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Major Waterways in the United States

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Learn about the major waterways of the United States, including the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Great Lakes. Why were they important historically? And why are they important today? Take a quiz to test your knowledge.

What is a Waterway?

A waterway is a navigable path of water, including rivers, canals, lakes, seas and oceans. Any area of water that is deep enough, wide enough, and free enough of barriers to be used for the passage of ships counts as a waterway. People often focus on internal waterways and ignore the seas and oceans.

The Importance of Waterways

Of all the resources the world offers, water is by far the most important. You can only go three days without water, yet it's possible to survive three weeks without food. And for this reason, during much of human history, rivers were vital to every aspect of human existence. Rivers are like the veins and arteries of our landscape. Trade has also been hugely important to human progress, and waterways provide routes to ship goods for trade with other humans.

Today, thanks to indoor plumbing, we're not quite as reliant on the location of waterways for drinking water. And thanks to cars and planes, we're not as reliant on waterways for trade either. However, the water we use in our homes has to come from somewhere. Therefore, waterways remain as important today as they have been throughout history.

The historical importance of waterways cannot be underestimated. Many of the largest cities in the world are positioned along either coasts or rivers. Before plumbing, it was simply a matter of survival. The very first settlements established by humans during the agrarian revolution (when humans began to settle down and farm the land instead of our previous nomadic lifestyles) were centered around waterways. Not only did waterways provide water, but they also provided fertile land for farming. Later, they would provide irrigation, electricity, food, transport, and recreation as well.

Rivers can be used for irrigation
Rivers can be used irrigation

Rivers and Canals of the United States

The United States has a lot of rivers and canals (man-made rivers). How many? Somewhere around 250,000 in all. They stretch for millions of miles. The two most famous rivers in the United States are the Missouri River and Mississippi River. The Missouri River is the longest in the United States at 2,540 miles long. But the Mississippi River is the largest - it holds the most water due to being deeper. The Mississippi flows through a total of 10 states, flowing from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

Before Europeans arrived in North America, many Native American tribes relied on the river including the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Caddo, Osage, Quapaw, Natchez, Tunica, Sioux, Sac, Fox, Winnebago and many more. They used it for transportation, drinking water, and fishing.

As soon as Europeans crossed the Mississippi in 1541, there was a race by various European countries to settle its shores. The Mississippi was strategically important during the Civil War, essential during the Industrial Revolution, and provides drinking water and major transportation to this day. It's also significant as a major ecosystem for a variety of wildlife.

Egret on the Mississippi
Egret on the Mississippi

The Missouri was also important, but its importance developed later since it is further west. It was a jumping off point for many trails in the process of settling the West. It also travels through some dry parts of the country, making it vital for irrigation, particularly on the Great Plains.

The Missouri starts in the mountains
The Missouri starts in the mountains

Most rivers in the United States have had their flows adjusted or have been dammed. Pathways called Canals have also been built to connect natural rivers. The longest completely natural, undammed river in the United States is the Yellowstone River at 692 miles long. There are many other important rivers in the United States including the Colorado, Rio Grande, San Joaquin, and Yukon.

Locks and Dams on the Missouri
Locks and Dams on the Missouri

Seas, Lakes and Oceans of the United States

The United States is surrounded by two oceans and a sea: The Pacific Ocean in the west, the Atlantic Ocean in the east, and the Gulf of Mexico in the south. These oceans have been continually used to ship goods and people between locations in the United States, and from abroad.

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