The Erie Canal opened travel east-west from New York City to the Great Lakes, Ohio and the American MidWest. What if you wanted to travel north or south? Further west, there was a ready-made natural waterway for travel north-south: the Mississippi River. From Minnesota, The Mississippi flows through Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, where she empties into the Gulf of Mexico. From Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania you can travel the Ohio River to the Mississippi (as Lewis & Clark did). Likewise, you can start from North Dakota and take the Missouri River to the Mississippi. The Arkansas and Tennessee Rivers also feed the Mississippi.
One big difference between a river and a canal: a canal doesn’t have a current. The Mississippi River flows south, so for a long time most of the travel on it was southbound. Poling your boat north against the current is nearly impossible. Probably teams of animals or humans—slaves—were harnessed to a cable and struggled along a towpath to ‘tote that barge’ northward. It was exhausting, backbreaking labor.
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