After the Flood: A History of the 1928 Flood Control Act

Article excerpt

On Wednesday, April 20, 1927, two private vessels, the Cincinnati and the Cape Girardeau, steamed down the swollen Mississippi River carrying five hundred Chicago politicians and businessmen en route to New Orleans. The bombastic and reportedly corrupt mayor of Chicago, William "Big Bill" Thompson, sponsored the trip in celebration of federal legislation authorizing the construction of a nine-foot waterway from Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico, but the great Mississippi River flood of 1927 turned his victory gala into "an errand of mercy." A newspaperman from the Chicago Daily Tribune described scenes of "wreckage and ruin" and of whole towns that had disappeared under the muddy waters of the Mississippi, leaving only "roofs and chimneys of houses above the raging river." That night, the Cape Girardeau took on sixty refugees at Tomato Islands, Arkansas, and fed, clothed, and sheltered them. Among the unfortunates were "seven mothers nursing babies at their breasts" and "28 [children] under 10" years of age. Stirred to action, Mayor Thompson fashioned plans for a great flood control conference to be held in Chicago and kicked off a campaign calling for the federal government to assume full financial responsibility for flood control on the Mississippi River.2 Thirteen months later, President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the landmark 1928 Flood Control Act.

Described contemporarily as the "greatest peace-time calamity in the history of the country," the great Mississippi flood of 1927 deluged thousands of square miles in the Lower Valley, destroyed more than a million farm animals, caused losses amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, and drowned more than two hundred and fifty people.3 It also swept away the levees-only policy of the Mississippi River Commission (MRC), forcing a thorough reconsideration of the federal program of flood control for the Lower Valley. When the time came to legislate on flood control, though, leadership came from Illinois rather than Louisiana or, more generally, from the Upper Mississippi Valley rather than the Lower.4 President Calvin Coolidge also involved himself in the legislative processes, and his conservative influence precipitated a crisis within the GOP, pitching the Republican chair of the House Flood Control Committee, Frank R. Reid of Illinois, and his comprehensive vision for the Lower Valley against the administration and its tight fiscal policy. The Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, the stubborn and pugnacious Major General Edgar Jadwin, joined Coolidge in his efforts at cost control and tailored the Army's engineering plan to the fiscal conservatism of the administration, assuring that the reassessment of flood control policy would be politically, rather than technologically, driven.

As the great flood ravaged the Lower Valley in the spring of 1927, its citizens turned to Washington for leadership and money but found little of either. Having adjourned in early spring, Congress could do nothing until December unless called into special session by the president, but Coolidge refused to take that step, preferring, instead, to allow private agencies to pay the cost of direct relief. Distant and aloof, Coolidge declined even a visit to the devastated regions and, on 6 June 1927, took his annual summer vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota, far from the tragic scene playing itself out in the Mississippi Delta.5

The stubbornness with which Coolidge refused the Lower Valley's entreaties did not portend well for the region in its push for federal flood control. By all early indications, the president was not friendly to its needs, and, increasingly, the people of the Delta sensed that. A late-August dispatch from New Orleans reported Louisiana's growing anxiety. "Reviewing the record of the Federal Administration during the flood, many people of the State [Louisiana] are apprehensive lest President Coolidge and his advisors fail to advocate adequate action when Congress convenes. …