I recently read that the James River is the longest unnavigable river in the world. I have read it in a couple of sources but have been unable to verify it. Perhaps like you, I am curious to know if it is true, and how that designation is determined.
It may initially seem surprising, but this unnavigable river is 710 miles long, draining an area of over 20,000 square miles. The river starts about ten miles northwest of Fessenden in Wells County and flows into the Missouri River near Yankton South Dakota.
The uppermost stretches of the river flow eastward toward New Rockford before heading southeast near Grace City. From there it flows south-south east, flowing through Jamestown and eventually crossing into South Dakota south of Oakes. After entering South Dakota north of Hecla in Brown County, the river flows through Huron and Mitchell on its way to the Missouri River.
The elevation at the source of the river is around 1,871 feet above sea level while the river’s elevation where it flows into the Missouri River is about 1,152 feet. That is a drop of 719 feet over the course of about 710 miles. Although the drop obviously varies along the length of the river, that is an average drop of a bit more than a foot per mile.
Although most of us probably know this river as the James River, it has a rather unusual history of names associated with it. In Joseph Nichollet’s’ map from 1839 the river is labeled “Tchan Sansan” which is reportedly a Dakota reference to a forest or woody vegetation. On the map further downstream he has it labeled as the “Riv A Jacques.” Perhaps the river was given different regional names. At some point it became the James River, and just as many guys named James are called Jim, a more informal moniker for the river is simply the Jim. But there is another interesting twist to the naming of this river. I have read that the Dakota Territory Organic Act of 1861 officially named the river the Dakota River. That, obviously, didn’t take. So the James River it is.
So the next time you cross this river, consider that this river just may be the longest unnavigable river in the world. If I can find a definitive answer to that question I will let you know.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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