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The Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, as illustrated by H. N. Fisk, 1944
September 30, 2011 2:10 PM   Subscribe

The Mississippi River has the third largest drainage basin in the world, exceeded in size only by the watersheds of the Amazon and Congo Rivers. It drains 41 percent of the 48 contiguous states of the United States. The basin covers more than 1,245,000 square miles, includes all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces. The US Government has tried to improve navigability of the Mississippi River and its major tributaries for more than a hundred years, focused in part by Mississippi River Commission, created in 1879. The river is ever-changing, and in an attempt to understand their domain, and in 1941, MCR hired Harold Norman Fisk to conduct a geological investigation of the Lower Mississippi Valley. The result was a colorful map that displayed the historical course of the riverway from southern Illinois to southern Louisana. His vivid maps are available online in full, but beware: the files are very large.
posted by filthy light thief (24 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Aww... I cross the Mississippi every day going to work and home, and I'm not on Fisk's map.
posted by doyouknowwhoIam? at 2:26 PM on September 30, 2011


But to be fair, that map is epic. That man had an amazing work ethic.
posted by doyouknowwhoIam? at 2:27 PM on September 30, 2011


These are incredible.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 2:29 PM on September 30, 2011


Those maps are super cool.

One thing I've been wondering for a while, especially after looking at Google Earth, is if there are any time-lapse satellite images that show the change in a river channel? We've had satellite imagery for 50+ years (although of pretty low resolution).

I would take something like an animated version those maps, though too.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 2:31 PM on September 30, 2011


Wow.

I love the Mississippi. I grew up in Illinois by the Fox river, used by Louis Joliet to be the first settler to canoe the Mississipi, an act which has since been speciously described as discovering the Mississippi. I went to college in southern Illinois near Cape Girardeau. I also had the privilege of working on an archeological dig near Cahokia.

My sister and parents moved down to Mississippi almost 20 years ago. They live on the Pearl River, which I don't think is a tributary of the Mississippi but also confirms what this post teaches. Rivers don't care. Rivers run. Thanks for this post. Those are both beautiful and tragic maps.
posted by Toekneesan at 2:44 PM on September 30, 2011


Oh my god. I want to wallpaper my office in those.
posted by pemberkins at 2:48 PM on September 30, 2011


ArgentCorvid - NASA posted satellite images of certain locations changing in a decade, which Wired Magazine staff then animated (MeFi, previously).

pemberkins - given the file size (Oversized Plates: 686MB), I think it would be possible to print out wallpaper for your office.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:05 PM on September 30, 2011


This is where I post a link to John McPhee's simply awesome "Atchafalaya" from the New Yorker, itself one of three chapters in his book The Control Of Nature, which everyone should read right now.
For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah. Moreover, there were so many big industries between the two cities that at night they made the river glow like a worm. As a result of settlement patterns, this reach of the Mississippi had long been known as “the German coast,” and now, with B. F. Goodrich, E. I. du Pont, Union Carbide, Reynolds Metals, Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Georgia-Pacific, Hydrocarbon Industries, Vulcan Materials, Nalco Chemical, Freeport Chemical, Dow Chemical, Allied Chemical, Stauffer Chemical, Hooker Chemicals, Rubicon Chemicals, American Petrofina—with an infrastructural concentration equalled in few other places—it was often called “the American Ruhr.” The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. The Sixth World War would do less damage to southern Louisiana. Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.
Seriously, it's some of the best long-form journalism that I have ever read.
posted by Len at 3:29 PM on September 30, 2011 [6 favorites]


pemberkins - given the file size (Oversized Plates: 686MB), I think it would be possible to print out wallpaper for your office.

Well, I was looking for a weekend project...
posted by pemberkins at 3:31 PM on September 30, 2011


Here's a slippy map of the Fisk Mississippi map overlaid on top of Google's aerial imagery. I took the very big files and made them small and tiled for you.
posted by Nelson at 3:33 PM on September 30, 2011 [9 favorites]


As a land surveyor in a previous life, I just want to say that THAT IS A HELL OF A LOT OF SURVEYING THERE. Awesome.
posted by Ron Thanagar at 4:01 PM on September 30, 2011


Nelson wrote: Here's a slippy map of the Fisk Mississippi map overlaid on top of Google's aerial imagery. I took the very big files and made them small and tiled for you

You made them very small. The map widget is only 300 pixels wide. ;)
posted by wierdo at 4:25 PM on September 30, 2011


pemberkins - As an alternative, I would* suggest that there are artists who have rendered works based in part on these drawings. For instance, the artist Maysey Craddock has paintings based on these drawings, and recently organized a show titled Natural Course around them and some of her other works.

I am glad to see I am not alone in my love of the Mississippi River. I have lived all my life in a Mississippi river town. At one point I had an office wherein I could swivel my chair and see one of the great bridges that span it. I cross it every Sunday when I go to visit my in-laws.

As a boy my father saw the flood of '37. He walked Main street and remembers seeing all of the mules in Arkansas being led across the old bridge into the stockyards of South Memphis. My late father-in-law remembered the flood of '27, and his entire family moving to Cincinnati. One of my great joys this past year was in visiting the bank of the river at Memphis at the height of the flood stage. There is an island slight south of the downtown area. The river tried to cut the island in two.


*Of course, I say would because the title work of the show is hanging in my office. There are many others, though.
posted by grimjeer at 5:06 PM on September 30, 2011


The river as a mighty morphing force of nature is a fascinating part of Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. The river boat pilots had to have a life-or-death command of every stretch of the river. Twain addressed the river "cut-offs" in Chapter 17. Here's a piece of it:
When the river is rising fast, some scoundrel whose plantation
is back in the country, and therefore of inferior value,
has only to watch his chance, cut a little gutter across the narrow
neck of land some dark night, and turn the water into it,
and in a wonderfully short time a miracle has happened: to wit,
the whole Mississippi has taken possession of that little ditch,
and placed the countryman's plantation on its bank (quadrupling its
value), and that other party's formerly valuable plantation finds
itself away out yonder on a big island; the old watercourse around
it will soon shoal up, boats cannot approach within ten miles
of it, and down goes its value to a fourth of its former worth.
Watches are kept on those narrow necks, at needful times,
and if a man happens to be caught cutting a ditch across them,
the chances are all against his ever having another opportunity to
cut a ditch.
posted by beesoar at 5:19 PM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Holy crap those files ARE huge. I downloaded the Fisk Rectified set, the .zip was about half the size of the biggest file, so that either means lower rez or fewer maps. And it took over 2 hours to download. The ~17Mb open uncompressed in Photoshop at around 300Mb, these are some of the biggest files I've ever opened. How the hell did they produce these scans? I wish there was an index so I could locate my neighborhood. I have to open each file and it looks like the Louisiana Delta is mapped over and over. I'm making thumbnails in Adobe Bridge but that's not doing much good.

BTW, I was sure I have seen this on MeFi before, since I found a little file "Fisk_44_report.zip" on my disk, containing a scan of a typewritten report on these maps. And yeah, it was in a comment in another post.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:41 PM on September 30, 2011


Oh I just saw this, by Nelson:

Here's a slippy map of the Fisk Mississippi map overlaid on top of Google's aerial imagery.

Oh hell. It looks like these go north up to St. Louis and no farther.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:46 PM on September 30, 2011


My version of the map only goes up a bit past Cairo, a fair bit south of St. Louis. It's directly derived from the "Fisk 44 Oversized Plates Rectified" that the Army Corps of Engineers makes available. I just took the nicely georeferenced TIFFs they published and sliced them up in to tiles. Just a couple hours' hack.

weirdo, the map should expand to fill your browser window. Works in recent Chrome, Firefox, and Safari at least. Sorry if it's not working out for ya.
posted by Nelson at 5:56 PM on September 30, 2011


As an alternative, I would* suggest that there are artists who have rendered works based in part on these drawings.

Ooooooh. Thanks!
posted by pemberkins at 5:56 PM on September 30, 2011


Just a couple hours' hack.

LOL. Well I greatly appreciated your work, that was awesome. I just wanted to see the maps go up past the junction of the Missouri River, up to the Iowa River, maybe even to the locks and dams on the Northern Mississippi. That would have been cool. Oh well, it was a monumental effort by the original surveyors just to get as far north as they did.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:08 PM on September 30, 2011


Nelson wrote: weirdo, the map should expand to fill your browser window. Works in recent Chrome, Firefox, and Safari at least. Sorry if it's not working out for ya

Weird that it doesn't work right in Aurora, especially given that other slippymap-based maps work.
posted by wierdo at 8:09 PM on September 30, 2011


Paging Edward Tufte...
posted by mecran01 at 11:01 PM on September 30, 2011


...aaaand the new Aurora fixed it. Fx9 is already looking up. ;)
posted by wierdo at 11:26 PM on September 30, 2011


Paging Edward Tufte...

The Fisk maps have appeared on Tufte's blog, although without comment from Tufte.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:48 AM on October 1, 2011


The River.
posted by zoinks at 10:56 AM on October 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


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