Rhein vs. Mississippi

The Mississippi is the American Rhine, Weser, Elbe, and Oder all combined. It furnishes the best American comparison with the Rhine and perhaps an occasion for applying the lessons in waterway transportation which the Rhine has to teach. Both Rhine and Mississippi flow through the heart of a rich continent; each represents nature’s route of communication between its own fertile valley and the outside world. In their history the streams present a striking parallel up to the period 1860-70; then transportation on the Rhine is modernized and the river takes its place as the greatest waterway in the world, while the Mississippi retains its ancient form of transportation and goes down under the competition of the American railroads.
We saw that the early railroads in Germany were built perpendicular to the Rhine and were considered as feeders to it. When the short railroad lines had begun to be connected up, and the through routes began to compete with, the Rhine, the change in the nature of the traffic between the Rhine Valley and foreign parts was already one that signified a preponderance of bulk goods: coal, iron ore, lumber, wheat, petroleum. Not only did these goods clamor for lower rates than the railroads could give, the cost of loading these goods into the huge river barges at Rotterdam and of unloading them at the river port was also far smaller than the corresponding operation in the case of the little standard 10-ton Dutch and German cars. The spill and scoop principle at the basis of this handling of bulk goods is one whose advantage obviously increases with the size of the transporting unit. (…)

Up to 1860 the history of traffic on the Mississippi is similar to the history of the Rhine, excepting that the American river was not burdened by river tolls which it took half a century to remove. During the first half of the nineteenth century the exports of most of the country west of the Allegheny Mountains were drained off to New Orleans by means of the magnificent system of waterways at the disposal of that port. Staples of commerce were corn, lard, bacon, whiskey, apples, potatoes, hay, etc. — lumped under the name of “western produce,” which supplied the southern plantations and were exported from New Orleans. The southern states added cotton, tobacco, and molasses to the downstream trade. Planters in northern Alabama sent their cotton down the Tennessee River to the Ohio, down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans. In 1860 New Orleans saw 3500 river steamers arrive, bringing cargo to the value of 185 million dollars.’New Orleans was accounted the fourth seaport in the world — after London, Liverpool, and New York — and handled in 1860 27 per cent of our exports. In 1907 her percentage was 9 per cent.
In the Mississippi region, as along the Rhine, railroads at first served primarily as short lines connecting inland communities with waterways; for example, the Madison and Indianapolis, the Evansville and Crawfordsville, the Louisville and Frankfort. The Pennsylvania Railroad for some time after reaching Pittsburg was dependent on the Ohio packets for westward connection. But the railway lines did not long regard themselves as feeders to the waterways. In 1858 there were two through rail connections between Chicago and the eastern seaboard. These, in conjunction with the water route formed by the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal, were already drawing off to the Atlantic coast our exports of western produce.
The Civil War suspended navigation on the lower Mississippi. In the meantime the transcontinental railroads, north of the line of operations, extended their connections and services and got the exports of the West once for all in their grasp. When the war was over the channel of the Mississippi had gone wild, after five years of neglect. At the end of the war New Orleans found her channel to the sea too narrow for large steamers to enter. This evil has been remedied and the Mississippi has been given a lowwater depth of 9 feet for 840 miles (up to Cairo), a depth of 8 feet for 1000 miles (to St. Louis). We need not look to find the inferiority of the American river in the insufficiency of its channel. The Rhine has a channel of only 6 1/2 feet at low water and that for only 350 miles upstream from Rotterdam.

(aus Edwin J. Clapp: The Navigable Rhine, Boston/New York 1911)


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