You Gotta Know These North American Rivers
- The Mississippi River is the longest or second-longest in North America, depending on how you count. (The Missouri River could be considered longer.) Referred to by Abraham Lincoln as “the father of waters,” the Mississippi begins at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, and flows 2,340 miles to a vast delta on the Gulf of Mexico, forming portions of ten state borders and the world’s third-largest drainage basin. The Mississippi picks up numerous major tributaries including the Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, and Red Rivers, and flows past numerous major cities, including Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans.
- The Colorado River is the most significant river of the southwestern United States. Beginning in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Colorado River runs southwest for 1,450 miles to the Gulf of California in northwestern Mexico. The Colorado formed numerous canyons along much of its length, most notably the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The Colorado also has significant dams, including Hoover Dam near Las Vegas (forming Lake Mead) and Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona (forming Lake Powell).
- The Ohio River flows 981 miles through a significant industrial region of the central United States. Historically seen as the border between the northern and southern United States, the Ohio is formed in downtown Pittsburgh by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, flowing past Wheeling, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Evansville, forming borders of five states before emptying into the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. Other major tributaries of the Ohio include the Kanawha, Kentucky, Tennessee, Wabash, and Cumberland Rivers.
- The Columbia River is a vital waterway of the Pacific Northwest. Rising in the Rockies of British Columbia, the Columbia flows through Lake Revelstoke before entering Washington state. Grand Coulee Dam along the Columbia in Washington forms Lake Roosevelt. When it was completed in 1943, Grand Coulee was the largest hydroelectric plant in the world; it is still America’s largest electric power plant. The Columbia receives the Yakima and Snake Rivers before forming much of the Washington-Oregon border, receiving the Willamette River in Portland before emptying into the Pacific where Lewis and Clark sighted the ocean.
- The St. Lawrence River drains the Great Lakes and serves as a major waterway of eastern Canada. First explored and named by Jacques Cartier in the early 16th century, the St. Lawrence emerges from the northeastern corner of Lake Ontario in the Thousand Islands archipelago, forming the border between Ontario and New York. The St. Lawrence receives the Ottawa and Saguenay Rivers and flows through Montréal and Quebec City. At its mouth, the Gulf of St. Lawrence is one of the world’s largest estuaries.
- The Hudson River has been a historically significant American river since the early 17th century. Named for the English explorer Henry Hudson, it flows 315 miles through eastern New York state. After receiving the Mohawk River, the Hudson flows past New York’s capital, Albany, and West Point before forming the boundary between Manhattan and New Jersey. The Hudson is also culturally significant as an inspiration for Washington Irving and the Hudson River School of American landscape painters.
- The Missouri River is formed in western Montana by the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers. It flows past Bismarck, North Dakota and Kansas City before emptying into the Mississippi just north of St. Louis. Lewis and Clark used the Missouri as a route for exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. The Missouri is regulated by a number of major dams, including Fort Peck in Montana and Oahe Dam in South Dakota.
- The Red River of the South is a major river of the southern Great Plains. The Red River forms most of the border between Oklahoma and Texas along its 1,360-mile length. That border formed part of the border between Mexico (and later the Republic of Texas) and the United States after the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty. The Red runs through the Louisiana cities Shreveport and Alexandria before emptying into the Mississippi south of Natchez, Mississippi.
- The Mackenzie River is the longest river of Canada. Flowing 1,080 miles out of the Great Slave Lake, the river flows past Fort Providence and Fort Simpson in Canada’s Northwest Territories, emptying into a vast delta on the Beaufort Sea. The Mackenzie is the largest river flowing into the Arctic Ocean from North America. The river was named for Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie, who crossed Canada to the Pacific ten years before Lewis and Clark.
- The Snake River is a major river of the northwestern United States. Rising in Yellowstone National Park, the Snake bisects southern Idaho along its 1,078-mile route. Flowing through Pocatello and Boise, the Snake River forms much of the border between Idaho and Oregon, including the famous Hells Canyon. The Snake River was a vital route for travelers headed west on the Oregon Trail, who followed the river most of the way to its mouth on the Columbia River.
- The Delaware River is a historically significant river of the eastern United States. From its source in the Catskills, the Delaware flows 301 miles, forming the border between Delaware and New Jersey. The Delaware flows past Trenton, New Jersey and Philadelphia, where it receives the Schuylkill River before emptying into the Atlantic. George Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night in 1776 to surprise the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton.
- The Potomac River is one of America’s most historic waterways. Rising at Fairfax Stone in West Virginia, the Potomac runs 405 miles, forming the border between Virginia and Maryland. Washington, D.C. was sited on the Potomac at its confluence with the Anacostia River. George Washington’s plantation Mount Vernon was on the Potomac, while Robert E. Lee’s two invasions north of the Potomac were major events of the Civil War.
- The Rio Grande has formed the border between Texas and four Mexican states since 1848. It flows south out of Colorado through New Mexico before reaching the international boundary near El Paso. Texas’s Big Bend National Park is named for the sweeping curve the Rio Grande cuts through the Sierra Madre Oriental. After leaving the mountains, the river flows past Laredo and Brownsville before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
This article was contributed by former NAQT writer Paul Nelson.