Taming the Mississippi

This post was written in collaboration with Ellen Mulligan.

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was the worst flood in U.S. history.

RG 23 Mississippi Flood Map 1927 NAID 2436794
RG 23 Mississippi Flood Map 1927 NAID 2436794

Following the mass destruction caused by the flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expanded the existing levee system to more than 3,500 miles, making it the longest in the world. Plans and progress from 1938 are illustrated below.

RG 77 Flood Control Maps NAID 1078584, Mississippi River Basin 1938
RG 77 Flood Control Maps NAID 1078584, Mississippi River Basin 1938

The levees were meant to decrease flooding along the river, but after subsequent major floods some believe that this altering of the course of the Mississippi has increased flood damage during storms. The films below show construction of levees along the Mississippi.

Levee Construction, Mississippi River, Vicinity Arkansas City, NAID 21331650, Local ID: 77-GENERAL-119*

This film includes intertitles describing the project, including levee specifications. I found it interesting that in addition to providing information regarding the height of the tower and the generator used, at 2:28 they also tell the cost of running the levee. I was pretty amazed at the cost to operate one levee, which is listed as $20,000/month. In today’s dollars that is $274,000.

Methods of Levee Construction on the Mississippi River, NAID 22377367, Local ID: 77-GENERAL-120*

Levees also attempt to control the river’s ever-changing course. Channels change course due to the constant movement of sediment and erosion of banks. Compiling survey information from 1765 to the 1930’s, this map shows changes in the river channel in the Arkansas City area featured in the film above.

Click on the images above for a slide show at full size.

Levees are also intended to prevent flooding from storm surges like the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. A follow-up post will feature records related to that storm. More records relating to levees on the Mississippi River can be found by searching our catalog.


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