Modern history

CHAPTER SIX

A YEAR BEFORE Eads’ victory dinner, in the spring of 1874, the Mississippi River had overflowed from Illinois south. It had devastated the lower Mississippi region and focused the nation’s attention fully on the great river. In response, the government had created the U.S. Levee Commission to decide upon a river control policy to prevent future floods.

G. K. Warren, the Humphreys loyalist who had tried to destroy Eads’ bridge, chaired it; other members included Henry Abbot, coauthor with Humphreys of Physics and Hydraulics, and Paul Hebert, the former Louisiana governor who was then lobbying against the jetties. Despite the importance of its charge, this commission conducted no fieldwork, made no measurements, visited no sites. Its sole source of information was the Humphreys and Abbot report; it did not even review any observations or measurements made by others. Unsurprisingly, its conclusions conformed to Humphreys’ earlier ones.

As Humphreys had, it rejected reservoirs, cutoffs, and the engineering theory associated with the levees-only policy, saying, “The idea that the river would scour its bed deeper if confined…[is] erroneous.” As Humphreys had, it emphasized the importance of keeping all natural outlets open, and it was “forced unwillingly to” reject artificial outlets because of the cost. As Humphreys had, it stated flatly, “The alluvial regions of the Mississippi can only be reclaimed by levees.”

The report appeared in January 1875. The 1874 flood and this report had not entered directly into the debate over the jetties, and until his jetty contract was secure, Eads refrained from comment on it. But then he attacked. Dismissing the entire report and its recommendations, he urged, in effect, the use of jetties on the entire river. His reasoning superficially resembled the theory that levees would increase current velocity and scour out the bottom. But there was an immense difference. Levees were built back from the river’s natural banks, sometimes more than a mile back. The river had to overflow its banks before the levees could begin to confine it; as a result, any force generated by this confinement was dissipated over an area far greater than the river’s natural channel. Also, levees only confined the river during floods. Thus, levees could increase current velocity for only a few weeks each year—and not necessarily every year.

This was a crucial point. Neither Humphreys nor Ellet had ever disputed the fact that a faster current increased scouring of the bottom. The question was, how much? The river in flood carried several orders of magnitude more volume than when it was at low water. Levees did confine floods, and did increase scour, but could levees cause enough increased current and scour to accommodate a flood?

Humphreys, Ellet, and Eads all agreed that levees could not do so. But Eads proposed to concentrate the river’s force constantly, year-round. He planned to invade the river, to build not levees back from the banks but jetties in the river’s channel. These would constrict the water year-round, even at low water, and apply a constant scouring of the bottom. He also called for cutoffs to create a far straighter and faster river. All this, he was certain, would significantly deepen the river.

He declared: “By such correction the flood…can be permanently lowered, and in this way the entire alluvial basin, from Vicksburg to Cairo, can be lifted as it were above all overflow, and levees in that part of the river rendered [superfluous]…. There can be no question of this fact, and it is well for those most deeply interested to ponder it carefully before rejecting it; for the increased value given to the territory thus reclaimed can scarcely be estimated.”

Eads was directly contradicting Humphreys, the U.S. Levee Commission, and the entire Corps of Engineers. If the jetties in South Pass succeeded, Eads would clearly try to apply his theory to the length of the river, and make the Corps irrelevant.

IN EARLY MAY 1875, Eads arrived in New Orleans. He had delayed starting work until the end of the flood season, and the city that had earlier fought him now waited anxiously. Upon his arrival he was entertained at the Canal Street mansion of Dr. William Mercer, who used the same gold service for Eads that he had used for the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia during Mardi Gras three years earlier. The city council formally applauded Eads’ “grand enterprise,” while the Chamber of Commerce, the Cotton Exchange, the Merchants’ Exchange, the Ship and Steamship Association, and others of prominence hosted a reception at the St. Charles Hotel, which called itself the most elegant in the country. There, under the chandeliers sat Creoles and Americans, carpetbaggers and Confederates, fanning themselves with the printed menus commemorating the occasion. One thing brought them together—money.

In a toast simultaneously blunt and gracious, General Cyrus Bussey announced: “Captain Eads has fought his way with an address and vigor and courage which deserve unqualified admiration. Against the most persistent misrepresentations that ever beset any human endeavor, against ignorance, angry and false witness, he has at last brought his efforts to a successful termination…. That he has the sympathy of the community in this hour of his triumph, and at the outset of the enterprise, is eminently fit and proper. That he did not have it when it was most sorely needed, Captain Eads can afford to forget. The struggle is over.”

The struggle was not over.

Eads had always loved the river and knew it more intimately than he had ever known any man or woman. He knew it in private ways that would never be known by any river captain, by any fisherman, by any levee contractor, by any engineer. He had buried his hands in the rich silt of its bottom, wandered blind in its depths, and come as close to breathing it as a man could do and live. The river had taken him from his family and wrapped itself around him. Now, finally, in his great pride, he had determined that he would command it, the great, great river, the Mississippi itself.

But Humphreys had said: Anyone who knows me intimately knows I had more of the soldier than a man of science in me…. We must get ready for a combat…. The contest must be sharp and merciless.

THE MORNING AFTER the reception and Bussey’s toast, Eads, his contractor James Andrews, a determined and bold man who had worked with him on the bridge, and two other engineers left behind the city’s elegance and proceeded downriver aboard a small steamer.

Below New Orleans the river resembles a 100-mile-long arm crooked at the elbow, narrowing gradually, to Head of Passes. There the river divides into three main channels, Southwest Pass, Pass à l’Outre, and South Pass, each extending like a long thin finger—the land separating the passes from the sea is as narrow as a few hundred yards—out into the Gulf.

At Head of Passes the party crossed over a shoal and entered the finger that was South Pass. It ran in an almost perfectly straight line 700 feet wide for 12.9 miles. Along its banks were dense, impenetrable reeds, 10 to 12 feet high, interrupted by an occasional copse of willow trees in the upper reaches. This was, geologically, truly the river’s delta, created as the Mississippi River deposited its immense sediment load. It was the newest land in North America, a mixture of water and earth so soft that, except for the banks immediately adjacent to the pass, it could not support a man’s weight. The animal life was primitive; muskrats and minks, herons and gulls and ducks, and snakes. The closer to the Gulf, the more desolate and solitary the marsh became, the grayer the reeds and grasses.

Upon reaching the sea, they anchored, rowed to shore, and walked on the beach. The Gulf surf lapped gently, but the jetties would have to withstand the most violent hurricanes. In the already steamy heat, clouds of mosquitoes, gnats, and sand flies began to swarm around them. Then they climbed the lighthouse.

It was the only elevation for 100 miles. From it they could see the whole country. River, land, and sea were barely differentiated. Every inch of land within view could be overflowed by tides or the river. Out in the Gulf, beyond the pass, the sandbars and mud lumps were in the process of becoming land. For miles beyond the bars, out into the sea, the Mississippi continued to have an identity. Half a century earlier a European visitor had described the scene: “The first indication of our approach to land was the appearance of this mighty river pouring forth its muddy mass of waters, and mingling with the deep blue of the Mexican Gulf. I never beheld a scene so utterly desolate as this entrance of the Mississippi. Had Dante seen it, he might have drawn images of another Bolgia from its horrors.”

South Pass was dying, becoming land, shoaling at its entrance and exit. Eads needed to produce a channel with a continuous depth of 30 feet. For a distance of 12,000 feet, more than 2 miles, the depth was less than that. At high tide, the deepest water over the bar itself was 9 feet, and the bar was 3,000 feet thick.

But after three days of study the Eads party left more confident than ever. Light, silty sand made up the bar; Eads was certain a strong current could easily cut through it. Equally important, deep water lay beyond the bar, and a strong coastal current ran across it, so sediment flushed out by the jetties would either sink or be swept away. Any unspoken concern in Eads’ heart about the formation of a new bar beyond the jetties vanished.

Upon their return to New Orleans, Eads was so confident that he wrote his New Orleans attorney, Henry Leovy, whose clients included Jefferson Davis, about plans for a railroad to the mouth of the river: “[T]ransfers of cargoes of grains from barges into ships can be made quite as cheaply as by elevator in the City and with an important saving in port charges…. I believe the stock of the [rail]road would become quite valuable. I am willing to make some arrangement, mutually beneficial, by which I received stock in exchange for land at Port Eads, as I own ten miles front on each side of the pass with the riparian right out to sea on both sides of the channel.”

He also promised a channel deep enough to use by July 4, 1876, thirteen months away. An assistant told the Picayune, “Assurance of success is absolute.”

REGARDLESS OF his engineering, however, if Eads could not raise capital, or if he had to pay too high a premium to attract it, he would fail. This was his weakness, and here Humphreys aimed his attack.

To raise money, Eads organized the South Pass Jetty Company. Investors in it would be paid only if the jetties succeeded. But then they would receive double their investment plus 10 percent interest. He capitalized the company at $750,000 but planned to raise only what was needed to keep work going until the first government payment. Raising the money was not easy. He exhausted his own contacts, then urged Elmer Corthell, a young Brown University graduate still in New England who would become resident engineer at the jetties, to make “any ‘bloated bondholder’ or ‘money aristocrat’ wish he had a hand in” by telling anyone who had $100,000 to invest that Eads would negotiate a private, even more lucrative deal.

Andrews & Company, of which Eads was a minority owner, agreed to supply all equipment—pile drivers, barges, steamers, housing, office space, materials, and labor—and build and place all piling, plus 450,000 cubic yards of stone and wood fillers, for $2.5 million. Eads believed this would be enough to get a 26-foot-deep channel.

Eads would pay Andrews & Company nothing until 60,000 cubic yards of material were in place, at which point Andrews would get $300,000. The company was guaranteed one-half of all subsequent government payments until it was paid.

Like Eads himself, the company’s majority owner, James Andrews, moved quickly. Andrews had first seen the bar in late May 1875. On June 12 he left New Orleans with several dozen men and a steam tug pulling a pile driver and three flatboats, one for boarding workers and two loaded with material to build housing. They arrived in a steaming marsh, and were promptly tormented by small gray motile clouds of biting insects.

One of Andrews’ first acts was to establish direct communication by telegraph with New Orleans, and soon equipment and supplies began arriving at what ultimately became Port Eads, a small town complete with hotel, offices, and boardinghouses for 850 men. For now the men lived on the boarding boat; no liquor was allowed. There was no relief from the insects and heat, not even in the water; water moccasins kept the men from swimming.

Only five days after Andrews arrived at the river’s mouth, on June 17, he drove the first piles into the floor of the ocean. The work went quickly. In one day they could drive 176 piles. Lumber came from Mississippi and New Orleans; crushed stone, discharged from ships as ballast, came from New Orleans; limestone carried in fleets of twelve to twenty barges at a time came from 1,400 miles upriver, quarried from the blue and gray limestone bluffs of the Ohio River at Rose Clare, Indiana.

By September 9 the guide piling for the east jetty was finished, and extended in a lonely curve of wood two and one-third miles into the Gulf. The job was executed with extraordinary precision; the piles farthest from land’s end were located within a few inches of their planned site. Work on the west jetty had already begun.

Next came the heart of the jetty: the fascine mattresses. These were made of willow tree trunks, which were thin, flexible, and straight. The trunks were to be linked, secured to the guide piling, and sunk. Eads expected the river to deposit sediment upon them and eventually make them impermeable. Then they would do their work.

Harvesting the willows was the worst work. The trees came from 6,000 acres of land 30 miles upriver and formed only 40 years earlier, when fishermen, seeking a quicker route to the Gulf, had cut a canal there. The river had quickly overwhelmed the lock, and forced an opening 1,400 feet wide and initially 80 feet deep. This opening became known as “the Jump,” but after the first surge of water the river had begun depositing sediment and making land. The trees had grown rapidly on it.

To get to the area the men traveled on a barge where they slept stacked in bunks. Ventilation was as good as Eads could design, but in the near-tropical heat and with swarming mosquitoes, nights were awful. Days were worse. The men, half-naked, without shade, chopped down trees and dragged them, at every step sinking—sometimes shoulder-deep—into the soft mud, 200 yards to waiting barges. Moccasins and leeches made the water and marsh frightening.

Once the barges were full, tugs towed them to the sandbar. There, on an inclined, 100-yard-long platform, men constructed the mattresses of willow trees.

Upon this construction depended Eads’ success. The river would rip apart an improperly built mattress. And in the construction process itself lay Eads’ profit.

The board of engineers had anticipated his using willow mattresses but had estimated the cost based on techniques developed by the Dutch, who intertwined the willows, virtually weaving them together.

Eads and Andrews designed a different process, and later patented it. They first laid out strips of yellow pine 20 to 40 feet long, 6 inches wide, and 2.5 inches thick. These strips were bolted together, and the willow trees were laid within them. Other layers, each one at a right angle to the proceeding one, were added, then more strips of yellow pine were bolted on top, and the whole thing was lashed together. The resulting mattress was 100 feet long, 35 to 60 feet wide (depending upon where it would be placed), and 2 feet thick.

Workers could make and launch it in two hours. The Dutch method required two days to do the same. It was this innovation that had allowed Eads to offer to build the jetties at Southwest Pass at one-half the board’s estimate.

A tug towed the barge to the guide pilings. The men then launched the mattresses, covered them with stone, and sank them in layers—as many as sixteen layers.

In less than a year Andrews drove all the guide piles and laid much of the mattressing. The jetties were incomplete walls of willows, not yet filled in with sediment and consolidated. But already they were succeeding. They were compressing the current, increasing its force, and deepening the channel.

Yet Eads had received no payments and his initial capital was running out. To attract more, he hired the luxurious steamer Grand Republic for her maiden voyage, May 2, 1876, to carry investors and the press to the jetties. Traveling amid the glamour of the grand steamer, dining on exquisite preparations of oysters, shrimp, and beef, he sensed only goodwill and excitement on the trip from New Orleans.

Meanwhile, Charles Howell, whom Humphreys had recently promoted to major, was 30 miles away dredging Southwest Pass, still trying to achieve 18 feet of water there. Howell certainly knew of the Grand Republic’s visit and its purpose. He had no role in inspecting the jetties, and an official inspection mandated by Eads’ contract and to be conducted by a visiting team of surveyors was scheduled in only a few days. Yet Howell dispatched an assistant in a steam launch who, in full view of Eads’ guests, took repeated soundings at the South Pass. This assistant, instead of returning to Howell, disembarked at Port Eads. A few hours later the Grand Republic also stopped at Port Eads. Howell’s man, carrying charts, boarded her. During the long trip back to New Orleans, feigning reluctance, he stood in the saloon allowing reporters to pry his findings from him.

Eads claimed South Pass was 16 feet deep at high tide. The soundings, official measurements by Army engineers, showed 12 feet. More important, they also showed a new sandbar forming 1,000 feet beyond the jetties. If the soundings were correct, they proved Humphreys right and doomed the jetties to failure.

THE NEWS shot northward up the Mississippi valley. Stock in the jetty company collapsed. Howell pressed his attack in the New Orleans papers, accusing Eads of bilking investors. Suddenly, for the first time since his wife died, Eads was desperate.

He tried to negotiate a loan. Without it the project could collapse. But to get it, he needed the findings of the official inspection to refute Howell. The Army engineer who sounded the pass refused to give Eads the results, insisting he could only give them to General C. B. Comstock, who had come to Port Eads from Detroit expressly for the survey. Eads asked Comstock for them. Comstock too refused, saying he “had no authority to divulge my report.”

Eads immediately wired Secretary of War Alphonso Taft, “Please instruct General Comstock, now at Port Eads, to sound channel between jetties with me…and furnish results promptly. Major Howell has published a misstatement affecting public confidence in my work, and this information is required in justice to myself, and the public.”

Taft did not reply. Comstock left. Eads appealed to the superintendent of the Coastal Survey for results of separate soundings it had conducted—using Eads’ own launch for them. He was refused. He appealed to the secretary of the treasury and was informed, “General Comstock will give all information required by law.”

The law required Comstock’s report to go to Humphreys, then to the secretary of war, then to Congress, and only then to the public. The results would not appear for months.

Eads’ loan negotiations collapsed. By the time the official results were scheduled to become public, there might be no jetty company left.

Eads had one last chance at a rebuttal. On May 12, 1876, the oceangoing steamer Hudson was due at the mouth of the river. She was 280 feet long and 1,182 tons, and drawing 14 feet, 7 inches.

E. V. Gager was her captain, and Eads’ friend. He had once said he hoped to captain the first oceangoing ship through the jetties. Never would there be a better time. When she arrived, Eads, the pilot, and a few reporters boarded her outside the bar. The pilot reported that his earlier soundings had indicated sufficient water in the jetties for her to use them, but the tide had turned since then and was falling fast. He could not recommend the attempt.

Every moment the water was growing shallower. Gager did not hesitate, waved the pilot away, and ordered, “Head her for the jetties.”

The pilot obeyed.

Three hundred men understood what was happening, and its significance. Everywhere, on the barges sinking willows, on the shore at Port Eads, on the launches, on the Hudson herself, men ceased what they were doing and watched silently. In a calm sea, with swells barely whitening against the jetties, all was still. Only the ship moved.

“Shall we run in slow?” the pilot asked.

“No!” Gager snapped. “Let her go at full speed.”

The engines churned. She seemed almost to leap forward. At full ahead, Corthell later wrote, “on she came like a thing of life.”

Her speed increased still further. If Howell’s soundings were correct, she could destroy herself, rip a great gouge out of her bottom. Faster she went, the great white bow wave climbing higher up her hull, her wake swamping the Gulf’s swells, steaming onward, racing the falling tide down through the two-and-one-third-mile-long channel. As Corthell recalled, “As long as she carried that ‘white bone in her teeth,’ the great wave that her proud bows pushed ahead of her as she sped onward—we knew that she had found more than Major Howell’s twelve feet.”

Then she was through! On the Hudson, on the barges, at Port Eads, the men erupted in cheers, and kept cheering, and kept cheering, and kept cheering. She stopped at Port Eads for a brief celebration. The reporters wired their stories the length and breadth of the country. The channel was open!

“No event in the whole history of the jetties gave us such intense pleasure and satisfaction as the successful passage of this beautiful ship through the jetties,” Corthell said. “It is not too much to say that Capt. Gager, who took the risk and responsibility of this trial trip, greatly assisted the enterprise in one of its darkest hours; for the stubborn facts brought out by his brave action could not be gainsaid. They restored confidence in the jetties, and the much-needed loan was soon afterward secured for the further prosecution of the work.”

Meanwhile, Eads was pressing Congress for help. It passed a resolution demanding the release of the official survey. The secretary of the treasury obeyed.

The survey showed 16 feet of water in the channel, and no bar forming beyond the jetties.

YET EADS’ financial squeeze and his problems with the government continued. Despite his achieving the required depths, several times the government delayed payment until the cabinet debated the question. One such debate lasted three days, ending only when the attorney general informed the cabinet that the government had to pay.

At one point, out of money, Eads wired Corthell, “Discharge the whole force except those necessary to protect property, unless they are willing to work on certificates, payable on receipt of 22 foot payment.” Seventy-four of seventy-six men agreed.

Only the work went well. The South Pass had been surveyed for 150 years; no prior survey had ever found more than 9 feet of water over the bar. Eads officially achieved a 20-foot-deep channel October 4, 1876. Oceangoing ships began routinely using his still-unfinished channel.

Eads then built a new series of dikes, which increased the slope of the river from .24 foot per mile to .505 foot per mile, producing, according to the Army report, “a marked scour in the channel.” On March 7, 1877, Comstock reported 23.9 feet of water there.

The law stipulated that Howell’s dredging at Southwest Pass must end whenever the jetties achieved an 18-foot channel. Howell continued dredging in violation of the law. But on August 22, 1877, his appropriations ran out. There would be no more. The dredging ended.

Even then, financial pressure on Eads continued. Ultimately, he lobbied Congress to accelerate the payment schedule, and added to his usual lobbyists Grant’s former secretary Porter, the Union general who had captured Jefferson Davis, and P. G. T. Beauregard, the Confederate general who fired on Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War, whom he paid $5,000. Congress finally pushed forward payment.

Now Eads turned his attention to Humphreys.

EADS WANTED a civilian commission independent of the Corps of Engineers to govern the Mississippi River. Although civil engineers and their supporters had called for one for years, it was now being spoken of as “the Eads commission.”

In response, Humphreys lashed out with blind enmity, insisting in a letter to Congress, despite all data, that a new sandbar was forming beyond the jetties: “The results actually attained at the South Pass disprove the views advanced by Mr. Eads, and confirms those of the Engineer Department. Hence, any claim that he shall be intrusted with the control of the Mississippi River, in so far as it rests upon the results thus far achieved by him, has no proper basis.”

Eads had had enough. He wrote an article for Van Nostrand’s Engineering Magazine, had it reprinted as a pamphlet, and distributed it to congressmen, reporters, and engineers across the country. It was entitled, “Review of the Humphreys and Abbot Report.”

It was a crushing article. Eads derisively subtitled sections, “The Laws of Gravity Ignored”; “How the Wonderful Discovery Was Made”; “No Relation Between Cause and Effect!” He used Humphreys’ own data to deliver blow after blow, describing Humphreys’ calculations as “totally wrong,” “mathematically…a blunder that would disgrace a boy in High School,” and, finally, “The mistake made by Humphreys and Abbot is one unpardonable in the merest tyro in the science of dynamics.”

Two years earlier a Prussian engineer had written an article in the same magazine also attacking Humphreys and Abbot’s original report. The two men had written a forty-three-page rebuttal. But now Abbot warned against replying to Eads at all, arguing, “a reply might advantage him…. [M]ake an end of it.”

At Humphreys’ insistence, Abbot did finally write a rebuttal. It was ignored by all except Humphreys’ most loyal supporters.

In the midst of these exchanges, Humphreys received more blows. The National Academy of Sciences urged the creation of the U.S. Geological Survey to survey the West—work formerly done by the Corps of Engineers. Humphreys, an original founder of the academy, resigned from it. As he had before, he fought the proposal in Congress. But no longer did he have the power to ward off passage of the legislation.

Then on June 28, 1879, Congress created the Mississippi River Commission, a mix of Army and civilian engineers, to control the entire river. Both private individuals and state governments would have to obey it. Upon the bill’s passage, Humphreys resigned as chief of engineers and retired from the Army, effective June 30.

Exactly one week later, U.S. Army Captain Micah Brown certified that the South Pass channel had reached the final goal, a depth of 30 feet.

On July 11, the New Orleans Daily Times announced: “The work is done. Human patience and courage and industry, backed by an indomitable and untiring will, and informed and directed by human skill, have applied the forces of nature to the accomplishment of an end too vast for mere artificial agencies. Man has used the tremendous river which uncontrolled has been its own oppressor and imprisoner, and has now become its own liberator and saviour. There is no achievement of mechanical genius which compares with it in the splendor of its economies or in the magnitude of its results. There is no parallel instance of man’s employment of the prodigious energies of nature in the realization of his aims. It stands alone in these respects as in the almost incalculable possibilities which it has brought within our reach.”

IN 1875, WHEN EADS BEGAN work on the jetties, 6,857 tons of goods were shipped from St. Louis through New Orleans to Europe. In 1880, the year after he finished, 453,681 tons were shipped by that route. New Orleans rose from the ninth-largest port in the United States to the second-largest, trailing only New York. (In 1995, by volume of cargo greater New Orleans ranked as the world’s largest port.)*

Yet the impact of the jetties on the Mississippi River far exceeded that of anything else that had happened at the river’s mouth. That impact would be felt through the Mississippi River Commission.

It never became, formally or informally, “the Eads Commission.” Though Humphreys and the War Department could not prevent the establishment of the commission, they did succeed in having Congress stipulate that Army officers outnumber civilians on it by three to two, that an Army officer serve as president, and that this officer report to his military superior, the chief of engineers. Eads was named to the commission, but he could not dominate it. In 1882 he resigned to protest its compromises.

Science, he knew, does not compromise. Instead, science forces ideas to compete in a dynamic process. This competition refines or replaces old hypotheses, gradually approaching a more perfect representation of the truth, although one can reach truth no more than one can reach infinity.

But the Mississippi River Commission never became a scientific enterprise. It was a bureaucracy. The natural process of a bureaucracy, by contrast, tends to compromise competing ideas. The bureaucracy then adopts the compromise as truth and incorporates it into its being. The military hierarchy in the river commission exacerbated these bureaucratic tendencies. Over time, as Army engineers staffed nearly all key posts, the commission lost any real independence from the Corps of Engineers. And with rare exceptions, the Army controlled even civilian appointments.

The commission took positions, and the positions became increasingly petrified and rigid. Unfortunately, these positions combined the worst, not the best, of the ideas of Eads, Ellet, and Humphreys.

Both Eads and Humphreys opposed outlets. Ellet proposed them. Ellet was right. But the commission opposed outlets.

Both Eads and Humphreys opposed building reservoirs. Ellet had proposed them. Ellet was right. But the commission opposed reservoirs.

Eads wanted to build cutoffs, believing they had enormous impact on floods. Humphreys and Ellet opposed cutoffs. Eads was right. The commission followed Humphreys and Ellet.

Yet the greatest and most dangerous mistake of the Mississippi River Commission still lay elsewhere—in its position on the levees-only policy. Almost inconceivably, the commission arrived at a position that Eads, Humphreys, and Ellet had all violently rejected. It did so by compromising and mushing together its analysis over time. It embraced Humphreys’ levees-only idea and justified the decision by citing Physics and Hydraulics. But, as years passed, commission engineers ignored his reasoning and espoused the theory that levees would cause the river to scour out the channel enough to accommodate floods. Ellet had called this idea “a delusive hope, and most dangerous to indulge.” Humphreys had proved the theory “untenable.” Eads too had rejected it, distinguishing between the scouring effects of “contraction works” built into the river channel and levees far back from the banks.

On this one point, Eads, Humphreys, and Ellet all concurred. Nonetheless, the levees rose, confining the river while failing to increase velocity enough to deepen the channel. No reservoirs were built, as Ellet had wanted. No outlets were built, as Ellet had also wanted, and as even Humphreys would likely have accepted, as the cost-benefit equation changed with development. No cutoffs were built, as Eads had wanted. Only levees were built.

So the water rose higher. In turn, the levees rose higher; as more lands were reclaimed and water was cut off from it, the water also rose, and so on, and so on. At College Point, Louisiana, 40 miles above New Orleans, a levee 1.5 feet high had held the flood of 1850, a flood Humphreys investigated in detail; by the mid-1920s the levee exceeded 20 feet. At Morganza, Louisiana, a levee 7.5 feet high had held the flood of 1850; by the mid-1920s it towered 38 feet, nearly the height of a four-story building.

By the 1920s, the commission went further. To increase the volume of the Mississippi River, without building the contraction works Eads had demanded, it began closing all natural outlets. This policy, Humphreys had warned, “would, if executed, entail disastrous consequences.”

THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER is wild and random. High water magnifies its wildness. It also magnifies its power. At its head, as Army engineer D. O. Elliot said, the river “is held in place…by the gorge in the Commerce hills. Its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico is fixed by the works of man. Between these points it writhes like an imprisoned snake constantly seeking to establish and maintain a state of equilibrium, between its length; its slope; and the volume and velocity of its discharge.”

In the century of the engineers the study of this writhing river began as a scientific enterprise. The resulting policy became a corruption of science. Indeed, the policy was scientific only in that it began an immense, if unintended, experiment with the forces of the river.

For thousands of centuries the river had roamed over its alluvial valley, its vast natural floodplain. The Mississippi River Commission, certain of its theories, constrained the river within levees, believing that the levees alone, without any other means to release the tension of the river, could hold within narrow banks this force immense enough to have spread its waters over tens of thousands of square miles, where millions of people would settle.

The Mississippi River Commission promised protection to this great valley, a valley filled with the richest earth in the world. It was earth rich enough that men would risk everything for it. Given just the promise of protection, large men willed that the valley would hum with money, and culture, and industry. And they waited to discover whether the great unintended experiment of the levees-only policy would prove a success or a failure.

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