Outdoor Recreation/Socioeconomic Environment


The Lower Mississippi Delta Region Heritage Study encompasses hundreds of sites, many of which are scenic and offer a rich diversity of experiences for visitors seeking recreational opportunities. Some of these sites are also for the preservation and study of historic, cultural, and natural resources. It is often desirable for sites to offer a variety of activities so that families visiting them will find something of interest for everyone.

By encouraging recreational activity at or near cultural and natural resource sites, the objectives of this study will be more fully realized. So viable recommendations can be formulated that will foster a link between recreational supply and demand, it is appropriate to analyze what types of recreation are in greatest demand by the Delta Region and what recreational resources are present or could be present if developed.


Every state in the study area has a statewide comprehensive outdoor recreation plan (SCORP). These documents, prepared with extensive public input, identify present and future needs for outdoor recreation in the state and recommend ways and means of meeting those needs. These reports were prepared under the provisions of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965. Several popular outdoor recreational activities have been extracted from the SCORPs and listed in the matrix in appendix G. This chart reveals how many states share a high participation rate in any given recreational activity. By knowing this, it is possible to group activities into clusters according to a hierarchy of participation rates. Although some activities are more popular than others, all the activities that appear on the matrix are listed as important in some or all the Delta Region states and, therefore, as many as practical should be addressed in recommendations that result from this study.

Economics, climate, and ecological vitality of the region may be among the primary contributors for making fishing one of the two most popular outdoor recreational activities in the study area. There is an abundance of freshwater and saltwater species for which people fish, including catfish, bream, bass, crawfish, red snapper, grouper, shrimp, and oysters. Fishing is a pastime available to people of all economic groups as well as a way of supplementing one’s livelihood. Additionally, many participants find this sport soothing, stress relieving, and fun as they enjoy pleasant surroundings where nature can be observed and even studied at leisure. For many people who fish, the recreational experience is enhanced when boating is part of the activity. By boating, fishing enthusiasts enjoy more scenery plus the exhilaration of moving across the water’s surface. The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture includes the love of fishing among this area’s cultural traditions, which are passed from one generation to another. This tradition supports numerous businesses that provide meals, lodging, gas, fishing equipment, clothing, and many other associated services and supplies. Other activities that closely relate to recreational fishing and its commerce include camping, hunting, picnicking, sailing, swimming, scuba diving, waterskiing, sunbathing, walking, and backpacking.

The other pastime that is most popular in the Delta region is walking. In a place where the per capita income is among the nation’s lowest, it is understandable that people choose walking as a recreational activity because it is convenient and affordable. Assuming physical mobility and access to any given locale, it is usually possible to walk without the expense and time of first traveling somewhere. Since preparation for walking is minimal, this activity is possible year-round and at most times of the day. Relaxing breaks from driving can be spent in short walks by travelers stopping for half an hour or less at sites of natural, historic, scenic, or other types of interest. Most recreational and educational sites have places to walk and, of those, some have small educational or interpretive signs at appropriate intervals.

Six of the seven Delta study states have a high participation rate in recreational driving, swimming, and picnicking (which is often a part of outdoor family gatherings). Jogging, biking, baseball, and softball are also popular recreational activities in four of the states in the study area. In general, a brief analysis of the aforementioned activities seems to indicate four common characteristics. The activities are

  • affordable by all economic classes because expensive equipment, travel, etc. is not required
  • appropriate for all ages because the activities are not difficult
  • available in all the states with minimal or no additional development
  • agreeable with intended uses for many existing recreational/educational areas, i.e., parks, scenic byways, rivers, lakes, historic sites, seashores, etc.

Recreational pastimes that are highly popular in three of the seven Delta area states are visiting zoos and natural areas and attending outdoor events such as spoils, drama, concerts, or cultural festivals. In two of the seven states, hunting, hiking, boating, basketball (outdoor), sightseeing, and visiting historic sites are activities that receive intense participation. Other leisures that receive high participation in at least one of the concerned states are visiting cultural centers, outdoor family gatherings, gardening, playgrounds, volleyball, camping, and offroad vehicles.

The seven Delta Region states show parallel goals and trends toward recreational resources. Each of the states shares concern for meeting the needs of a health-conscious society, providing appropriate recreation for the growing aged population, offering enough recreational opportunities for the increased populations in urban areas, acquiring adequate funding for recreation, properly maintaining existing recreation facilities, and addressing the recreational needs of special populations, such as the aged, the poor, and physically challenged.

Related to these concerns are common desires to provide an adequate number of recreational opportunities close to home, more opportunities for trail-oriented activities, such as jogging or walking for exercise, more automobile routes for driving for pleasure, more areas that allow access for hunting and fishing, and increased funding for acquisition of buffer areas for existing recreation facilities. The loss or degradation of the resource base that supports local recreational opportunities specifically, the Mississippi River is another serious concern of the Lower Mississippi Delta Region. Degradation of the health of the river would cause severe impacts on the recreational opportunities of the states. This could include pollution of the waters fished from, hunted along, swum in, boated on, or picnicked by. This issue is considered, not a potential problem, but a present threat.

In analyzing the Delta Region’s recreation demands, a more in-depth and state-specific understanding is possible with a state-by-state overview of each one’s goals and trends.


Population projections for Illinois call for overall reduced growth in the state but increased aging, racial/ethnic diversity, and urban residence. These trends will mean changing demands for outdoor activities, including the design of facilities and visitor programs, information, marketing, staffing, and staff training. The SCORP also reveals public concern over inadequate funding for conservation and recreation and for the protection of natural resources and wildlife habitat. More recently, the public has expressed a desire for more public participation in conservation, recreation planning, and management, as well as for conservation education. Other public concerns that have been identified are the protection and enhancement of stream corridors, more greenways and public trails, added greenbelts along highways, a statewide trails plan, expansion of state-managed lands for multiple recreational uses, and more land trusts to cope with open space needs.

Recreational activities with the highest rates of participation are driving for pleasure, walking for pleasure, and picnicking. The rate of participation in golfing and nature-oriented activities is consistently rising. Outdoor pool swimming, outdoor basketball, and offroad vehicle use also increased.


Walking for pleasure is the top outdoor activity for 68% of the people in Missouri. The second most popular activity for adults is visiting zoos, fairs, and amusement parks. Other favorite activities are outdoor family gatherings, picnicking, and driving for pleasure. The state will focus on four general categories for development through the year 2000: boating facilities, golf courses, campgrounds, and trails. This will include the development of an interconnected system of corridors throughout the state for greenways and nonmotorized trails. The state also wants to ensure access to outdoor recreation areas for the economically disadvantaged, senior citizens, and people with disabilities.

River-related outdoor recreation issues determined by the state SCORP are providing for the preservation and environmental protection of rivers, streams, lands, and forests; increasing the education of outdoor recreation users in land ethics; promoting the preservation and restoration of pristine natural settings; and protecting fish and wildlife habitat. Other issues are the preservation of wetlands, the acquisition of more public land, especially for larger natural and wilderness areas, and the establishment of a management plan.

Popular water-based activities in Missouri, in rank order, are fishing, swimming, motorboating, canoeing, waterskiing, and nonmotor rowboating. There is high preference for recreational activities within half an hour’s drive from home.

Priorities in the state recreation program are meeting the statewide demand for outdoor recreation, including an expansion of water-based recreational activities; exercising preservation and environmental protection for rivers, streams, lakes, and forests; developing more open space and buffer zones; and land acquisition, including land along rivers, streams, trails, and other amenity areas.


Kentuckians participate in the following outdoor recreational activities most frequently: walking regularly, swimming, fishing, boating, sailing, canoeing, and hiking. Kentuckians use their state parks and other public areas and facilities often. Most Kentuckians interviewed said that the most important recreational issue is the protection and preservation of the state’s natural resources. Kentuckians also value programs that designate trails or protect unique and natural areas, wild rivers, and archeological sites.

The Kentucky SCORP identified five major issues for action. The state would like to improve recreational opportunities by making a wide variety of outdoor recreational opportunities available, making better use of existing recreation facilities, providing for the recreational needs of the elderly and the physically and mentally handicapped, and developing and distributing information concerning the availability of outdoor recreational opportunities. The state would also like to preserve its historical and cultural heritage and to ensure resource protection by preserving the state’s natural and environmental integrity.

Limited funding for outdoor recreation is a problem that the state would like to address by maximizing the use of existing funding resources for recreation, supporting other worthy funding possibilities, and promoting the effective and efficient use of existing resources for recreation. The promotion of tourism is needed, and the state would like to evaluate and promote the recreation-al opportunities that are associated with tourism. The state also wants to encourage cooperation and coordination among recreation providers. Included in this would be increasing and promoting coordination and defining roles among the various federal, state, regional, local, and private agencies that are responsible for planning, programming, and implementing recreation facilities and opportunities.


Tennesseans spend an average of 10 hours per week recreating. The most popular recreational activities are swimming, fishing, camping, running/jogging/walking, observing nature, pleasure driving, visiting cultural centers, and visiting zoos. Driving for pleasure and observing nature have recently gained in popularity, which may mean that Tennessee should consider improving its scenic parkway system, which connects many recreation areas in the state.

The population of the state is aging, and more passive senior recreation programming will be needed, including the development of more RV/trailer camping sites, restaurants, nature centers, and inns in the state parks. Special populations are growing, and they need more sports facilities, fishing opportunities, swimming pools, zoos, picnicking areas, and jogging and walking paths. These facilities also should be close to home and financially accessible.

Tennessee has recognized the following priority issues related to public recreation areas: identifying and mitigating threats to natural resources that adversely affect the quality of recreation, increasing the delivery and quality of recreation services at the local level, and increasing federal, state, and local government funding for recreation. The state Conservation Strategic Plan focuses on the first of these issues, saying that "Emphasis will he placed upon securing adequate boundary control for existing Department lands including the consideration of high priority inholding and buffer land acquisition."


Arkansans’ participation in most outdoor activities is higher than the national average, and they hunt three times more than the national average. Hunting and fishing are a great economic benefit to the state revenue is gained through the purchase of licenses, equipment, and accessories. People are more wellness-inclined; activities such as walking for pleasure, jogging, aerobics, and soccer are increasing. The state population is aging, and this fact should be incorporated into future outdoor recreation plans. The needs of select populations, such as African-Americans, need to be addressed in the planning of areas as well. The recreational activities most frequently participated in are walking for pleasure, fishing, driving for pleasure, picnicking, and swimming.


Outdoor recreation holds a very important place in the daily lives of most Mississippians; they spend an average of 26 hours per week on leisure activities. Activities that are popular focus on more active, rather than passive, outdoor recreation, which includes jogging, running, and walking for exercise. Hunting and fishing are also immensely popular activities in Mississippi.

Recreational concerns of the public are better maintenance, additional new facilities, improved existing facilities, additional swimming and beach facilities, more youth programs, more senior citizen facilities and programs, and more facilities for people with disabilities. There is also great concern over the shrinking availability of public hunting and fishing access. Economic pressures have increased the cost of leasing hunting and fishing areas, and vast amounts of land previously available to Mississippians are being leased by out-of-state clubs and taken out of public use.


Louisiana has long been considered a sportsman’s paradise because if its millions of acres of fertile marshes and swamps, which provide some of the best hunting and fishing in the nation. Recently, however, the state has been losing the very resources that gave it this title. The state’s faltering economic condition has resulted in an unemployment rate among the highest in the nation. Drastic cutbacks in government programs, especially in recreation, were necessary; this resulted in difficulty in maintaining even minimal services, and some areas have been closed. The state is also losing approximately 50 square miles of coastal wetlands each year to erosion; however, efforts are underway to reverse this trend.

The two highest priority recreation issues in Louisiana are funding and the protection of resources. Issues related to the latter are (a) more emphasis on the protection of the state’s unique natural resources its streams, rivers, and lakes and its offshore fisheries; (b) the development of plans to better utilize the state’s wildlife management areas and refuges for recreation; and (c) acquisition of more parklands around cities to meet growing demands (two of the state’s largest urban areas are along the Mississippi).

The following factors will influence recreation in Louisiana in the future: Louisianans are, on the average, getting older; economic recession and high unemployment will force people to use recreation facilities that are close to home and inexpensive; interest in fitness is continuing and traditional public facilities need to consider the demand for fitness-related activities; and recreation, such as hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking, continue to be popular, but the state’s natural resources that support these activities are diminishing.


The recreational resources in the Delta states are rich in quality and immense in quantity (see Recreational Opportunities and map). Facilities include those administered at the local, state, and federal levels for cultural and natural history areas. Rivers, forests, levees, wetlands, fields, lakes, bluffs, and hills provide landscape backdrops for an array of outdoor activity including swimming, walking, fishing, picnicking, auto touring, camping, boating, hunting, biking, and nature study; while parks, urban trails, playgrounds, fairgrounds, universities, and small towns accommodate jogging, baseball, basketball, family gatherings, festivals, concerts, fairs, history study, cultural centers, and numerous other activities. For an extensive list of recreational opportunities throughout the study area, please see appendix G.

To begin inventorying some of the recreational sites available, however, a state-by-state section follows which enumerates sites that are primarily located in counties or parishes, which adjoin or nearly adjoin the Mississippi River. Some national parks and monuments along the river are discussed as well.


The state of Illinois manages a wealth of sites and areas along the Mississippi River, including natural areas, state parks, state historical sites, state fish and wildlife areas, boat access areas, waterfowl management areas, state recreation areas, state memorials, nature preserves, scenic overlooks, state forests, and forest preserves. These areas provide a vast number of recreational opportunities, including hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, fishing, hunting, river access, interpretive programs, and river views.

Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area is nationally recognized for its waterfowl and fishing. Fort de Chartres State Historic Site, near Prairie du Rocher, commemorates a French colonial fort.

Mark Twain National Wildlife Refuge includes several dispersed areas in southwestern Illinois, and the Corp of Engineers manages two public use areas within this refuge. Shawnee National Forest covers parts of Jackson, Union, and Alexander Counties. The National Park Service administers the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. The Great River Road (629 miles) offers vehicle touring opportunities.


Missouri state parks and state historical areas are located along the Mississippi. Trail of Tears State Park interprets the historic walk and the story of the Mississippi River. Hawn and Big Oak Tree provide recreational activities, such as nature walks, information centers, and hiking trails.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the Mingo National Wildlife Refuge. The National Park Service manages the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. There is a wealth of museums in Missouri, among them the Ste. Genevieve Museum and the New Madrid Historic Museum. River tours include the Spirit of Saint Charles Riverboat, the Goldenrod Showboat, and the Mark Twain Riverboat.

The Great River Road Interpretive Center in Ste. Genevieve offers orientation to river resources, and the River Heritage Museum interprets river history and features river memorabilia and historic papers. Redevelopment of riverfronts is increasing, which includes the establishment of river districts, historic districts, riverfront trail projects, and riverfront urban renewal.

The Great River Road (443 miles) serves as a recreational byway along the Mississippi River throughout Missouri, and the 131-mile Mississippi River Valley Scenic Drive is in southeast Missouri.


Columbus-Belmont State Park in Kentucky features a historic Civil War fortification occupied by the Confederate and Union forces. It has a museum, camping facilities, hiking trails, and picnic areas. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources manages eight sites near the Mississippi. These areas offer opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and bird watching. Area museums include the Warren Thomas Museum and the Barlow House Museum. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge, and the National Park Service administers the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.

Mississippi River area tourist attractions include Wickliffe Mounds, which is an excavation of a ceremonial site and trade center of a prehistoric Temple Mound culture; the International Banana Festival; and the historic Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen Riverboats that frequent the region. The Great River Road runs for 51 miles along the four counties bordering the Mississippi in Kentucky.


Tennessee manages three state parks, two wildlife management areas, and a state historical area along the river. Recreational facilities at the parks include hiking trails, picnic areas, camping areas, cabins, swimming pools, and interpretive centers. Fort Pillow State Historical Area is the site of a Confederate fortification that overlooks the Mississippi River and includes one of three long-distance trails managed by the state in the area.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages four wildlife refuges near the Mississippi that offer interpretive centers, boating, fishing, hunting, and wildlife observation. The National Park Service manages the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.

Major tourist attractions in Tennessee are the National Civil Rights Museum, Mud Island, the Memphis Zoo and Aquarium, the Mississippi River Museum, Graceland, and the Beale Street Historic District. The Mississippi River Museum assists in the preservation and interpretation of the natural and cultural history of the "Father of the Waters."

Memphis Queen Line Riverboats operate locally on the river. Tennessee Scenic Parkways and the Great River Road (187 miles) parallel the Mississippi in this area. The two long-distance trails near the Mississippi are the Chickasaw Bluffs Trail and the Fort Pillow State Historic Area Trail.


The state of Arkansas manages 24 sites along the Mississippi, including state parks, wildlife management areas, recreation areas, and natural areas. Amenities such as hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, boating, picnicking, interpretive programs, and cabins are found in these areas. Twelve museums, cultural centers, and information centers serve area visitors.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates three national wildlife refuges close to the Mississippi River offering camping, boating, and hunting opportunities (federal wildlife refuges are described below). Saint Francis National Forest is the only national forest adjacent to the river. The National Park Service manages Arkansas Post National Memorial, and the Corps of Engineers manages Merrisach Lake.

Major tourist attractions along the Mississippi in Arkansas include the Confederate Cemetery, the Japanese Relocation Center Cemetery and Monuments, the King Biscuit Blues Festival, the Annual World Championship Duck Calling Contest, and the Wings Over the Prairie Festival.

The Delta Cultural Center combines entertainment and education to allow visitors to explore the culture of the Delta region. The center offers interactive museum exhibits, a boardwalk along the Mississippi, craft demonstrations, outdoor music and festivals, and tours of archeological sites, wetlands, and historic sites.

The Arkansas Archeological Survey plans to convert Eaker Air Force Base into a regional archeological heritage center called the Mississippi Valley Heritage Center. The center, which is located in the midst of numerous nationally significant archeological sites, will interpret the early cultural history of the valley. It also will serve as a regional archeological curation center, serving the needs of state and federal agencies in the lower Mississippi River valley.

Throughout the region that adjoins the Mississippi are roads that have been included in the Arkansas Great River Road (309 miles), scenic byways, or scenic highways programs. Long-distance trails near the river are the Levee Tour, Village Creek State Park trails, Bear Creek Trail (in Lake Chicot State Park), Delta Woodlands Trails, the Louisiana Purchase Boardwalk, and Delta Heritage Trail State Park (under development).


In Mississippi, the Great River Road State Park celebrates the Mississippi as the "Father of the Waters." From an observation tower in the park, visitors can view the river. The park also offers fishing, boating, camping, a visitor center, and a nature trail. Winterville Mounds State Park has one of the largest Indian mound groups along the Mississippi valley. Leroy Percy State Park provides an interpretive center, a nature trial, and swimming opportunities. Fishing and water sports are available at Natchez State Park. The state also manages six wildlife management areas and two waterfowl areas along the river, which allow for seasonal hunting. Seven welcome centers and visitor bureaus serve area visitors.

The National Park Service manages Natchez National Historical Park and Vicksburg National Military Park. The Delta and Homochitto National Forests are near the Mississippi. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the Matthews Brake and Morgan Brake National Wildlife Refuges and Yazoo National Wildlife Reserve. The state manages Grand Gulf Military Monument.

The area’s rich history is featured in several tourist attractions. Area museums include the Delta Blues Museum, the Greenville Flood Museum, the Museum of Afro-American History and Culture, the Archeological Museum, and the Cairo Museum. Several antebellum homes and estates are in the southern half of the state, including many in Vicksburg and Natchez. Delta Queen Steamboat Company and Mississippi River Adventures offer local river trips. The Million Dollar Mile provides a drive along the Mississippi River levee and opportunities to observe towboats and barges under construction. The Waterways Experiment Station offers tours of the Corps of Engineers research and testing facility.

The Great River Road runs adjacent to the river for 352 miles through many small towns and vast antebellum plantations in Mississippi. The Natchez Trace Parkway, which is managed by the National Park Service, starts in Nashville, Tennessee, and terminates at Natchez. It offers vehicle or bicycle tours through forests, fields, and historic landscapes.


Twelve state commemorative areas in Louisiana celebrate the area’s rich history. Among these are Civil War sites such as Port Hudson, scene of one of the longest genuine sieges in the United States military history, and engineering feats such as Plaquemine Lock, which, when completed, had the highest freshwater lift of any lock in the world. Lake Bruin, Grand Isle, Saint Bernard, and Bayou Segnette State Parks are located near the river. These provide views of the Mississippi River and opportunities for outdoor recreational activities such as swimming, camping, boating, and crabbing. Poverty Point National Monument State Commemorative Area is Mississippean era mound and town site.

Louisiana prides itself on being a sportsman’s paradise. Eight state wildlife areas and five national wildlife refuges along the Mississippi provide abundant fishing and hunting opportunities for area outdoor enthusiasts.

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is managed by the National Park Service. Jean Lafitte offers exhibits on Louisiana folklife, historical walking tours, nature trails, and Civil War site interpretation. There are no state or national forests adjacent to the river in Louisiana. Museums in the area are many and varied among them are the Confederate, Ducros, Baker Heritage, Tibermill, Gallier House, and Louisiana State museums. Other local tourist attractions are Historical Fort Jackson, the Aquarium of the Americas, the U.S.S. Kidd Historic Warship, the Audubon Zoo, Mardi Gras World, and an array of antebellum homes. Eight different companies offer river tourboat rides in the area. The Great River Road travels on 408 miles of road throughout Louisiana. Severa] tourist information centers and welcome centers are located along the Mississippi River throughout the state. Two long-distance trails are proposed — the Ponchartrain Path (Ring Around the Lake) and the Tellulah to Ferriday Trail.



For centuries Delta residents have capitalized on the region’s plentiful and easily accessed resources. Earliest inhabitants of the Mississippi River corridor hunted, fished, and gathered from plentiful supplies of wildlife and vegetation. Later, agriculture became important when family groups began to establish settlements. The rich fertile land within the Mississippi River corridor was ideal for farm crops such as beans, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and corn. The river enabled trade and transport activities between settlements, and economically linked those who lived within its corridor (Shapins Associates, Inc. 1966).

Early European settlers to North America relied on the ocean as their connection to a source of supplies and markets for their products. Those who ventured inland settled along rivers flowing to the ocean to retain this commercial association. Consequently, many settlers clustered along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and their tributaries. Rafts and boats transported agricultural products downstream on the rivers to New Orleans and other Gulf cities. Transportation of commodities across great distances requires support services along the route and market towns sprang up along the river to fill this need. As early as the 1720s, New Orleans was a center of international commerce with river-related enterprises such as a flat boat construction industry. Products exported from the Delta to the eastern United States or to foreign ports included timber, tar, pitch, indigo, and tobacco (Foner and Garraty 1991).

Cotton became more economical to process after invention of the cotton gin in 1793. This technological development and the demand for raw cotton in the British textile industry increased production in the United States. The country produced over 60% of the world’s cotton by 1840 (Foner and Garraty 1991). Between 1815 and 1860, cotton accounted for more than half of all American exports (Nash et al. 1992), and paid for 60% of all imports (Foner and Garraty 1991). Corn was actually a larger crop in total acreage grown, but as the largest cash crop, cotton was "king."

Cotton was not only a mainstay of the Delta’s economy but was important to the national economy. The crop encouraged capitalization of investments such as railroads, attracted foreign investment and augmented industrial growth in early northern textile factories (Foner and Garraty 1991). Between 1820 and 1860, the economy of the north shifted from agriculture to industry as the major source of growth (Nash et al. 1992).

In the South, cotton contributed to westward expansion with increased movement into the Delta region. By the 1 830s, the center of cotton production had moved from Georgia and South Carolina to Mississippi and Alabama. Between 1830 and 1860 large numbers of southerners eager to grow cotton moved southwestward into Arkansas, Louisiana, and eastern Texas (Nash et al. 1992).

In the 20 years before the Civil War, the South’s economy grew slightly faster than the North’s. In 1860, southern personal income was 15% higher than in prosperous northwestern states of that time period. In addition to the cotton gin, southern growth and prosperity can be attributed to the availability of new lands for expansion, the accessibility of economical river transport after the steamboat’s invention in 1811, and a self-reproducing supply of cheap slave labor (Nash et al. 1992).

The economic growth of slaveholding states was impressive but limiting at the same time. Agricultural growth typically leads to the establishment of supporting cities and industry, and this diversification promotes greater sustainable economic growth. The labor-intensive and relatively self-contained plantation system dominated agriculture in the Delta and was not conducive to promoting industrialization and urbanization. Just prior to the Civil War, only one of every 14 southerners lived in a city compared to one of every three northerners (Nash et al. 1992).

After the Civil War, African-Americans farmed sugar cane, the hardwood timber industry boomed, and cotton production expanded. But over-production and low cotton prices contributed to the economy’s lack of growth. Four years after the Depression of 1873 began, cotton prices plunged by nearly 50%. Farmers were poverty-stricken, many planters were ruined, and northerners bought up southern landholdings, bankrupt railroads and other enterprises (Foner and Garraty 1991).

Landowners replaced slave labor with new forms of servitude, using sharecroppers and tenants to farm their land. In this way, planters succeeded in stabilizing the plantation system by holding on to laborers, but they also hampered mechanization and the development of other enterprises such as factories that would compete for workers. The region’s sluggish economy was further locked into a cycle of underdevelopment. The legacy of this failure to advance has had repercussions into the 20th century (Foner and Gan-aty 1991).

During the 18th and 19th centuries, more poor people lived in rural areas than in cities. When technological advancements occurred in agriculture, fewer farm laborers were needed and many of the rural poor eventually migrated to urban areas seeking other employment opportunities. The migration out of rural areas was more pronounced in the South and resulted in the movement of poverty’s problems from South to North and from county to city (Foner and Garraty 1991).

During the first half of the 20th century, the region still held a disproportionate amount of the nation’s poor population and essentially no moneyed middle-class. However, agricultural mechanization was more widespread, and industries were moving to the area. Offshore petroleum drilling began in the 1 920s and refineries were established along the river. The petrochemical industry arrived in the 1930s, and automobile and farm equipment manufacturing plants located in Memphis. The timber industry remained important, and agriculture boomed in the late 1930s—1950s. Rice, soybeans, poultry, and catfish were important exports (Shapins Associates, Inc. 1966).

After World War II, the gap between the poorer South and the rest of the country narrowed somewhat. This trend toward equalization was a result of diversification of southern economies and migration of poor southerners to other states (Foner and Garraty 1991).

Today, despite increasing industrialization, agriculture and forestry remain important to the economy in much of the delta, and these and other industries rely on the river to move much of their product to market. Barges carry whole grains such as wheat, corn, rice, barley, rye, oats, and sorghum. The flat-bottomed boats also transport coal, crude petroleum, refined petroleum products, forest products, sand, rock, gravel, iron ore, and manufactured products (NPS 1995c). Important minerals from the Delta include silica and fluorspar which are used in high-technology and defense industries (Lower Mississippi Delta Commission 1989).

Tourism is a growing industry in the Delta but has not yet been fully exploited. The lower Delta region contains many recreational and educational opportunities for visitors including prehistoric sites, historic cities and towns, a wealth of natural resources, and special events demonstrating the area’s rich, diversified culture.

The gaming industry is gaining a foothold on the river and in towns along the corridor. Communities such as Shreveport, Bossier, and Lake Charles, Louisiana, or Vicksburg, Natchez, and Tunica, Mississippi, have received economic benefits including a decrease in unemployment or growth in earnings from industries such as services (NPS 1995b).

The Mississippi River is the foundation of a far-reaching multimodal network linking the innermost portions of the country with national and international commercial markets. The Delta region has yet to fully tap the advantages of its location along this strategically located transportation route.


In addition to the advantages of the river, the movement of peoples into and out of the Delta has had an important effect on the area’s economy. Early immigrants from 1600 to 1800 included European fur traders and settlers from Spain, France, and Germany. The economic benefits of growing cotton attracted European slave traders who brought African peoples, and planters who brought their slaves from Virginia and South Carolina (NPS 1995b).

The labor-intensive plantation, and the later sharecropper and tenantry systems of the primarily agricultural Delta required a large number of workers to maintain economic stability in the 18th and 19th centuries. Agricultural mechanization was slow in coming, and the need for a large labor pool remained into the 20th century.

After the abolition of slavery, entire family groups left plantations and migrated to other parts of the South or left the region entirely. From 1877 to 1881, 40,000 to 70,000 African-Americans moved to Kansas from the former slave states (Foner and Garraty 1991).

As mechanization of agriculture became more widespread in the South and domestic work became available in other parts of the country, large numbers of African-Americans continued to relocate. The movement known as the Great Migration began in the 1890s as a sizable number of African-American men and women were drawn to northern and eastern cities with the lure of higher wages and with the hope of avoiding growing racial discrimination in the South. This migration differed from previous migrations in that it was a direct movement from the rural South to the urban North. Railroads and their black employees played a role in this movement by providing a link between rural black communities and northern cities such as Chicago (Foner and Garraty 1991).

Labor shortages in northern industries during World War I attracted approximately 400,000 African-Americans from southern states, and an additional 600,000 migrated northward in the 1920s. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, drought, declining crop prices, and increasing farm foreclosures drove many southern farmers westward toward California (Foner and Garraty 1991).

The steady flow of people out of the South lasted until the 1970s. From 1916 through the 1960s, more than 6 million African-Americans relocated. During the 1970s and 1980s, more black people moved back to the South than left. Part of this trend can be attributed to the desire to leave behind high unemployment, inferior schools, crime, drugs and other social concerns associated with many northern city ghettos (Foner and Garraty 1991).

In addition, the reversal in migration trends of the previous 100 years is part of a pattern within the general population to locate to states with warm climates. This area is comprised of 15 states that are referred to as the "Sunbelt" and are below the 37th parallel extending from Virginia to California. Since the 1960s, migration has been primarily from industrial cities in the Midwest and northeast to cities in the South and West. This migration pattern has resulted from a change in the employment sector from manufacturing to services, regional changes in government funding, improvements in air conditioning and transportation, and the aging of the population (Foner and Garraty 1991).


Since the earliest days of human habitation in the Delta, the Mississippi River has provided a convenient and economic avenue for transportation, communication, and commerce for residents of its corridor. During the 18th century, when settlers from the East came to the Mississippi valley and farmed, they sent their products downstream to market on rafts or boats. Pilots of these conveyances then had to return home hundreds of miles over land routes such as the Natchez Trace. Improvements to roadways, the building of canals, and the invention of the steamship and railroads served to facilitate transport of goods, services, and people. Improved transportation opened up the isolated West for further development (Foner and Garraty 1991).

The railroad was an adaptable form of transport, able to access areas of the country’s interior without needing level terrain or an adequate water supply for travel. In addition, trains could run year-round. By the l850s, tracks lined the banks of the Mississippi and crossed its channel. However, two-thirds of the tracks were laid in northern states. Railroads changed the way the country sent its products to market, and railroads could make or break the towns along the way by locating near communities or bypassing them.

During the Civil War, a blockade of the lower river forced commercial interests to find new trade routes and ports. Destruction during the war and competition from railroads contributed to the decline of river commerce after the war (NPS 1995c). The river transport fleet was devastated and only partially rebuilt at war’s end. Competitive interests soon bought up packet lines and helped bring about the demise of the industry. During World War I, railroads could not manage all of the country’s transport demands, and Congress authorized funding for new tow boats and barges and acquired existing navigation equipment. In 1924, Congress enacted legislation to convert the federal barge service to a private corporation, the Inland Waterways Corporation (NPS 1995c). These actions helped revitalize river commerce.

Since World War II, the Mississippi valley has experienced a growth in development of harbor facilities at large and small communities including Memphis, Tennessee; Baton Rouge, and Lake Providence, Louisiana; Hickman, Kentucky; Vicksburg, Mississippi; and Helena, Arkansas. Revitalization of the commerce industry on the river is demonstrated by increased tonnage carried and enhanced navigation capability. In 1990, Mississippi River traffic carried over three times the tonnage it carried in 1930. Today, barges navigate this water highway from Head of Passes, Louisiana to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Ocean vessels navigate to ports as far north as Baton Rouge (NPS 1995c).

The river itself fills many of the demands of regional, national, and international commerce, but it also is part of an intermodal network of railroad and highway connections. Railroad tracks cross or parallel much of the Mississippi River, and the region’s agricultural and industrial commerce profits from having a choice of transport modes. Large cities along the channel also benefit with a more diverse economy from the interaction between rail and river in moving produce, raw materials, and manufactured goods. Hubs for major rail lines include St. Louis, Memphis, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. Passengers can access AMTRAK rail service at stations in larger communities including New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Jackson, Little Rock, and Memphis.

Abandonment of rail lines in rural areas has constrained the ability of less-populated locales to compete economically. However, deregulation of the railroad industry in the 1980s has provided opportunities for small local rail lines to link rural markets with larger transportation centers (Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission 1989).

Commercial airline service is available at several airports throughout the lower delta region including Little Rock, Marion, Paducah, New Orleans, Jackson, and Memphis. Commuter airlines serve many of the rural communities to provide a faster means of transportation to less populated areas with inadequate highways (Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission 1989).

Another component of the lower Delta’s multimodal network is the interstate highway system. The regional highway system includes Interstate 55 which approximately parallels the river from St. Louis to Memphis, crosses to the east side of the river, and traverses the west central portion of Mississippi state south to New Orleans. Interstates 24 and 57 serve the Delta counties in Illinois in a north/south direction, and Interstate 65 crosses the state from east to west just north of the Delta counties.

Several interstates converge in St. Louis. In addition to I-55, I-70 traverses Missouri from east to west and I-64 ends near St. Louis. A complete north-south interstate route does not exist in Arkansas; I-40 passes through Little Rock from the east and extends into Oklahoma; I-30 begins south of Hoxie, Arkansas, and passes through Little Rock diagonally south into Texas.

I-20 traverses east to west in south central Mississippi and northern Louisiana, and Interstates 10 and 12 serve southern Louisiana from New Orleans with I-10 extending to the Texas border; segments of I-49 are completed between Shreveport and I-10 west of Baton Rouge. I-59 traverses the southeast portion of Mississippi from Meridian and extends into New Orleans.

Numerous rural communities lack adequate access to major highways which further impedes these areas from competing economically and hampers business development. Many existing roads, highways and bridges are in a deteriorated condition. A 1990 report prepared by the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission (Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission 1990) discussed 55 recommendations for improved transportation in the lower Delta. The Federal Highway Administration reported in 1995 that all initiatives related to highway improvements have been substantially or partially implemented. Improvements include completing highways between cities and towns, expanding two-lane roads to four lanes, and correcting bridge deficiencies (Federal Highway Administration 1995).

The Great River Road is important economically for attracting visitors to designated communities along its route. This highway project was conceived in 1936 to improve "highway communication between populous centers and the conservation and development of recreational and inspirational resources" (Mississippi River Parkway Commission 1990). The 3,000-mile scenic byway originally was envisioned as a parkway similar to Blue Ridge or Natchez Trace parkways with scenic control established by park boundaries. However, in 1951 a Bureau of Public Roads suggested that development of a national parkway system on an entirely new location was not advisable because of land acquisition and construction costs. The bureau’s report recommended it would be feasible to convert and connect existing river roads on both sides of the river and develop them as one continuous route following parkway standards of quality. The federal government conducted planning and feasibility studies and funded the program. The ten states along the river corridor are responsible for implementing the Great River Road program and for its promotion and development (Mississippi River Parkway Commission 1990).

States involved in the program report that economic benefits have ensued from designating the route through their area. The Great River Road has precipitated a renewed interest in tourism in communities and generated revitalization and new development efforts. Benefits include new parks and interpretive centers along the route in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Arkansas, and assistance to local road construction in Louisiana.


Even though massive numbers of people migrated out of the Lower Mississippi Delta Region for 100 years after the Civil War, most states continued to grow in population. Beginning with the 1970s, African-Americans and others desiring warm climates began moving into the area. Total population in 1994 for the lower Delta counties and parishes was 12,210,416, an increase of 19% over the 1970 total of 10,235,279. Of the 308 counties and parishes in the study area, 79 declined in population between 1970 and 1994.

Despite its many resource advantages, the lower delta region remains a depressed area economically. Overall, the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi had higher unemployment rates and greater levels of people living in poverty than the rest of the country in 1990. In Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee 80 out of the 87 lower delta region counties had higher unemployment rates than the U.S. Eighty-four counties had a greater percentage of people living in poverty. These patterns are more obvious in rural areas than in urban locales.

Historically, agriculture and timber were the mainstays of the economy and having a major water highway nearby was a boon for farming markets. In 1994, services, state and local government and manufacturing were the largest earnings sources for the lower Mississippi delta region. Communities in the corridor are looking for other ways to improve their economies. Private and governmental entities are cooperating to address key river issues such as protecting resources while promoting tourism and creating jobs. The lower Delta contains a variety of recreational opportunities to entice visitors to the area. A wealth of historic sites such as the French Quarter and Civil War battlefields attract travelers interested in the Delta’s heritage. Visitors to Mississippi’s Natchez pilgrimages and to sites in southern Illinois’ "Little Egypt" experience fascinating stories of by-gone eras. Parks, wildlife refuges, and recreation areas furnish opportunities for tourists interested in the natural environment and outdoor pursuits. Natchez Trace Parkway and Great River Road provide scenic driving experiences to users of these routes.

Visitation generates substantial revenue in the river corridor, and tourism entities are interested in further promoting travel to the region. Millions of travelers visit the lower delta each year and provide over $17 billion in direct revenue to counties and parishes in the region. Nearly 300 thousand jobs are travel-related with a payroll of over $ 3 billion.

The following individual state profiles are based on information from Bureau of Economic Analysis and Bureau of the Census reports. Characteristics presented include: total population, unemployment rates, largest earnings by industry, per capita income and poverty levels. In the states of Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee, only those counties designated as lower Delta region counties are profiled. Travel data reflects reports from individual state tourism bureaus. Since information for four of the states is based only on those counties within the lower delta region, the data should be used for general information purposes only rather than comparisons between states. In addition, time periods for the most recent available information and data categories vary between states.


Arkansas’ population had steadily decreased between the 1940s and 1970s. Nearly all counties experienced an increase between 1970 and 1980, but since 1980 the population has declined in 30 of the state’s 75 counties. The total population of the state in 1994 was 2,452,700, an increase of about 4% since the 1990 census.

Per capita personal income (PCPI) in 1994 was $16,863 which ranked 50th in the country (rankings for the country include the District of Columbia). PCPI was 77.7% of the national average of $21,696. Largest earnings by industry were in services, durable goods manufacturing, and state and local government. Manufacturing of either durable or nondurable goods is important to 61 of the 75 counties. Farming is one of the largest industries for earnings in 27 counties.

In the census of 1990, the state unemployment rate was 6.8%, a little greater than the U.S. rate of 6.3%. Of all Arkansas residents, 19.1% lived in poverty in 1990 compared to 13.1% for the U.S.

Arkansas attracted over 17.8 million tourists in 1994. Tourism generated nearly $2.93 billion, a payroll of $502.86 million and 46,450 jobs. Over 24% of total travel expenditures occurred in Pulaski County (Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism 1996).


Population in the 16 lower Delta region counties of Illinois was 348,000 in 1994. All counties increased in population between 1970 and 1980, but nine counties have experienced a decrease since 1980 according to 1994 census figures.

In 1994 per capita personal income was $15,949 compared to the state PCPI of $23,611 and $21,696 at the national level. The main sources of earnings in the 16 counties were state and local government and services. Six counties depend on mining, and in Gallatin and Hamilton Counties farming was the top earnings producer. Retail trade, manufacturing, transportation and public utilities, and construction are other important earnings sources.

County unemployment rates in 1990 were all above the national rate of 6.3%. Randolph County had the lowest unemployment rate at 6.5%; Franklin and Pulaski Counties were highest with 13.1%. All but Randolph County (with 11.0%) had poverty levels greater than the state level of 11.9% and the national level (13.1%) in 1990; the poverty level in Alexander County was greatest at 32.2%.

Travel expenditures in 1994 in the Illinois counties totaled $190.42 million and generated $37.85 million in payroll for 2,490 jobs (Illinois Bureau of Tourism All lower Delta region counties experienced growth in travel expenditures between 1990 and 1994 except Alexander County; the largest growth rate was in Massac County. Jackson County received the highest travel expenditures of the 16 counties with $30.80 million (Southern Illinois Tourism Council 1994).


Population in the 21 lower Delta region counties of Kentucky totaled about 476,500 in 1994. The number of residents in 13 of the counties began to decline about 1910. While some of these thirteen counties have experienced growth in the last 30 years, none have recovered the peak numbers reached earlier in the century. The remainder of the 21 counties have had steady population growth for most of the 1900s.

In 1994 per capita personal income was $17,100, slightly less than the state PCPJ of $17,721. The national average is $21,696. The main sources of earnings in the 21 counties were services, state and local government, and manufacturing. Five counties depend on farming, and in Union and Webster counties mining was the top earnings producer.

County unemployment rates in 1990 were mostly above the national rate of 6.3% with the exception of McCracken County with 5.9%. Trigg County’s rate was equal to the U.S. average; Ballard and Muhlenberg counties were highest with 11.3 and 11.1%, respectively. Poverty levels ranged from 14.1% in Marshall County to 30.3% in Fulton County. All county poverty rates were greater than the national level of 13.1%, but 15 counties had lower rates than the state level at 19.0%.

Travel expenditures in 1995 in the Kentucky lower delta counties totaled nearly $506.45 million and generated 12,548 jobs. Marshall County received the highest travel expenditures of the 21 counties with $108.38 million (Atwood et. al. 1996).


Louisiana’s 1994 population was 4,315,000, an increase of two 2% since the 1990 census. Twenty of the state’s 64 parishes have decreased in population since the 1970s.

At $17,622 the state’s per capita personal income in 1994 was 19% less than the national average. The economy of the state relies on services, state and local government, and retail trade for its earnings. Ten parishes depend on agriculture, and seven parishes count mining among their largest earnings sources. Manufacturing along with transportation and public utilities also are important to the state’s economy. Some of the growth in the service sector since 1990 can be attributed to the developing gaming industry. Twelve casinos and riverboats generated $1,160,400,000 for 1995—96, and the industry is expected to employ over 20,000 workers in 1997 and 1998 (Scott et. al. 1996).

The state’s unemployment rate in 1990 was 9.0%, somewhat higher than the U.S. rate of 6.3%. In addition, 23.6% of the population lived below the poverty level compared to 13.1% of the country overall.

Louisiana hosted approximately 20.5 million visitors in 1995 with U.S. and international travelers spending over $6.5 billion in the state (U.S. Travel Data Center 1996). Direct travel-related expenditures generated over $1.36 billion in payroll for about 99,500 workers. Greatest expenditures from U.S. residents were in Orleans Parish which received $2.9 billion in direct travel-related revenue or 47.8% of the state’s total distribution (U.S. Travel Data Center 1996).


After 30 years of decline, Mississippi’s population began growing in the 1970s and reached 2,573,216 in 1994. While most of the state’s 82 counties have experienced growth, 21 have lost population since 1970.

Per capita personal income for the state was $15,838 in 1994 and ranked 51st in the country (rankings for the country include the District of Columbia). Largest earnings sources in 1994 were services, durable goods manufacturing, and state and local government. Farming is an important earnings source in 14 counties, and 17 counties rely on retail trade.

In the 1990 census, the state unemployment rate was 8.4%, somewhat greater than the U.S. rate of 6.3%. Of all Mississippi residents, 25.2% lived in poverty in 1990 compared to 13.1% for the U.S.

Tourism and recreation direct sales totaled over $4.4 billion in the state’s 1996 fiscal year (Mississippi state’s fiscal year is July 1 through June 30). The industry generated 75,132 direct jobs. The greatest amount of direct sales in tourism and recreation came from gaming with 40.6% of total direct sales. Food and beverage followed with 21.7% (Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development 1997).

The number of casinos fluctuated between 27 and 30 in fiscal year 1996 but produced a gross gaming revenue totaling over $1.8 billion (Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development 1997). The gaming industry contributed an average 27,755 jobs to the employment sector over the year, resulting in a payroll of $495.3 million (Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development 1997).


Many of Missouri’s 29 lower Delta counties experienced erratic increases and decreases in population during the first seven decades of the 20th century. Since 1970 most counties’ populations have stabilized and grown. Only four counties had fewer residents in 1994 than 1970. Population in the 20 counties totaled 626,900 in 1994.

In 1994 per capita personal income (PCPI) was $15,003 compared to the state PCPI of $20,585 and $21,696 at the national level. The economies of the counties rely on state and local government, services, and retail trade for its earnings. Five counties count agriculture as an important earnings source. Manufacturing is important to over half of the counties economies, and five counties depend on agriculture as a primary earnings source.

County unemployment rates in 1990 were mostly above the national and state rates of 6.3% and 6.2%, respectively. Exceptions are Peny County with 4.9% and Cape Girardeau with 5.5%. Washington County was highest with 13.4%. Poverty levels ranged from 11.5% in Perry County to 35.8% in Pemiscot County. In 27 counties the poverty levels were greater than the national rate of 13.1% and the state level of 13.3%.

Travel expenditures in 1995 in the Missouri lower delta counties totaled $694.9 million and generated $192.3 million in payroll for 13,796 jobs (Certec Inc. 1996). Eighteen lower Delta region counties experienced growth in travel expenditures between 1994 and 1995. The largest growth rate was in Douglas County with 45.7%. Butler County received the highest travel expenditures of the 29 counties with $59.08 million (Missouri Division of Tourism 1996).


Population in the 21 lower delta region counties of Tennessee was 1,418,100 in 1994. All counties have increased in population since 1970 except three: Crockett, Gibson, and Lake.

In 1994 per capita personal income (PCPI) was $20,190, slightly more than the state PCPI of $19,450. The national average is $21,696. The main sources of earnings in the 21 counties were services, durable goods manufacturing and nondurable goods manufacturing. State and local government are primary earnings sources in half of the counties, and retail trade is important in an additional five counties. Crockett and Lake counties depend on farming as a top earnings producer. In 1990 five counties had unemployment rates lower than the state level of 6.4% and the national rate of 6.3%. Weakley County’s rate was lowest with 5.5% and Lauderdale County was highest with 11.0%. Poverty levels ranged from 15.2% in Obion County to 27.5% in Haywood and Lake Counties. All county poverty rates were greater than the national level of 13.1 %. Only Obion and Wealdey Counties had lower rates than the state level of 15.7% with 15.2 and 15.5%, respectively.

U.S. residents traveling to or through western Tennessee in 1995 contributed over $2.1 billion in direct revenue to the 21 lower Delta counties. Travel expenditures provided 42,800 jobs with a payroll of over $1 billion. Shelby County received over 80% of the total revenue from travelers in the 21 counties and ranked second in the state for expenditure receipts.

Last updated: November 16, 2017