“If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break.” These lyrics, written in 1929 by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie (and later a Led Zeppelin hit), were a direct reference to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and the necessity of civil engineering. At the Jesse Brent Lower Mississippi River Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) tells its side of the story: both about the Great Flood itself, and how the USACE was then charged with taming the mighty Mississippi River.
The Great Flood remains the most significant and damaging river flood in American history. The warning signs of this flood had existed for decades but were ignored or worsened by poor governance. For the first century of European settlement, landowners built their own levees, but by the end of the American Civil War, the system was in shambles. States coordinated flood control through the Mississippi River Commission in 1879, but the commission was not empowered to do much more than emergency repair. The commission, seizing more power, settled on a levee-only strategy that neglected other types of flood control. This tinderbox blew up in 1927, as 13 levee breaches destroyed the false sense of security.
With hundreds dead and thousands displaced, and with particular pain inflicted upon impoverished Black families, a new strategy was needed. The Flood Control Act of 1928 established the USACE as first responders in case of emergency and charged them with ensuring flood prevention.
The Lower Mississippi River Museum tells this story through interactive exhibits, including a large outdoor scale model of the Mississippi River floodplain. The museum also has interactive explanations of the Great Flood, and the work that USACE has done since, including a 1,500-gallon aquarium of local fish and aquatic life. Since 2007, the museum is also home to Motor Vessel Mississippi IV, a diesel-powered craft that patrolled the Mississippi River as a USACE workboat until it was decommissioned in 1993. Visitors can board the ship, and imagine what civil engineering life would be like when the levee breaks.
Know Before You Go
The Jesse Brent Lower Mississippi River Museum is free and open to the public. Check the website for visiting hours and updates.