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Mark Twain predicted Ol' Man River would shrink to 2 miles long!

As Kelley Williams wrote for Mississippi Matters some weeks back, the Mississippi River has an ongoing tendency to eliminate kinks and bends in its channels – so much so that the experts fear the river in the not too distant future could bypass its present route through New Orleans in favor of the shorter, straighter way offered by the current Atchafalaya River (ironically, Atchafalaya means “Long River” in Choctaw).

In his wonderful book, Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain discussed as only he could the Mississippi’s perennial proclivity for shortening itself.

The Mississippi, wrote Twain, often has made “prodigious jumps by cutting through narrow necks of land, and thus straightening and shortening itself. More than once it has shortened itself thirty miles at a single jump! These cut-offs have had curious effects: they have thrown several river towns out into the rural districts, and built up sand bars and forests in front of them.

"The town of Delta (Louisiana) used to be three miles below (i. e., downstream from) Vicksburg: a recent cutoff has radically changed the position, and Delta is now two miles above (upstream from) Vicksburg.”

Twain noted that man often helped the Mississippi by artificially creating such cut-offs. The process was a simple one: a ditch was cut across a neck of land inside a river bend. Once the river found the ditch, it quickly redirected its powerful currents through it and rapidly turned the narrow, shallow, trench into a new channel.

In 1707 the Muddy Mississippi, Twain noted, was twelve hundred and fifteen miles long between Cairo, Illinois, and New Orleans. A cut-off in 1722 shortened it to eleven hundred and eighty miles.

As of the first publication of Life on the Mississippi in 1883 additional cut-offs had eliminated more bends to the point that the distance between those two river towns was only “nine hundred and seventy-three miles“ by river.

Twain practiced skepticism not only toward religion but also toward science (or at least the religion of science). He continued. “Now, if I wanted to be one of those ponderous scientific people, and 'let on' to prove what had occurred in the remote past by what had occurred in a given time in the recent past, or what will occur in the far future by what has occurred in late years, what an opportunity is here! . . . Please observe:—

“In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two-hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year.”

Applying those figures, said Twain, “Any person can see that seven-hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen.”

That, concluded Twain, is the “fascinating” thing “about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

James T. McCafferty is a lawyer and award-winning writer who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now resides in McComb. He is the author of many magazine and newspaper articles, two children’s books about Delta bear hunter Holt Collier, and the full-length The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South. For more information see his website:

Copyright 2017 James T. McCafferty

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