Member Reviews

Simon Winchester almost a no-brainer when it comes to must read nonfiction. This book definitely lives up to that. Highly recommend.

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I recieved an arc of this title from NetGalley for an honest review. I wasn't able to read this cover to cover, but what I did read was very interesting, and I learned a lot about the Mississippi River.

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I enjoy Winchester’s writing style and how he structures his narrative nonfiction. This is a good choice for readers who like a story-telling style of nonfiction,

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I think it is just personal opinion and preference, but this book was just lacking something for me. I liked the way it was written and I liked the overall writing, but it just didn't get a full 5-stars for me. I did enjoy the cover art; it really pulled me in and made me want to read this book. Surely, other people did love it and I am very thankful to have read it. Trust me, I really wanted to love this one because the premise sounds great!

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This is a long essay, or a mini-book. A novella length if this was fiction. The writing style of Winchester’s in this piece is splendid, particularly in the beginning pages. The essays tell us the history of man engineering the Mississippi River and what the future may hold for it. The engineering and taming of this massive river is ultimately going to end in failure, according to Winchester. Perhaps the plans for the nearby Red River and Atchafalaya can be engineered enough, built quickly enough, to take enough of the pressure off the Mississippi to avoid complete disaster.

There are a few images that show the various versions of the Mississippi alongside the Red River with the various stages. The old 16th century natural flows, then how it naturally changed by the 19th century. This is when mankind started to muck about and change the flow.

It is an enjoyable read of history of engineering of the river. It is short enough that it could be read in one sitting (but I didn’t).

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Simon Winchester gives us an absorbing essay about the attempts over several hundred years to tame the headwaters of the Mississippi in Louisiana, protecting the cities and farms that surround it there. The Mississippi is a wild river that humans have tried to tame and direct along almost the entirety of its length, building colossal engineering structures designed to stop the river from re-directing its course. Some of these structures, such as the Old River Control Structure, are among the most strategic assets in the USA, the only thing preventing the wiping out of cities, dams, ports, shipping, agriculture and losses of trillions of dollars and many, many lives. As climate change increases the river's flow considerably, the question of how long can this structure hold out against catastrophe becomes paramount.

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I have enjoyed previous works by Simon Winchester, so I was looking forward to reading The End of the River, a story of how we have tried to tame the Mississippi River.

And I was not disappointed. Mr. Winchester has a style that takes a tiny, specific sliver of history and makes it fascinating. In this case he writes about a very specific part of the Mississippi River, and how man has interfered with nature for the past century or so. It started (as most things do) with someone (Henry Miller Shreve in this case) trying to do the right thing by straightening out the river at one point. This cut ended up having catastrophic consequences down the line, as the Mississippi now tried to jump to the Atchafalaya River, which provided a shorter, faster path to the gulf. If (or when) the Atchafalaya does completely divert the Mississippi’s stream, New Orleans and many other downstream cities and ports will fade into obscurity.

But of course the government isn’t going to allow that. Mr. Winchester shows how we have constructed levees, spillways, and the Old River Control Structure floodgates (and the associated structures that were almost immediately required to bolster the defenses) to keep the Mississippi flowing in its channel. And now, with the climate changing, how much more effort and dollars are going to be required to keep Old Man River going where we want it to go? And is this effort going to succeed, or are we fighting a lost cause?

Wonderful history and story about something that I had no idea existed. My only quibble is that I wasn’t aware that this was basically just a long essay – I was expecting a full book and was mildly surprised as I read it in one sitting!

I requested and received a free advanced electronic copy from Scribd/Scribd Originals via NetGalley. Thank you!

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The End of the River by Simon Winchester is a recommended short treatise on the seemingly impossible future challenge of controlling the path of the Mississippi River as it rolls to the Gulf by New Orleans.

The Mississippi is the third largest river in the world and ends up moving two-thirds of the watershed of the continental USA down to the Gulf. It is the most commercially active river on the planet. The struggle to control and tame the mighty Mississippi has been an ongoing effort for years and, in many ways is an impossible herculean task that never should have been undertaken. At this point in history the structures built to contain and control the river were made half a century ago and are inadequate to deal with a river that no longer resembles the one from years past.

Winchester covers the history of the methods of control, the structures built, and the looming environmental and human disaster that awaits due to changing weather patterns. "The ultimate problem for these structures relates not so much to their engineering shortcomings as to one simple reality: They were designed half a century ago, and were made to try to deal with a river that barely resembles its current incarnation, and to function in an environment that is also now drastically and unrecognizably different."
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribd.

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This is by far the most succinct Simon Winchester work that I have read. However, it’s length actually wasn’t the reason I ended up reading through it within the space of an afternoon. I speedily devoured the book because I was both stunned and fascinated to learn that the Mississippi River today as we know it exists in a precarious state, both caused by man and prevented by man from worsening into a shift that will cause untold havoc. I never would have thought I’d be in a situation where I almost want to hand out a book as an oversized pamphlet to alert others, but here I am, because this is definitely an awareness-raising work that provides a compact dose of much-needed education on the state of the mighty watery artery of the US.

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Simon Winchester, find out more about him here.


Anyone interested in the Mississippi river and the attempts to control it.


The End of The River centers upon the hydrological and historic ebb and flow of the greatest river in America’s South, the Mississippi. It focuses on a short stretch of the river near the Louisiana border. It describes the importance and influence of the varied control mechanisms that line the course of the river’s flow. It further explains the factors that over time have adversely affected the river’s natural meandering patters and the problems arising out of those changes.

Winchester calls into question the human influences, particularly those of the United States Corps of Engineers who are the guardians of the river. He challenges the effectiveness of every attempt to control the river citing the Great Flood of the Mississippi in 1927 and the futile attempts to prevent the following flood.

Of particular concern to Winchester are the actions of Captain Shreve and his hubris in carving a canal from the Mississippi across to Atchafalaya. Whilst it made the Atchafalaya easier to navigate, it raises concerns over the sheer volume of water ‘stolen’ from the Mississippi. He questions the ability of the Mississippi to continue its flow to the New Orleans delta due to the Atchafalaya diversion. More concerning is the potential and dire consequences of creating an interruption in the river’s ability to distribute the valuable life giving sedimentary elements from Nebraska to the deep South.

Winchester also identifies the increasing impact upon areas immediately abutting the Mississippi. He explains how human development around the river is impeding the ability of the land to siphon off excess water. This consecutively leads to increased water volume flowing directly into the river which results in greater levels of chaotic surges in the Mississippi. The combination of these influences leads to a never-ending war between the river seeking the path of least resistance and the United States Corps of Engineers trying to control it.

Winchester also briefly observes the huge cost of fighting this inevitable losing battle. He leaves us in no doubt that human geoengineering does not come cheap and its failure can cost lives and livelihoods.


The End of The River by Simon Winchester is a novelette created for Scribd. It is a substantial departure from Winchester’s other work and is closer to an in-depth magazine piece than a booklet. The work holds true to the high standard we have come to expect from Simon Winchester.

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Man prides himself on changing the face of the Earth. Nothing is beyond his control. Except every time he tries it, he makes things far worse. Simon Winchester, of The Professor and the Madman fame, explores one such boondoggle in The End of the River. In this case, the victim is the Mississippi.

The Mississippi is a classic. More than two thousand miles long, it travels from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. That it makes it that far is a miracle; the Colorado has not been allowed to make it to the sea in years. Americans have built the Mississippi into an unimpeachable industrial aorta of trade, agricultural, industrial and mineral. The country would collapse if it didn’t have the river to conduct its business over. This has been obvious since the Louisiana Purchase. So 200 years ago, Americans began to harness the river, containing it, bordering it, damming it, diverting it and hemming it in. All in an effort to make the river unchanging, when nothing else in the universe stays still. The result has always been total failure, sooner or later.

The river meanders, in the manner of all the great, older rivers. And with this one, it’s not just over the eons, but over our own lifetimes. The river is astonishingly active in its chosen course. It creates loops and then cuts them off, leaving arcing lakes. It shifts back and forth, depending on where the silt it drops builds up, and how much water it processes. There are times when it rages, pushing aside everything in its path, regardless of who built it or with what materials. Americans build by the riverside at their peril, except Americans won’t stand for that. The river must conform.

The current fashion for levees is a fine example. Americans build them higher and higher, based on the last record-setting flood. Winchester tells the story of levees built after the all-time record-setting flood of 1927. The army built levees 25% higher than that, an embarrassment of overengineering and over-preparedness. At least until the next flood set an even bigger record. The levees have become so tall they are actually weaker and can be breached more easily, so the thinking is changing to much lower levees, and controlling the water flow instead. This has resulted in numerous control stations, blocking or diverting as needed.

It all began 200 years ago when a captain named Shreve cut through floating islands of timber called snags, to open what amounts to a canal from the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya, a few miles to the west. This bypassed a long and tricky loop, saving a half-day’s sailing. It suddenly made the Atchafalaya navigable, and now the Army Corps of Engineers, which has a mandate to screw with the Mississippi forever, requires 30% of the Mississippi waters to be diverted there, leaving 70% to try to make it to New Orleans. This was supposed to prevent levee breaching and flooding, maintain navigability on both rivers, and avoid continual disasters as the Mississippi changes course. It was also to prevent the river from simply rerouting to the Atchafalya itself, ending the Mississippi’s run at that point on the map. The army studies predicted in 1950 that this would happen by 1968 if it didn’t act in a major way.

Of course, the very reason there are fertile soils along the river is because the river picks them in Minnesota and Nebraska and Iowa, and deposits them in the southern states it passes through. And as long as it can change course on its own, it will continue to do so. Preventing its movements kills the goose that lays the golden egg and sends the soils into the Gulf, where dredging is a constant hassle and expense.

Worse, Winchester points out, all the land-clearing, parking lots and paved surfaces cause far more water to drain into the river instead of soaking into the soil. This measurably increases the volume of water the river carries south. Add to this the increasing number, violence and volume of stormy weather, and to very little surprise, the river surges more often than ever, flooding the plains and changing course. This only prompts more money to be spent clamping down on the river’s lifestyle, an endless cycle that will mean more damage, expense, ruin and then more army building to contain it. No one sees this as a losing proposition.

The army has put its best engineering minds on the problem, and they have come up with more and varied solutions all up and down the length. The End of the River is about the tiny stretch from the Louisiana-Mississippi state line, north for about 15 miles. In that little stretch, dams, locks, diversions and levees collar and reroute the river – for a while. The systems are monitored and maintained fulltime. Water levels are constantly measured, flood gates are raised and lowered, and walls built up. Billions are spent, and billions will continue to be spent, because the Mississippi doesn’t report to the army.

Although you’d never know that from the army’s attitude. Winchester quotes one general on the scene: “The corps of engineers can make the Mississippi go anywhere the corps directs it to go.” That he can say such a thing after 200 years of tense failures is proof enough this cannot work.

It is the same hubris that leads to cockamamie proposals to seed the upper atmosphere with shredded copper to lessen the sun’s rays, probably the most prominent of the crackpot proposals to change the climate back the way it was 300 years ago, before Man started messing with that too. All of them involve engineering wonders that have either never worked or never been tried, and are proposed at a global scale to permanently alter the course of nature forcefully. Like the Mississippi solution.

There is a tremendous amount of information in this little book. At 59 pages, it is more like a power-packed pamphlet. Winchester is direct, organized and thorough. Read with an online map open, everything falls into place. It is published by and not available in stores. Yet.

As the Mississippi dries up and business shifts west to the Atchafalaya, Baton Rouge and New Orleans will shrivel and become irrelevant hasbeens. This will displace millions who can no longer make a living on the Mississippi south of the Louisiana state line. Ironically, this is precisely why the corps was injected into the picture in the first place. Now it will be the cause of it. Rack up another win for geoengineering.

David Wineberg

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I picked up The End of the River because I enjoyed the author's The Professor and the Madman, an exhaustively researched narrative non-fiction title. This document is a much shorter take and therefore lacks the research or, well, narrative, that his earlier book had. Very cursory and, yet, I also found it to be surprisingly repetitive given it's short length.

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This topic would have made an interesting full length book, with chapters devoted to the geology, hydrology, history, and manmade engineering of the river. As a short, 50 page length piece, it seems to gloss over the interesting and important aspects and instead consists of repetitive, highly overblown prose that had to be skimmed to make it even vaguely readable. Not something I could recommend to anyone actaully looking to learn anything on the topic.

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