• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

    "Great book and great blog - thanks for the first book I have seen that addresses the contemporary river, headwaters to gulf." Dan McGuiness, Audubon, St. Paul, Minnesota

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Before the Levees and the Floodways: General Harley Ferguson’s Description of How Floodwater Drained to the Gulf of Mexico

Boeuf Bayou, Northern Louisiana

From The Mississippi: A Visual Biography: “In 1940 General Harley B. Ferguson, the President of the Mississippi River Commission who had a hand in developing the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project that supplanted the levees-only policy that preceded the 1927 flood, wrote his History of the Improvement of the Lower Mississippi River for Flood Control and Navigation, 1932-1939, and described the natural course of a Lower Mississippi flood before the construction of artificial levees. When the Mississippi in flood broke through its natural levees and filled the rim swamps along the eastern wall between Cairo and Memphis and between Vicksburg and Baton Rouge, the water eventually returned to the river. When the river broke through its eastern natural levee south of Baton Rouge, it flowed east and south to the Gulf of Mexico, never to return to the river. When the river broke through its natural levees in the center of the alluvial valley between Memphis and Vicksburg, sometimes the water returned to the river. Other times, the flood crossed over and broke through the west bank, filling the Tensas and Boeuf basins and streamed to the Gulf via the Tensas, Boeuf, and Atchafalaya rivers, never to return to the Mississippi. If its western tributaries, north of the Arkansas, were not in flood when the Mississippi broke through its natural levee on the west, floodwater returned to the river via the mouths of the tributaries. However, if the tributaries were in flood, water backed up the tributaries–sometimes for several hundred miles, overtopped their natural levees, and streamed to the Gulf along the Tensas, Boeuf, and Atchafalaya rivers. The construction of the artificial levees on the Mississippi and its tributaries, forced all the water that might have drained down the Atchafalaya into the Mississippi.”

Tensas River, Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge

The West Atchafalaya Floodway, which heads at the Old River Control Structure, and the Morganza Floodway, which heads at the Morganza Structure, were created as a part of the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project. They were designed to return floodwaters to the Atchafalaya. They were two one of four that would have sent floodwater to the Atchafalaya.

As we saw in the last week when the State of Missouri sued to prevent the Corps of Engineers from opening the New Madrid Floodway at Birds’ Point, no one wants to turn valuable farmland over to the Mississippi when it floods. The mainline levee south of Cairo makes human habitation in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley possible. Without them Helena, Arkansas, Clarksdale, Cleveland, Greenville, and other towns and cities along the river in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana would flood annually. Memphis, Vicksburg, and Natchez would fair better, because they occupied higher ground. Though we have seen this week that low lying areas in all three cities are flooded. Agriculture in a levee-free world would not be impossible, but it would be more difficult than now with the levees protecting vast fields of cotton, soybeans, and rice.

General Edgar Jadwin, who designed the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, planned two floodways that would have carried floodwater to the Atchafalaya through valuable farmland in southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. The first, the Boeuf Floodway, was “a huge floodway that would run from the mouth of the Arkansas 155 miles south through southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. It would carry floodwater to the Gulf through the Boeuf Basin and the Atchafalaya. It would duplicate flooding that had escaped the Mississippi regularly along Cypress Creek before the Corps closed the mouth of the Creek, located fifteen miles south of the Arkansas. The folks in Arkansas and Louisiana, who had demanded that Cypress Creek be closed in 1921, demanded that it stay closed in 1928. In 1936 Congress authorized the Eudora Floodway which would deliver floodwater to the Gulf through the Tensas Basin in northern Louisiana to the Atchafalaya, but that was also nixed.” Too much valuable farmland would be flooded.


8 Responses

  1. I was not aware of the full extent of the Mississippi’s meandering until I read this article and saw a fascinating map here:


    posted by Jeff Masters of Weather Underground.

    I do not envy the job of the Corps of Engineers.

    • I was lucky: Fisk’s maps are where I started. His was the first book I found in the St. Louis Public Library. When I realized that the Mississippi had meandered from valley wall to valley wall and left behind wetlands every time it shifted its course, I realized that a book on the wetlands abandoned by the Mississippi had to go back to how they were created. From then, it was easy to go on to how we have changed the river, and how we are managing the river we have created.

      The Yazoo, the Big Sunflower, the Black, the White, the St. Francis, and others: all have carried the Mississippi at one time or another over the last million years. Then there are streams like Deer Creek, home of Kermit the Frog in Mississippi, which never captured the full flow of the Mississippi and Steele Bayou, which runs along the edge of the modern meander belt in Mississippi.

      • I can understand that finding Fisk’s maps would stimulate your enthusiasm; just looking at the map myself is inspiring a future road trip to explore the Alluvial Valley that hopefully will happen sometime. I’ve been following this up and found this very useful website


        that I’m sure you’re well aware of but I had not explored before and I have been busy downloading many more of Fisk’s fabulous maps.

      • If you live in St. Louis, and I think you do, go to the St. Louis Public Library and find Fisk’s 1944 book. The text and smaller maps are just as important as the larger maps.

        Also, if you can get ahold of Roger Saucier’s 1994 follow up study The Geomorphic and Quaternary Geologic History of the Lower Mississippi River. Read it. The maps that come with that study are just as interesting and can be used when you take your road trip.

        Actually, they are all on the link you sent me.


  2. […] As I noted in yesterday’s posting, before the construction of the levees, much of the flooding on the Lower Mississippi drained south to the Gulf of Mexico along the Atchafalaya River. Hence, if you were going to relieve pressure on the leveed Mississippi, if followed that you would allow floods to once again drain to the Gulf of Mexico through the Atchafalaya Basin. What follows is the reason the Morganza Spillway Structure is where it is. […]

    • Again, looking at the historical data in the Fisk maps make your point here very clear. I followed up your (and Dr. Masters) lead and read the John McPhee New Yorker article – it is a great essay.

  3. Thank you so much for those book suggestions, Quinta. I clearly have a wealth of interesting material to get to know!

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