limb to explore uncharted territories. While not overtly about the Mississippi, you understand that this region of the country is intensely proud of the gumption and guts it took to make the westward trek. It is part of America’s character and it started — or so they claim — here on the banks of the Mississippi.
Today that pioneering spirit is being carried forward by local institutions like the Lewis and Clark Community College – aptly named for renowned American explorers – as it works with other research and education institutions as a part of the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center.
And in the northern section, those of us who have known this River for decades are familiar with its tales of exploration by voyageurs and Native Americans. We know its tie to our development first as a source of timber for urban expansion in the 19th century and then as a vehicle for commerce as the nation expanded.
In festivals all along the watery artery, the riverboat days are celebrated for their tie to a bygone era. Some times we forget that that this was not only a poetic era in terms of travel, but a way for a nation to link itself across a broad territory. Some times the links were short – as from St. Paul to Des Moines. Other times, the connection went throughout the ten state corridor. But this became an avenue of ideas and trade not unlike the connectedness of the Internet today. And certainly, no less pioneering.
So as we work together to discern a vision for the future of America’s Waterway, the Mississippi River, I hope we will include the link the River provides to an element of the American spirit we still appreciate today. Let’s hold on to and update that part of America’s character that’s associated with discovery, meeting challenges and linking communities – and celebrate it as inherently a part of the Mississippi River today as well as its past.