Modern history


ON NEW YEAR’S DAY, 1927, the Mississippi River reached flood stage at Cairo, the earliest for any year on record. Then the storms abated. As Congress reconvened, representatives from Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee wired their respective governors to find out if they should seek federal aid for the flooded districts. The governors unanimously wired back that no help was needed.

Meanwhile, several events early in the year were signaling the passing of an age. The Kate Adams, the last of the old Mississippi packets, burned in Memphis. Even the violently anti-southern black newspaper Chicago Defender wrote lovingly, “To plantation people—both races alike—the ‘Kate’ was a living creature, whose sonorous whistle, audible as far as 20 miles inland, was the signal for joyous cries. Straightening from their tasks at the sound, cotton pickers with grinning faces would shout across the field ‘Yer comes the lovin’ Kate.’”

In Greenville, Granville Carter, a black man, retired. He could not read but had run a newsstand and bookstore for both races downtown since 1880. The Greenville Democrat-Times editorialized, “Carter entered business on what was at the time Front St. That street and Mulberry Street have gone into the river…. He sold school books to girls learning their ABCs. He was always trusted. There are a great many people who say [the colored man] is beaten up and given no chance in Mississippi. The case of Carter is a complete refutation of their statements. The people of Greenville are always ready to acknowledge service, whether from black skin or white skin.” But neither black nor white took over Carter’s store. It closed.

In New York, Walter Gifford, president of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, made the first regular long-distance telephone call from New York to London, while Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover participated in the first public demonstration of television as picture and sound traveled from New York to Washington.

In Washington, talk about the 1928 presidential race had already begun. If Coolidge chose not to run again, ex-Governor Frank Lowden of Illinois was the favorite. Other likely GOP candidates were General Leonard Wood, who had been expected to win the 1920 nomination, Senate Majority Leader Charles Curtis, and Vice President Charles Dawes. One man not considered a serious contender was Herbert Hoover.

In California, Charlie Chaplin’s divorce was a running story. America’s newspapers, newly taken with celebrity, published accounts on page 1.

At the same time, in Arkansas the state senate overwhelmingly rejected a bill, passed by the House, outlawing the teaching of evolution.

In Fulton, Kentucky, a police sergeant was shot and killed by a Negro in an Illinois Central station. The sergeant had gone into the station to clear out the “hoboes, stragglers and floaters who drift in and use the place.” The shooting occurred at midnight. The Negro was killed in the subsequent gun battle.

In Columbus, Mississippi, a Negro attacked a police officer with an ice pick. According to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the police officer was “questioning” him in the police station about a burglary, and the Negro was heard to shout, “You hain’t got de only gun in de world. Jes’ give me dat icepick an’ I’ll show you who comes out of here alive.” Also in Columbus, the Clarion-Ledger reported, “The local Klan of the Ku Klux having just recently come into possession of reliable information that a notorious dive known as the ‘Blue Goose’ had become a nuisance to residents of the city, visited the place a few nights ago and found only a small quantity of liquor.”

In Amite, Louisiana, fifty miles north of New Orleans, several farmers were indicted on charges of kidnapping a family of Negroes at gunpoint, taking them into Mississippi, and selling the whole lot for a twenty-dollar bill; the Negroes were forced to work without pay for weeks under armed guards.

The Memphis Commercial-Appeal ran a long story on the Delta & Pine Land Company, a cotton plantation of 60,000 acres, the largest in the world. British investors had pieced the plantation together a few years before and, said the paper, turned the rich soil into a giant, efficient factory: “Almost the first person employed on the property was a physician instructed to stamp out malaria and venereal diseases in the shortest possible time…. A competent civil engineer was on the job almost as soon as the doctors…. There are thirty-one negro churches on the company properties…elementary schools…an agricultural high school is under consideration…a modern fully equipped tenants hospital…. A newspaper is issued weekly for the benefit of the negro population…with a paid circulation of 1300 a year confined almost entirely to the tenants of the property.”

Plantation headquarters lay in Scott, Mississippi, fifteen or so miles north of Greenville, near a sharp and dangerous bend in the Mississippi River and just below the closed Cypress Creek outlet. The river’s tremendous mass collided with the bend at Scott, generating enormous and complex forces and putting intense pressure on the levees. In fact, the area was considered one of the weakest spots anywhere on the river’s levee system.

In New Orleans in January the first Mardi Gras balls were being held. They were exclusive affairs for the season’s finest debutantes. Unfortunately, a major Carnival parade had to be aborted. “Cornets, trombones, bass horns filled with water from the driving rain,” reported the Times-Picayune. “Proteus, Monarch of the Sea, with his parade less than half completed decided the downpour was too heavy and turned his pageant back to the den.” It was the heaviest rain in fifty-two years. The storm covered half the continent and made the paper’s front page: “From the Rockies to the Ozarks a blanket of snow was being laid tonight…in some places the heaviest of the winter.”

The storms had returned.

PITTSBURGH, where the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers form the Ohio, was flooded on January 23; five days later the Ohio flooded downtown Cincinnati. That crest took twenty-nine days to travel from Pittsburgh to New Orleans; a second flood at Pittsburgh on March 1 took thirty-eight days to go the same distance. The storage capacity of the Mississippi was filling.

The Illinois River at Beardstown, Illinois, had reached flood stage on September 5, 1926. It would remain in flood for 273 of the next 307 days. On every gauge from Cairo to New Orleans, the Mississippi itself reached flood stage early, often the earliest on record; it would remain in flood for as long as 153 consecutive days.

Water reaching the river was piling higher, rising against already saturated levees. Unseasonably high stages the preceding fall had prevented many of the levee repairs and maintenance normally carried out at low water. Now along the length of the levee system the weight of the river grew, its weight pushing outward against the levees, seeking its floodplain.

By February 4, the White and the Little Red Rivers had broken through levees in Arkansas, flooding more than 100,000 acres with water 10 to 15 feet deep and leaving 5,000 people homeless.

A week later New Orleans received 5.54 inches of rain in twenty-four hours. Similarly heavy rains deluged much of the lower Mississippi valley, generating violent local floods that killed thirty-two people.

In New Orleans, Colonel Charles L. Potter, chairman of the Mississippi River Commission, said reassuringly, “Although river stages along the Mississippi are high for this time of year, no serious trouble with flood waters is expected this spring unless more rain than usual falls in the upper valley and tributaries.”

March opened with a severe blizzard striking Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska, and parts of Oklahoma, Missouri, and Texas. The storm then swept east and dumped record snowfall in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, where buildings gave way under the weight. Farther south it rained.

The Tennessee River flooded for the second time in a few weeks, covering highways and sweeping one railroad bridge away, severing communication. In Mississippi on March 15 the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported, “The virtual flood of rain which fell Saturday did considerable damage to highways and railroads, crippling service throughout the state.” The next day, March 16, an additional four inches of rain fell, and the Mississippi National Guard was mobilized to guard the levees.

The storms turned violent. Between March 17 and March 20, three different tornadoes in the lower Mississippi valley killed forty-five people. High winds whipped the Mississippi into whitecaps and sent waves crashing into the levees; the waves did severe damage, virtually tearing off the crown of some sections.

In every levee district on the river, supplies were laid in and men met to plan the deployment of their forces. In January, Seguine Allen, the chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board, headquartered in Greenville and with jurisdiction over 184 miles of riverfront, had pleaded with Major John Lee, in charge of the Mississippi River Commission’s Vicksburg office, for money to raise the low spots in his district. On March 23, Allen arranged delivery of dozens of generators, hundreds of feet of wire, and four railroad cars full of hundreds of thousands of empty cotton sacks, each one 20 inches wide and 36 inches long. The generators and wire were to string lights on the levee at night so work could proceed twenty-four hours a day. The sacks were for sandbagging; the levee board could return them, if not used, without charge. LeRoy Percy, a governor of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, talked to bankers at the Chase Bank in New York, at the Canal Bank—the largest in the South—in New Orleans, and elsewhere in case emergency loans to several levee boards became necessary. He did not want to lose to the river for lack of resources.

Major Donald Connolly was in charge of the Mississippi River Commission’s Memphis district, which included 450 miles of river, from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to the mouth of the White River in Arkansas. He declared, “If the river does not go any higher than has been forecast by the meteorologist at Memphis, no serious trouble with the United States levee system is anticipated.”

To those along the river Connolly’s comment did not reassure. They knew that Weather Bureau policy limited meteorologists’ forecasts of river heights to “all the water in sight,” i.e., to precipitation that had already fallen. Therefore the Weather Bureau predictions routinely understated actual river stages. In addition, Connolly was claiming only that levees the federal government helped maintain on the Mississippi itself were safe. Hundreds of miles of state, local, and private levees existed. Indeed, the day after he spoke, levees along the St. Francis River broke in three places, pouring waters into Missouri and Arkansas.

IT WAS AS IF THE MISSISSIPPI was growing and swelling and rising in preparation, gathering itself for a mighty attack, sending out small floods as skirmishers to test man’s strength. Those who knew the river always felt that it seemed a thing alive, with a will and a personality. In 1927 its will seemed intent on sweeping its valley clean of man.

From Cairo to the Gulf, the 1,100 miles where the river was mightiest and angriest, people readied themselves. Major Lee had taken charge of the Vicksburg district only the preceding July and had no experience with the Mississippi. Still, he was a man of order and discipline (attending Episcopal services daily and as often as three times on Sunday) and was an outstanding organizer. He had been preparing for months for what he considered the equivalent of war. Already engineers under him had walked each foot of the 800 miles of levees in the district—400 miles on each bank—and mapped weak areas so he could deploy resources.

His army numbered 1,500 full-time levee workers, including six levee contractors who each operated camps where one or two white men worked 100 to 200 black laborers. These were isolated, violent, and brutal places. (One camp operator named Charlie Silas may have been the original “Mr. Charlie,” slang for a white boss in blues songs, who was reputed to routinely murder black workers and throw their bodies into the river.) But the levee contractors moved earth. Ten modern levee machines, each one looking like a giant dinosaur, also moved mountains of earth in a few days. Quarter boats served as highly mobile levee camps. Ten separate groups of men were working on revetting the riverbank, protecting it from the currents by covering it with willow mattresses much like the ones Eads had used for the jetties. The Corps had begun experiments laying asphalt and concrete over the riverbank as well. And in an emergency Lee and the local levee boards could call upon virtually all the plantation labor within miles of the river, a total labor force—an army—approaching 30,000.

On April 1, Lee mobilized nearly all of these forces and put them to work on the levees. He also summoned Navy seaplanes and Army observation planes to inspect miles of levee quickly, and communicate to men on the levee out of reach of telephones. Armed guards were also patrolling the entire levee line. They were needed.

Violence was erupting. Marked Tree, Arkansas, was a rough lumber town on the St. Francis River, surrounded by rich alluvial lands. In early February a 4-foot-deep cut in the top of the levee was discovered. Armed men began patrols there. On April 6 the guards shot four men trying to plant 105 sticks of dynamite. The town promised a reward of $500 for the “higher ups.” This would not be the only shooting to erupt along the levee line; it was merely the first.

In Greenville, meanwhile, Percy once again stripped his own plantations and his cotton compress of labor and put Charlie Williams, manager of his compress, in charge of the flood fight. Williams, an expert hunter and fisherman as well as an expert on levees, had started a training camp early in the year to teach men flood-fighting techniques. It was the first such formal training ever conducted on the river, but Williams was expecting the battle of his life and wanted to be ready. He also planned “concentration camps” on the levee, complete with field kitchens and tents, for thousands of plantation laborers to live while they fought the river. These same camps would double as refugee centers, if the worst happened.

In New Orleans hundreds of men had started topping the levee January 17. A hole in the levee near a ferry landing had developed and been sealed. An emergency bulkhead had been placed across Bayou St. John and had already been washed out and repaired. Twenty-four-hour patrols began in March. John Klorer, a city councilman and experienced river engineer, reported confidentially that 7,000 linear feet of levees, considerably more than a mile, fell short of safe margins. Danger areas included such central locations as Poydras Street downtown and Bienville, Toulouse, Dumaine, and Governor Nicholls Streets in the French Quarter.

James Kemper and Jim Thomson, whose Safe River Committee of 100 represented every interest in New Orleans, went again to Washington to press anew for policy changes. Together they again protested the Mississippi River Commission’s plans to close off the Atchafalaya, the final natural outlet of the Mississippi. Kemper warned: “It is apparent to any competent engineer…that this closure would result in the collapse of the levee system below the Arkansas [River] on the first great flood…. It is now fight or drown.”

BY LATE MARCH four separate flood crests had passed Cairo. On March 25, the gauge there reached the highest stage ever known. On March 29, the Laconia Circle levee, the oldest in Arkansas, sloughed into the Mississippi. It was not a federal levee, but it was a good one, and its collapse was ominous. Engineers sounding the bottom to gauge river depth could find none.

The same day local, regional, and national officials of the American Red Cross gathered in Natchez, Mississippi, to plan refugee camps, anticipating that local resources would not be able to handle the disaster they expected. Already the Yazoo and Sunflower Rivers were rampaging through the Delta, and the White and St. Francis Rivers were miles wide in Arkansas.

Connolly in Memphis said, “All levees are in fine condition and we expect no trouble.” Lee in Vicksburg said, “It is not believed that the new rise in sight will necessitate emergency topping at any point. The organization is functioning perfectly in all sectors.” Captain W. H. Holcombe, head of the Mississippi River Commission’s New Orleans district, said, “No serious trouble is expected.”

Privately, Lee was preparing for the worst, asking eleven postmasters for a “report on relief they would need in their vicinity in case” the levee broke. Tributary streams and backwater flooding had made thousands homeless. Mississippi Governor Dennis Murphree had sent a desperate wire to the War Department, pleading for tents and supplies.

In the West, a storm March 31 killed two in Oklahoma City, crippled railroads, and inundated highways. At St. Louis the Mississippi rose 6 feet in twenty-four hours and, to the south, poured into Cape Girardeau. In the east, the Ohio from the mouth of the Kanawha in West Virginia to Kentucky was rising 2 feet every twenty-four hours. The Y&MV Railroad sent twenty-five freight cars to Natchez to house refugees. At Columbus, Kentucky, on the Mississippi, 3,000 men were sacking the levee.

From Cairo south, every levee board was operating on a twenty-four-hour basis. The weather was unseasonably cold, the temperature dipping into the thirties, even in the Delta. The men working on the levees huddled around fires and drank coffee during their few minutes off. Every foot of levee was patrolled by armed guards looking for signs of weakness or saboteurs. Thousands of men, mostly black plantation workers taken from the fields or impressed randomly by police from the streets of towns like Greenville, were living in camps on the levee or on barges tied up to the levee. The rain continued, drenching and chilling them. Day after day, hour after hour, they filled sandbags, carried them up the slope of the levee, stacked them; the wet earth made the sandbags heavier than normal, over 100 pounds.

In early April there were already 35,000 refugees, almost all along tributaries. But the Mississippi itself, a waking giant, was pressing outward against the levees, and it was swelling.

IN APRIL the rains continued. It rained harder and longer than anyone could recall over a vast area. Even the rains of the preceding year seemed light beside these days of darkness.

The Memphis Commercial-Appeal for the first time began to register doubts about the Army engineers’ reassurances. Water in sight guaranteed record stages and rain was still falling. On April 8 it observed: “The outlook was gloomy now…. A couple of big tows which went down the river yesterday came very near to bursting the levee. They travelled at midstream and sent in waves running five to ten feet high.” Even so, Major Connolly was still insisting: “The government levees are safe. We do not expect a break anywhere along the line of our levees, although some of the private levees may give way. The situation is well in hand.”

But storms that very day devastated a wide area. New York Times headlines blared, “Eleven Killed Many Hurt in Midwest Flood; Great Area in Oklahoma and Kansas Is Inundated; [Railroad] Traffic Is Paralyzed; Three Trains Are Wrecked…Missouri-Kansas-Texas passenger train number 22, northbound from San Antonio, struck a washout at St. Paul, Kansas, the engine and ten cars going into a flooded ditch…. Many Southeast Kansas streams went to the highest stage on record after the downpour last night and early today…. Streets in Erie, Kansas, became a raging torrent four feet deep…. Late today the Neshobo [sic] River levee burst, flooding thousands of acres…. At Independence, Ks., the Verdigris River reached the highest stage on record and was still rising. The Neshobo [sic] River continued to rise…. Railroad service was paralyzed and was out on many Missouri Pacific, Frisco, Rock Island, Missouri-Kansas-Texas, and Santa Fe lines…. Late reports from Columbus, Kentucky, told of movements of inhabitants to higher ground when the waters of the Mississippi virtually reached the top of the embankment…. Handbags [sic] were being placed to prevent overflowing of the stream, which is now five miles wide here.”

Outside Oklahoma City the Canadian River killed fourteen Mexicans; in El Dorado, Arkansas, the Ouachita River killed four in one family.

As of April 9, 1927, the upper Mississippi River from Iowa south was in flood; the Ohio below the mouth of the Green was in flood; the Missouri from Kansas City east was high; the St. Francis, Black, and White Rivers approached record levels; and the Arkansas was the highest since 1833. Below the Arkansas, the Ouachita, Black, and Red Rivers were rising; the Yazoo, Sunflower, and Tallahatchie in Mississippi, in flood for three months, were rising. And the Mississippi below the mouth of the Arkansas, also long since in flood, was rising.

More than 1 million acres of land were already under water. Downtown Cincinnati and Pittsburgh had been flooded. Oklahoma City was threatened. More than 50,000 flood refugees were living in tents or boxcars in Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

The record height along the Mississippi below Cypress Creek had been reached in 1922. Most levees had held—barely, perhaps, but they had held—that year. Already the unusual simultaneity of rising tributaries made it certain that the Mississippi would exceed the 1922 mark.

The rain continued. Connolly continued to insist: “We are in condition to hold all the water in sight…. This is a vastly different feeling than was expressed back in 1922. Then everyone was anxious but kept plugging away to prevent further breaks in the levees. Now they seem to have that easy confidence that the levees will hold, but will give every assistance should there be a break in the line.”

IN NEW ORLEANS, Guy Deano, head of the Orleans Levee Board, confidentially informed Klorer, the city councilman and engineer: “From the forecast we are given to understand the water level will reach…extreme high water. Under the law the levee board authorities are authorized to proceed under the extreme emergency.”

Publicly, every person in authority in New Orleans proclaimed absolute confidence. So did the newspapers. The Times-Picayune hardly mentioned the local situation and downplayed river news elsewhere. Earlier, Jim Thomson’s two papers had used the high water as a weapon to increase support for spillways. Now, as the danger of the flood grew real, his papers too were quiet.

On April 13 tornadoes ripped through twelve states, accompanied by heavy rains. Under cover of the violent storm, a levee in Arkansas was dynamited, although the explosion did little damage since levee guards opened fire before the saboteurs could lay the charge properly.

On April 15, 1927, Good Friday, the New York Times reported: “Great Flood Peril Along Mississippi; Huge Mass of Water Is Rushing Southward Threatening to Inundate a Vast Territory…From Cairo to the sea, the most menacing flood in years was sweeping down the Mississippi River and its tributaries tonight. High stages from Evansville, Indiana, to Cairo, Illinois, increased volume from smaller streams above Cairo, and the unloading of heavy surplus of the Arkansas and White Rivers presaged a stage that may equal or surpass the records in 1922…. The guardians reported the great dykes in fine condition, but they placed men and machines at strategic points to reinforce any weakness which may develop under the immeasurable weight.”

The Memphis Commercial-Appeal said simply, “The roaring Mississippi river, bank and levee full from St. Louis to New Orleans is believed to be on its mightiest rampage.” It added, “Government engineers are confident that the government levees will withstand the floodwaters.”

Already from Oklahoma and Kansas in the West to Illinois and Kentucky in the East, rivers were overflowing. The Mississippi was rising, high and fast. The Army had sent 275 barrack-size tents to Natchez for refugees. As much as 15 feet of water covered 2 million acres in Arkansas.

Arkansas Senator T. H. Caraway wired Secretary of War Dwight Davis: “Every available house and box car and tent at Helena and all of Phillips County is in use to house refugees from the overflowed section and still hundreds unprovided for…. Situation demands immediate action.”

Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar wired Secretary Davis: “Floods breaking levees this district many rendered homeless…. How soon could you send [supplies] here…. Answer tonight.”

That morning, as Greenville levee engineer Seguine Allen prepared to play host to LeRoy Percy and others for his Good Friday party, the great storm began.

NEVER HAD THE SKY been more brooding. In parts of Oklahoma and Texas temperatures dropped 30 degrees in a few hours. In Mississippi and Louisiana the damp cold hung like January in the air. For hundreds of miles angry winds whistled, whipping across flat land, whipping the Mississippi until waves pounded levees. Men and women shivered, frightened by the dark and the winds, and stayed inside. The skies grew blacker, as black as an eclipse. But an eclipse lasted only for a moment. These clouds blacked out the sun for hours; the only light came from the great cracks of lightning, the only sound from great claps of thunder.

On April 15, in eighteen hours 15 inches of rain fell on New Orleans; some parts of the city received more. The total rain, in less than a day, exceeded one-quarter the city’s average annual precipitation of 55 inches. It was a terrifying reminder of the power of nature. Up to 4 feet of water stood in the streets. Photographs of it flashed around the country; photo captions, even in the New York Times, mistakenly stated that the river had flooded the city.

In the ten years from 1916 through 1926, not a single storm had poured as much precipitation on New Orleans as did any of five storms that struck in the first four months of 1927.

Nor was the rain localized. Between 10 and 12 inches fell as far north as Cairo, west past Little Rock, east past Jackson. Near Hickman, Kentucky, the Mississippi River rose higher than ever before—7 feet higher.

The river had leaned against the levees for weeks now, in many places for months, saturating them, pressing against them. Seepage was seen the entire length of the system. Dozens of tributaries, small and large, east and west—the Tennessee, the Cumberland, the Yazoo, the Ohio in the east; the Arkansas, the White, the St. Francis, the Canadian, the Missouri in the west; and a hundred others—had burst onto the land. Water was spouting out of the containment system as if through holes punched in a hose. The river was still swelling, threatening to burst open the containment system entirely. The private and state levees on tributaries had already been overwhelmed. Only the U.S. government-standard levees still held. But the Mississippi was only now receiving the great runoff from the lower valley, and the great flood from its tributaries.

The 1882 flood covered 34,000 square miles—more than the combined area of New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island—to an average depth of 6.5 feet. The river was now carrying far more water than in 1882.

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