Many a visitor comes to New Orleans and forgets that the reason this city exists in the first place is because of the mighty Mississippi River. Mississippi – from a Chippewa Indian word that means "one really, really big river" – is the life force that has shaped New Orleans history forever.
The longest river in North America, the Mississippi stretches 2,350 miles, surpassed in length only by the Amazon and the Nile. That mighty length of river equated to big commerce in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, creating buckets full of millionaires in New Orleans and the Southern Delta, thanks to the steamships loaded with cotton that crisscrossed the river’s waterways.
The Mississippi at night — Photo courtesy of Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar
The river hasn’t always been so generous. It's taken as many lives as it's helped to make, with outbreaks of yellow fever and the big floods that washed away homes and the lives of the people who lived in them.
Thanks to much of the city’s below-river-level status and the Mississippi’s history of flooding, New Orleans started burying its dead above ground in the 18th century to protect loved ones’ remains from the river’s notorious currents.
Yet despite all this history, the city’s most present landmark might be easy to forget if you don’t look beyond the glitz and feathers of the quarter and put the skyline behind you in search of the rushing brown waters of "Old Man River."
The river defines and literally shapes the city into its famous crescent outline.
You could spend a weekend in the French Quarter and never see the river, but that would be a shame.
Instead, wander down past the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and step aboard the Natchez for a look at the city from the river’s point of view. Take the ferry across to Algiers to see the city, and river, in a while new light.
Spend a lazy hour at the riverfront Woldenberg or Audubon park to catch a glimpse of the constant maritime traffic that passes by. Listen to the churning engines and grinding motors that make up the river’s soundtrack.
Mark Twain, who spent plenty of time steam boating up and down America’s most famous waterway, said that the Mississippi river is a wonderful book with a new story to tell every day.
You need to see the river, to get out onto that muddy artery that snakes past New Orleans, to really understand what Twain was talking about.