Old Man River:  History Along the MississippiApril 19-November 2, 2003

Man vs. Nature

Controlling the River?

Bald eagle and alligator crossing sign
The Upper vs. The Lower Mississippi
Controlling the River exhibit section
MAP of the harbor at St. Louis, surveyed by Lt. Robert E. Lee, Corps of Engineers, October 1837
~ Michael Zahs, Ainsworth IA

Other artifacts and images from the following sources:
~ Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch IA
~ Muscatine Art Center, Muscatine IA
~ New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, Ltd., New Orleans LA

"…the river is a strong brown god -
sullen, untamed and intractable."
- T.S. Eliot

Natural Disasters

Disease spread rampantly through the booming riverfront cities during the 19th century. The spread of cholera, malaria, smallpox, yellow fever, and other epidemics was caused by ignorance of the dangers of outlying swamps and poor public sanitation. Panic and death ensued, but river towns adapted, eventually becoming models for urban sanitation in the late 19th century.

Snowmelt and spring rains annually affect river levels, and the recent flood of 1993 was the most devastating flood of all time for the Upper Region of the Mississippi. In the South, however, it was the 1927 flood that was most disastrous. One million people lost their homes and 300,000 square miles of land were held hostage by the raging waters. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover coordinated both government and Red Cross relief to the luckless inhabitants.

Drought also affects the river, leading to crippling drops in water levels. Every so often, sections of the river are closed to barge traffic and commerce.

And earthquakes in the heartland? The river valley suffered calamitous quakes in 1811 and 1812 centered near New Madrid, Missouri. Reaching an estimated 7.6 to 8.0 on the Richter scale, shock waves sent church bells ringing as far away as Boston. Seismologists believe we are overdue for another severe earthquake at the New Madrid Fault.

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Did you know … ?
Seismologists warn of a 30 percent chance for a powerful quake on the Mississippi by 2010 and a 90 percent chance of an even greater quake by 2040. Today, the river basin is home to millions of people - including the citizens of St. Louis and Memphis - living and doing business in buildings that were not constructed to sustain earthquake damage.

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Man-made Controls

A variety of engineering marvels help to control the mighty Mississippi. The simplest structure is the earthen levee, a man-made embankment built high along the shoreline for flood protection. Raging water, however, can easily break them down to spill over onto riverfront property. Levees of cement have usually replaced the earthen walls.

The rise and fall in river levels can be counteracted by jetties, cofferdams, and dredging the sides and bottom of the river. Jetties, for instance, prevent boats from running aground through the utilization of submerged baffles that channel the water towards the river bottom, scouring it to a greater depth. James Eads developed jetties that stretch out into the Gulf, allowing ships to reach New Orleans after generations of silt deposits threatened to close the mouth of the Mississippi.

The Army Corps of Engineers has improved navigation on the river since the 1820s. In 1837, a young engineer from Virginia recommended ways to control the flow of the upper river, including the disruptive rapids near Keokuk and Davenport, Iowa. His name was Robert E. Lee.

Before the construction of the lock and dam system beginning in 1900, riverboats and barges could not traverse the rapids or shallow waters at certain times of the year between St. Louis and St. Paul. A minimum nine-foot depth is now maintained on the upper river with 29 locks and dams - somewhat like "elevators" for boats - using the power of gravity to move river traffic through the changing elevations of the Mississippi basin.
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Did you know … ?
The levee system along the river's southern regions are twice as long as the Great Wall of China! And locks lower the river 420 feet over the 699 miles from St. Paul to St. Louis!

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This section "Man vs. Nature" has the following related pages:

Controlling the River?

Continue through exhibit

2 men in a canoe
Early Exploration and Development
River Days
view of Bellview, Iowa
Riverfront Property
Civil War enenactors
Man vs. Man
You are here!
Bald eagle and conservation officer
Man vs. Nature
jazz musician
The Arts Along the River
New Orleans graveyard
Legends and Spirits
View Selected Artifacts
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