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OPINION | REX NELSON: Harnessing a river

by Rex Nelson | October 1, 2022 at 4:50 a.m.

In his book "Life on the Mississippi," Mark Twain wrote about the task facing the Mississippi River Commission.

"The military engineers of the Commission have taken upon their shoulders the job of making the Mississippi over again--a job transcended in size by only the original job of creating it," he said. "They are building wing-dams here and there, to deflect the current; and dikes to confine it in narrower bounds; and other dikes to make it stay there; and for unnumbered miles along the Mississippi, they are felling the timber-front for 50 yards back, with the purpose of shaving the bank down to low-water mark with the slant of a house roof, and ballasting it with stones; and in many places they have protected the wasting shores with rows of piles."

In Wednesday's column, I wrote about the four decades of service on the influential commission by Sam Angel of Lake Village, who died in August. Angel began serving as a civilian member in 1979 and was part of countless decisions affecting life along the lower Mississippi. To fully understand east Arkansas and its economy, one must understand the importance of the commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the region.

In 2004, Charles Camillo and Matthew Pearcy wrote a book titled "Upon Their Shoulders." It's a history of the commission from its inception in 1879 through the modern Mississippi River and Tributaries project.

"On a warm summer day in August 1879, seven men, each appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, gathered in Washington, D.C., to pore over surveys, examinations and reports representing the best available hydraulic data on the Mississippi River," they wrote. "Six of the men were prominent civil engineers, the seventh a lawyer, constitutional scholar and future American president.

"Of the engineers, three graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the nation's pre-eminent engineering institution; two others from Harvard, the oldest and most prestigious university in the country. The remaining engineer was undoubtedly the most accomplished of all--a self-educated man, but one of international repute and the designer and builder of the boldest and most innovative bridge to span the Mississippi River--a man who opened the mouth of that river to oceangoing vessels despite the opposition of a powerful and widely respected expert on hydraulic engineering, the chief of the Corps of Engineers."

The future president was Benjamin Harrison of Indiana. The great civilian engineer was James Eads of Missouri.

"These seven men represented an executive body established by Congress on June 28, 1879," Camillo and Pearcy wrote. "Upon their shoulders rested the task of remaking the Mississippi River into a safe and reliable commercial artery while protecting adjacent lands from overflow. The job at hand was enormous--so enormous that no less an authority on the Mississippi River than Mark Twain believed the task was 'transcended in size only by the original job of creating' the river."

More than 143 years later, much of the commission's assignment has been completed. The defining moment in the commission's history was the Great Flood of 1927, which then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover called the "greatest peace-time calamity in the history of the country."

After the flood, there was public support for a new approach to protecting the country from flooding. The ultimate result was the Mississippi River and Tributaries project.

"MR&T employs a variety of river engineering techniques, including an extensive levee system for containing high water, floodways for removing excess flows from the main channel to the Gulf of Mexico, and riverbank protection and channel stabilization to facilitate navigation," Camillo and Pearcy wrote. "Since its initiation, MR&T has brought an unprecedented degree of flood protection to the lower Mississippi Valley."

MR&T is without a doubt among the most important public works projects in U.S. history. The legislative effort to create the commission in 1879 was led by Sen. L.Q.C. Lamar of Mississippi and Rep. Randall Gibson of Louisiana. In later years, members of Arkansas' congressional delegation played major roles in supporting the work of the commission.

The originating legislation granted the commission extensive jurisdiction on the river from its headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

A Corps history of the commission notes that the 1879 act empowered the commission to "make surveys and investigations necessary to prepare plans to improve the river channel, protect the banks, improve navigation, prevent destructive floods and promote commerce. The legally mandated membership of the MRC called for three officers from the Corps, one member from the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and three civilians.

"This splendid mix of membership reflected a desire to heal a burgeoning schism between the military and civilian engineering communities epitomized by famous clashes between Brig. Gen. Andrew Humphreys, the chief of engineers, and Eads, the internationally renowned civilian engineer."

Camillo and Pearcy noted that the task was the "most difficult and complex engineering problem ever undertaken by the U.S. government" since the river's basin (exceeded in size only by the Amazon and Congo rivers) drains 41 percent of the continental United States.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.


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