REX NELSON: Harnessing a River

In his book “Life on the Mississippi,” Mark Twain wrote about the task ahead of the Mississippi River Commission.

“The Military Engineers of the Commission have taken upon their shoulders the task of remaking the Mississippi – a task transcended in size by the initial task alone of creating it,” he said. “They build wing dams here and there, to divert the current; and levees to confine it to narrower limits; and other levees to make it stay there; and for countless miles along the Mississippi, they cut down the wooden front for 50 meters behind, with the aim of leveling the shore as far as the low-water mark with the inclination of a house roof, and ballasting it with stones; and in many places, they protected the desolate shores with rows of stakes.”

In Wednesday’s column, I wrote about the four decades of service to the influential commission of Sam Angel of Lake Village, who died in August. Angel began serving as a civilian member in 1979 and has been involved in countless decisions affecting life along the lower Mississippi. To fully understand eastern Arkansas and its economy, one must understand the importance of the commission and the US Army Corps of Engineers to the region.

In 2004, Charles Camillo and Matthew Pearcy wrote a book called “On Their Shoulders”. It is a history of the commission from its inception in 1879 to the modern project of the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

“On a hot summer day in August 1879, seven men, each nominated by President Rutherford B. Hayes and confirmed by the United States Senate, met in Washington, D.C., to consider investigations, examinations and reports representing the best hydraulic data available on the Mississippi River,” they wrote. “Six of the men were eminent civil engineers, the seventh a lawyer, constitutional scholar and future US president.

“Of the engineers, three are graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the nation’s premier engineering institution; two others from Harvard, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious university. The remaining engineer was without any most accomplished doubt of all–a self-taught, but internationally renowned man 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 ships despite the opposition of a powerful and highly respected expert in hydraulic engineering, the head of the Corps of Engineers.”

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

“These seven men represented an executive body created by Congress on June 28, 1879,” Camillo and Pearcy wrote. “On their shoulders rested the task of transforming the Mississippi River into a safe and reliable commercial artery while protecting adjacent lands from overflowing. The task at hand was enormous – so enormous that no less an authority on the Mississippi River than Mark Twain believed that the task was “transcended in size only by the initial work of creating ‘the river.’

More than 143 years later, much of the commission’s mission is complete. The defining moment in the commission’s history was the Great Flood of 1927, which then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover called “the greatest peacetime calamity in the history of the nation.”

After the flood, the public supported a new approach to protect the country from flooding. The end result was the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project.

“MR&T uses a variety of river engineering techniques, including an extensive system of levees to contain high water, diversion channels to remove excess flows from the main channel to the Gulf of Mexico, and bank protection and channel stabilization to aid navigation,” Camillo and Pearcy wrote. . “Since its launch, MR&T has brought an unprecedented degree of flood protection to the lower Mississippi Valley.”

MR&T is undoubtedly one of the most important public works projects in the history of the United States. The legislative effort to create the commission in 1879 was led by Senator LQC Lamar of Mississippi and Representative Randall Gibson of Louisiana. Over the next few years, members of the Arkansas Congressional delegation played a major role in supporting the work of the commission.

The original legislation gave the commission extensive jurisdiction over 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 inquiries and inquiries necessary to prepare plans for improving the channel of the river, protecting the banks, improving navigation, preventing destructive floods and promote trade.The legally mandated members of the MRC called up three Corps officers, a member of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey (now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and three civilians.

“This splendid mix of members reflected a desire to heal an incipient schism between the military and civilian engineering communities epitomized by the famous clashes between Brigadier General Andrew Humphreys, the chief engineer, and Eads, the internationally renowned civil 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 basin (surpassed in size only by the Amazon and Congo rivers) drains 41% of the continental United States.

Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He is also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

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