–submitted by Ben Hebebrand; photo by Dennis Cooley
The river that stretches 2,350 miles dissecting the United States has earned many monikers throughout its storied history– it has been referred to as America’s lifeblood, Ol’ Man River, or the Big Muddy. Dennis McCann, who addressed the members of the Rotary Club of Madison on November 29, refers to the Mississippi as “This Storied River,” which is the title of his recently published book that celebrates particularly the Upper Mississippi’s history and role in shaping the Midwest.
McCann, a UW graduate and celebrated journalist for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, traveled the river’s path across the Midwest, including the headwaters at Lake Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota, where, according to McCann, you can see “the little trickle that becomes the mighty river.”
McCann frequently referred to the river as the feature that “divides and unites our country,” implying that its geography divides the United States into east and west and also brings us together.
A highlight of McCann’s research centered on his first-hand experience on his participation on the 150-year anniversary Mississippi cruise of the Grand Excursion, which originally sailed in 1854 in an effort to attract attention to the river as an economic engine to the towns along the river. It is during this commemorative cruise that McCann encountered the towns and cities that border the river in addition to discovering the river’s beauty, power and rich history.
Starting with the river’s earliest days as the river of native Americans, McCann particularly stressed the 40- to 50-year steamboat era, when “elegant steamboats came into town” and introduced settlers to travelers who often came from faraway places.
Throughout the years, however, the settlers of the Upper Mississippi have maintained a culture of their own, referring to themselves as River Rats, who construct shacks along the river and rebuild them following significant floods.