Modern history


AFTER THE 1922 FLOOD the chief of the Army Corps of Engineers had advised the New Orleans financial community that, if the river ever seriously threatened the city, they should blow a hole in the levee. In the years since, those words had never left the consciousness of either the people in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, who would be sacrificed, or those who dealt with the river in New Orleans. Both groups had been monitoring the river closely all year. As early as New Year’s Day the St. Bernard Voicehad warned, “Flood Water Is Coming Down!” And in late January, hydraulics engineer James Kemper wrote a report on the river situation for newspaper publisher James Thomson.

No layman in New Orleans spent more time on river policy than Thomson. Five years earlier he had organized the Safe River Committee, and ever since he had been pushing hard in Washington to change the policy toward the Mississippi. It seemed, however, he had adopted the river issue at least partly to make himself a larger figure in New Orleans, to push himself into the inner sanctums.

Thomson was not a member of the club and wondered why. An ancestor had tutored John Marshall, and he had run a paper in Norfolk, Virginia, then bought the New Orleans Item and moved to the city in 1907. He started a second paper in New Orleans, the Morning Tribune, and became a director of a midsized bank, while in Washington he remained a confidant of senators as well as his father-in-law, Speaker of the House Champ Clark. But none of that was good enough for New Orleans. Perhaps he was kept in New Orleans’ outer reaches because he lacked appropriate style. Tall, with a disproportionately large head, he liked to be called “Colonel” despite his lack of military experience. In hot weather he often stripped off his shirt in his office, treating those who worked for him to the sight of his pale white skin and soft body. Or perhaps he was excluded because he had criticized the Board of Liquidation for allowing banks with whom it deposited millions of dollars of the city’s tax receipts to pay no interest to the city (after a lengthy campaign, banks finally did begin paying interest), and for favoring certain banks—the Canal, the Whitney, and the Hibernia—with these deposits.

Whatever the reason, his exclusion bothered him. His only child had died. His place in the city mattered. Charles “Pie” Dufour, a Boston Club member and writer who worked for him, said: “Thomson was an ambitious man, always seeking acceptance from the establishment and never quite getting it. He moved in the establishment but always tentatively…. He was on a tightrope, a treadmill.”

His river campaign allowed him to insinuate himself into the establishment. Once he had brought Butler, Hecht, and Lonnie Pool, the president of the Marine Bank & Trust Company who ruled Carnival as Rex in 1925, to Washington to see President Harding. Harding had listened to a presentation by Kemper and had promised action, but died before he could keep his promise.

Still, when a dinner was given celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Thomson’s ownership of the Item, the governor, the Louisiana congressional delegation, present and former mayors, even a senator from Wisconsin attended. Blanc Monroe and Jim Butler did not. Nor did a single person associated with the Times-Picayune. It was a snub from the social elite, a snub that only made Thomson more determined to penetrate into the city’s decision-making. His knowledge of the river was his battering ram. For the report Kemper gave him in January 1927 was not good news.

The weakest levees in the state lay just thirty miles upriver, Kemper said, outside the jurisdiction of the Orleans Levee Board. A crevasse there could send water pouring into the city from the rear as had happened in 1849, the last time a serious river flood hit the city. New Orleans had a rear protection levee but “it offers protection in name only,” Kemper warned. As for the city levees themselves, the river had already begun to strain them. At a ferry landing uptown a hole in the levee had developed and needed immediate attention, while four and a half miles of city docks fell below the Mississippi River Commission’s grade for height. But the biggest problem was the new Industrial Canal, built to connect the river and Lake Pontchartrain. The height of its locks, Kemper said, “was based on a miscalculation in slope. The Mississippi River Commission and the Dock Board have concluded there is a four foot drop over the 10 miles between Carrollton and the canal. It is no more than one foot, eight inches. A flood equal to that of 1922 will overtop the locks by four feet.”

The turbulence this would generate could rip the locks, and the levee there, apart. They required immediate attention.

Kemper also explained that, paradoxically, a great flood would not threaten the city because it was certain to overwhelm levees upriver. The river would then spread over the land, lower the flood height at New Orleans, and eliminate any danger for the city, although it would devastate the rest of the lower Mississippi valley. Kemper’s chief concern, in terms of New Orleans, was actually a lesser flood, one higher than 1922 but not so high as to breach levees above the city.

Thomson had made Kemper his personal engineering expert and put his newspaper’s weight behind him in many fights, but he chose to reject Kemper’s insistence that a great flood would not threaten New Orleans. The rejection would have vast impact. Meanwhile, he informed members of the Safe River Committee of Kemper’s opinion on the narrower question of the city’s levees.

Soon after Mardi Gras a Dock Board engineering report also warned of trouble: “The levee between Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue is not up to Mississippi River Commission grade and section.” Those blocks included the entire French Quarter. It added, “Serious settlements have taken place [here]…. Mistakes at this time would have far-reaching consequences.”

By mid-March the public was paying close attention to the river. People needed no report; they simply climbed the levee and looked. The river was high and angry. Hundreds of men were working on the levees, and hundreds more were being hired. Railroads were putting their own crews to work on the levees as well. In one area railroad crews built an emergency bulkhead; within weeks waters washed part of it out. It was repaired, sacked, and additional revetment added.

In late March, John Klorer, the city councilman and former river engineer, personally inspected the levees, walking their entire length on both banks for the third time in four weeks. Though an elected official, he gave his report to Thomson, not to the mayor or the council. He cited “decided improvement” overall, but noted that 7,000 feet of the levee line still fell short of safe margins and “should be taken in hand promptly.”

On April 4, in St. Bernard Parish, twenty-four-hour patrols of the levee by armed guards began. The 1922 crevasse at Poydras remained fresh in the minds of everyone in the parish. Meanwhile, the Weather Bureau forecasts of flood stages continued to rise, from 20.8 feet to 21.5 feet, 4 inches below the record.

On April 8, with the flood approaching a record upriver, the New Orleans chapter of the Red Cross began building two hundred boats and setting up forty-one relief stations to be scattered throughout New Orleans to feed and clothe thousands of people, in case of the worst.

No word of this activity appeared in any New Orleans paper. As the Mississippi grew more threatening, New Orleans papers gave it less space. This lack of news attention was no accident.

THREE MEN determined what went into newspapers in the city. None of them cared about the news per se; they used their papers like artillery, to pound their enemies and advance their own goals. Thomson was one of the three. Robert Ewing, owner of the Statesand newspapers in Monroe and Shreveport, was another. Unlike Thomson, Ewing had no interest in joining clubs; his interests lay elsewhere. Both a Democratic national committeeman and a ward leader, he had been described by one mayor as “the most insatiable patronage grabber” in New Orleans.

The third man was Esmond Phelps, a member of the Boston and Louisiana Clubs who was rumored to have been Comus. A past president of the Louisiana bar and southern amateur tennis champion, Phelps had red hair, a good-natured disposition that hid his competitiveness, and a belly just beginning to go to fat. In the city’s legal community only Blanc Monroe had more stature. Phelps had led the effort in 1924 to defeat Thomson’s wife, Genevieve, when she ran for Congress; Phelps had convinced even society women who were active in politics to oppose her. But his first love was the Times-Picayune, whose board he controlled. His father, Ashton Phelps, had edited the paper (his great-grandson would be its publisher in the 1990s), and, though nominally Esmond’s authority was limited to his board seat, he spent hours at a time at the paper several days a week.

Yet Phelps, Ewing, and Thomson cooperated on one thing: suppressing news unfavorable to the city. In 1924, when a Greek sailor with bubonic plague was cared for in a New Orleans hospital, all the papers helped the New Orleans Association of Commerce control the flow of news both within and outside the city. In 1925 the papers helped the Association of Commerce circulate seventy-two different articles boosting New Orleans, including one claiming that it was one of the healthiest cities in America. In 1926 the newspapers and the Association of Commerce again agreed “to refrain from publishing anything in connection with” a controversial port policy.

On April 8, as the local Red Cross began building boats, Thomson called a meeting of the Safe River Committee, including Phelps and Ewing, “to avoid the dissemination of incorrect or alarming information.” The next day every paper ran a reassuring page-1 story. The headlines in Thomson’s own paper read, “River Warning Not Alarming; Levees Can Care for Stage Expected to Exceed 1922 Level.” The idea was to calm the city.

The city was not calm. No headline, or lack of one, could hide the Mississippi River. “River rats” had built shacks on stilts on the batture, outside the protection of the levees. The rising water was isolating these shacks, and wakes from barges and ships threatened to swamp them. In 1922 an anonymous telegram published in the papers had warned, “The next boat that comes down at…high speed will need two pilots, as we intend to kill the first one.” This year there were no such warnings. There were simply rifle shots. The boats slowed. Then, on April 13, a sudden rise swept hundreds of shacks away. No word appeared in any paper, yet news, and fear, spread—particularly among the elite, since many river rats worked in the fine homes of St. Charles Avenue.

An exodus began, especially to the Gulf Coast and the high bluffs of Natchez. Business died. Those in power clamped down even tighter control on the news. But the river still rose.

Isaac Cline headed the U.S. Weather Bureau office at New Orleans. A former physician and an art collector who lived in the French Quarter, in 1900 he had run the Weather Bureau office in Galveston, then the largest city in Texas, when a hurricane had swept the sea over it. Estimates of the number of dead ranged from 3,000 to 12,000. Waves had pounded Cline’s own home to pieces; he, his wife, and their children were on the second floor when it collapsed. His wife had drowned, but he had kicked his way to the surface gasping for air, and pulled his two young daughters onto his roof. They were washed onto the mainland and survived. Transferred to New Orleans, in 1903 he had issued warnings of a then-record 21-foot river stage. Superiors in Washington had ordered him to withdraw his warning. He had refused, insisting that his warning would save lives. The river reached 20.7 feet even with crevasses upstream and he did save lives. Even so, only intervention from Louisiana’s congressional delegation prevented his being fired. In 1915 his insistent warnings of another hurricane had saved hundreds more lives, and he had become a local hero.

Now, in early April, Cline began issuing “Flood Bulletins.”

The papers did not publish them.

Furious, he called reporters into his office on April 14, even before the terrible Good Friday storm, and demanded to know why. They said they were writing the stories but their editors weren’t printing them. Cline called a man involved in the censorship and charged: “You’re jeopardizing lives of men, women, and children. You may control the press but we have the mails, the telegraph, the telephone, the radio and you cannot suppress the distribution of flood warnings. We are going to see to it that the people behind the levees are warned that they are threatened with great danger.”

Cline was not worried about New Orleans itself. He agreed with Kemper that a great flood—and this already looked like a great flood—would break levees hundreds of miles upriver and relieve the city. But people in vulnerable areas read and relied on New Orleans papers; the lack of warning there would create a false sense of security. His angry protest was conveyed to Thomson, who relented somewhat, printing that afternoon, “Heavy Rains Raise River; Weather Bureau Advises of Rising Stages…The bureau urged ‘all persons interested to take necessary precautions against still higher stages during the next two weeks.’”

The story did not satisfy Cline. Late that afternoon he met with business leaders to demand honesty in future stories. They assured him of it. They were lying. Nor did they tell him that Thomson had already called an emergency meeting about the river. Butler had been out of the city and had sent Canal Bank Vice President Dan Curran, a close friend of LeRoy Percy, as his representative. Hecht and Pool had attended. In that meeting, for the first time, Thomson had talked seriously about dynamiting the levee. If the situation worsened, he said, he would travel to Washington and see the president himself.

No one had protested against the enormity of the act Thomson was suggesting. It was illegal, and it would destroy the livelihoods of thousands of people. Nor had anyone questioned the authority, right, or ability of those in the meeting to perform this illegal act. Nor, although they had been discussing the most public business, business that involved federal, state, city, and parish governments, had anyone protested the fact that no public official had been present.

After the meeting, Thomson had informed levee board president Guy Deano, who in turn privately advised Klorer, the city councilman and river engineer, “The Emergency Committee had conferences…and plans have been worked out by them.”

That evening it began to rain again. The Good Friday storm had begun.

IN NEW ORLEANS rainwater must be pumped up, over the levees, into either the river or Lake Pontchartrain, both of which are often higher than much of the city. In 1913 an engineer named Albert Baldwin Wood designed and built pumps capable of moving 47,000 cubic feet of water a second, roughly half the low-water flow of the Mississippi itself, through subterranean canals buried under the “neutral ground,” the city’s term for the tree-lined islands that transform so many New Orleans streets into boulevards. These remarkable pumps were copied around the world, and still operate today.

But on April 15, Good Friday, lightning temporarily knocked out some of the pumps, and the rains that delivered 14.96 inches of water in eighteen hours put 4 feet of water in part of the city. It was the fifth storm since January more severe than any storm in the preceding ten years. Even after the pumps finally cleared the water, there was chaos. Many streets were paved with wooden blocks; the blocks had floated away, leaving an impassable checkerboard quagmire. Every basement downtown, including the vaults of every bank, still held several feet of water.

It was only a hint of a real flood, without the roar of a great crevasse, without the power of the river undermining buildings and roaring through streets like some nightmarish monster. The city shook with fear.

While the torrents were still falling, Marcel Garsaud, a former Army colonel and levee engineer who was now manager of the Dock Board, called Hecht, the board president, and said they needed to discuss the river situation immediately. Hecht also asked Butler, Pool, who that year headed the New Orleans Clearing House Association, several other bank presidents, and General Allison Owen, president of the Association of Commerce to come to an emergency meeting.

Thomson was not invited. Possibly Hecht kept him out because he was not a member of the inner sanctum. Possibly Garsaud objected because of Garsaud’s bitter feelings toward Kemper, whom Thomson might have brought. Garsaud was prickly, bristled at any offense, and although the two engineers agreed on policy, Kemper had recently rebuked him for his mistaken calculations on the industrial canal, and for playing “politics” and creating discord, writing, “I have been in this game, Colonel, much longer than you have. For a long time I fought a lone fight…. You have set us back several years.”

Those who did belong to the inner sanctum gathered in Hecht’s office at the Hibernia Bank. Outside, the rain lashed the windows; the wind shook them. Hecht, a cigar aficionado, lit one. So did several others. The smoke filled the room. The windows were opaque with condensation, isolating them from the world outside.

Garsaud announced that he had just talked to Cline. The rain could continue for hours. “If the levees up river hold, the Mississippi could reach a stage of 24.5 feet here,” Garsaud said. “In my opinion a stage above 24 feet could well cause a crevasse.” Then Garsaud suggested that they could eliminate any doubt about the safety of New Orleans by dynamiting the levee elsewhere, if the men present deemed it wise.

Everyone present knew that Thomson had already begun planning for this eventuality, but it was not his decision. It was theirs. They were bankers, mostly. Bankers had a history of taking charge in city crises. During the 1905 yellow fever epidemic, the U.S. Surgeon General refused to help the city without a guarantee of $250,000. The mayor had lacked the authority to make any such commitment. Charles Janvier, then president of the Canal Bank, a member of the Board of Liquidation, and chairman of the state Democratic Party’s Central Committee, had made two telephone calls, then gave the guarantee, and federal resources had poured into the city to fight the outbreak.

Now all of the bankers present had received wires from correspondent banks in New York and elsewhere, inquiring about the city’s safety. Implicit in the inquiry was the question of investment risk, a life-and-death question to them.

Butler had replaced Janvier at both the bank and the Board of Liquidation. Nothing could be done if he opposed it. Butler was the key.

IN MANY WAYS James Pierce Butler was the coldest of the men present. He stood six feet five inches tall, with broad gangly shoulders, a balding head, and a deep voice. His size intimidated. He grew up on Ormond, the family plantation in Natchez, Mississippi. Five ancestors had been officers in the Revolutionary War, two of them generals. His mother often attended balls in New Orleans and took him to the opera there; sometimes they stayed in the city for months. Her brother-in-law was Dr. William Mercer, one of the city’s most popular and wealthy citizens. (Before the Civil War, Mercer had routinely paid off the debts of his friend Henry Clay; during the war he used his well-known Union sympathies to shield his Confederate friends; after the war, in 1872 he helped found the krewe of Rex, when he hosted Grand Duke Alexis of Russia on gold dinner service.)

Butler’s upbringing was also earthy. In spring he planted and learned what turned soil smelled like. In summer he walked down rows of shoulder-high cotton through a sea of waving white bolls. In winter he butchered hogs, felt warm blood on his hands, hung the flesh in the smokehouse. He matured early. When he was only thirteen, his father fell ill. His older brother Pierce was away at Tulane. Jim handled the plantation. When Pierce graduated from Tulane and went on to the Sorbonne, Jim said, “You all make a mighty fuss over Brother, and I will do better.”

Jim also went to Tulane, then Tulane Law School. But instead of pursuing the law, he went into banking. He did well. While he was rising at the Canal Bank, he also rose socially and inherited Mercer’s gleaming white marble mansion on Canal Street. The mansion was thick with rich woods, elegant molding and wainscoting, extravagant sconces, chandeliers, and ceiling medallions. Jim sold it to the Boston Club, which has occupied it ever since. After becoming president of the bank, the largest in the South, he also became president of the Boston Club.

Yet Butler’s social position came entirely from his presidency of the bank and his family background, and not from charm or friendships. He had no intimates and no confidants, male or female, not even his brother, who had become the popular dean of Tulane’s Newcomb College. Indeed, before Jim became Boston Club president, Pierce had resigned from the club, calling it “really quite off my beat.” Because their wives had genuine contempt for one another, Butler almost never even saw his brother. Nor did Jim confide in his wife, whom he had married when she was in college; he was already successful and considerably older. She liked the security. Her father was an alcoholic who had drunk his way through a fortune, forcing her mother to take in boarders; Butler’s wife became a demanding woman, willful, greedy, and grasping.

As a result, Butler lived a lonely existence. His daughter married, leaving him isolated in his home. Even his Boston Club presidency was unpleasant. By tradition, club presidents served two consecutive one-year terms. Butler grew tired of a feud between members associated with the Whitney and Canal Banks and, alone in club history, served only one. Herman Kohlmeyer, then a rising New Orleans banker and later president of the New Orleans Cotton Exchange and member of the board of the New York Stock Exchange, recalls: “He was an unattractive man, unattractive mentally. I would take a drink with the other fellows, young as I was, but it was impossible with Butler. He had no fun in him.”

Butler filled his time working long hours; when he was home, he ruminated, sitting alone in the solarium of his St. Charles Avenue home, saying little. One thing he did have was a rootedness, a sense of place. Returning from New York on the Crescent Limited once, he sat with a prominent New Orleans architect and told him: “I really want to build a beautiful building before I die. I want it to be the bank’s building.”

The building was under construction in 1927; it would be his legacy. (Seventy years later the New Orleans Times-Picayune called it “elegant” and “distinguished for its fine construction.”) Another legacy would be his decision on dynamiting the levees.

BUTLER TURNED to the men in the room and said they needed information on several issues, some legal, some technical. Addressing Garsaud, he said, “You say ‘if the levees above us hold.’ There is little chance of that, is there?”

“They will probably not hold,” Garsaud conceded. “But the pressure will be intense here in any event. It is possible that water could flow out through any levee breaks and return to the river.”

Hecht raised another point. Even if no river water entered New Orleans, the flood could destroy the city financially. People were building boats, tying them to their porches, stocking groceries. To liquidate inventories, wholesale suppliers were cutting prices in half and begging customers around the country to buy. Daily, hundreds of thousands of dollars were being withdrawn from banks. If the fear grew great enough, if a run developed on a bank, it would hurt, and perhaps even destroy, weaker banks. Short-term credit was disappearing, period. Long term, if the nation’s businessmen lost confidence in the safety of New Orleans, serious damage could result. Rival ports were hungry. The Illinois Central recently had—for the first time—shipped a load of molasses from Gulfport, Mississippi. U.S. Steel was planning to ship exports out of Mobile, Alabama.

Pool’s bank was the most vulnerable in the city; he had aggressively loaned money to sugar planters. A crevasse on the river’s west bank could destroy them, and his bank. Dynamiting the levee on the east bank might also relieve them. Pool argued: “The people of New Orleans are in such a panic that all who can do so are leaving the city. Thousands are leaving daily. Only dynamite will restore confidence.”

Butler knew the power of the river. As a boy, he had watched his father cut a canal from St. Catherine’s Creek on their property to the Mississippi. It had been a mistake. The creek quickly grew into a powerful river itself and scoured out acres of their plantation. The creek had awed him, and the Mississippi had seemed like God. He knew what floods were.

Now they were discussing purposefully loosing the Mississippi River on their neighbors. It was a horrible thing, a thing that ran against everything he had been raised to believe. How real was the threat to New Orleans? The threat to its business was real enough, but how real was the threat of the river? Or did it matter?

“I believe,” Butler said coolly, not explicitly deciding but allowing momentum to gather more force, “the appropriate step at this point is to involve the authorities.”

GARSAUD WENT from his meeting with Butler and Hecht to see Mayor Arthur O’Keefe. O’Keefe had become mayor a year earlier after the death in midterm of Martin Behrman, who had dominated the city for the preceding twenty-four years. O’Keefe, by contrast, was a weak figure, a huge fat man who had triumphed in patronage wars over other ward leaders and would not even seek reelection. The city’s elite held him in contempt. Speaking at the dedication of Le Petit Theater du Vieux Carré, whose creation by society women signaled the beginning of the restoration of the French Quarter, O’Keefe declared, “This is a wonderful thing for New Orleans, the kind of thing we should be proud of, like our new garbage incinerator.” He was also, as Behrman had been before him, particularly susceptible to bankers’ influence. Though both were products of a city machine called simply “the Ring,” Behrman had been a founding member of the Association of Commerce and vice president of the American Bank, the most political of all the banks. As soon as O’Keefe became mayor, the same bank immediately named him to a vice presidency.

O’Keefe understood the stakes in the flood. Thomson had already spoken to him. Now Garsaud repeated his warning that, if the levees above the city held, the river would exceed a 24-foot stage. O’Keefe called in Klorer, whom the levee board had just given emergency authority over all city levees. Klorer spoke of the panic already flooding the city. Hundreds of families were fleeing to the Gulf Coast. A large Pythian convention was in town. Many conventioneers had arrived in the morning, looked up at the hulls of ships above the tops of the houses, then taken the next train out.

O’Keefe agreed to do whatever the bankers recommended.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans papers continued trying to keep the city calm, reporting only that “more than five inches” of rain had fallen that Good Friday. Triple that amount had. The papers also quoted George Schoenberger, chief engineer for the state of Louisiana, saying, “I am resting easy tonight.”

Far above the city, levees along the Mississippi’s tributaries were washing out one after another, like dominoes. On Saturday, April 16, the first mainline levee on the Mississippi yielded, at Dorena, Missouri.

Ironically, that helped to confirm Kemper in his opinion that upriver levees could not hold, and that therefore the city of New Orleans was in no danger. But no one sought Kemper’s opinion. Garsaud was a bitter rival and had Hecht’s ear. Thomson already knew his opinion and did not find it useful. And even if Kemper was right about the river, that did not answer the bankers’ concerns about investor confidence.

On Sunday, April 17, there was another exodus from the city, but this one included some who were not fleeing. Garsaud and O’Keefe got on a train for St. Louis. They would meet with the Mississippi River Commission early Monday morning. Thomson took it upon himself to board a train for Washington, to see the president. O’Keefe had asked Butler to go to Washington but, hearing that Thomson had gone, “Mr. and Mrs. James P. Butler motored to their country home outside Natchez for the weekend,” as one paper reported. It would be Butler’s last peace for months.

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