Keeping the Mississippi Out of the Cotton Patch
By Bobby J. Williams
Levees have always been the principle method of holding back the flood waters of the
Mississippi River. The first levee construction began in 1717 when a one-mile levee
was built to protect New Orleans. Four feet high and 18 feet wide, the levee was not
very impressive. In the next fifty years the levee was extended 30 miles upstream and
10 miles downstream. By 1828 the levees had been completed as far north as the Red
Between 1851 and 1858 a small three-foot levee was constructed across from Memphis
to protect the area between the river and Crowley’s Ridge. The floods of 1858 and 1859
almost wiped out this work. It would be another 35 years before the area across from
Memphis received additional protection.
The great flood of 1882 provided the impetus for better protection for Eastern Arkansas.
In August, 1882 the Mississippi River Commission was given the authority to fund the
construction of levees if they contributed to the improvement of navigation. The
Commission immediately decided that levees did improve navigation and funds were
made available for levee construction.
In February, 1893, the St. Francis Levee District was created to build levees to protect
Eastern Arkansas from floods. The St. Francis had been completed from about 40 miles
north of Memphis to the Missouri state line when the flood of 1897 struck. It was the
first real test of the new levee system and where it was completed, it performed well.
Nevertheless, much of the area across from Memphis was still unprotected except
where landowners had built private levees to protect their lands. All eyes were on the
St. Francis levee as the river began to rise to the dangerous state of 33 feet in March,
1897. Part of the levee was only two years old and water had never been against it.
By March 12, the river reached the 34-foot stage and was expected to go as high
as 35 feet. The apparent reason for such a high stage was the St. Francis levee.
Completion of the levee upstream was confining the river to a narrow channel, causing
it to go to higher stages rather than spreading out over Eastern Arkansas. Even
with the levee, Crittenden County was a vast sea and the local newspaper called it
a perfect Venice. It was said that a person could go from Memphis to Crowley’s
Ridge in a skiff, a distance of about 40 miles.
Levee patrols were organized with one man to every three to five miles. It was the
duty of each man to work or ride the levee as often as possible, stop any small leaks
he might see, and report to the local board any that were
too large for him to repair.
One of the major problems of the levee boards was the many attempts of residents across
the river to come across and cut the levee. If this were successful, water would leave those
residents’ area and go across the river. Levee-cutters had to operate quietly, because they
would be heard by the levee patrols.
One method of cutting a levee quietly was a two-man operation. They would take a piece
of barbed wire and, using it like a saw, cut a small trench down to the level of the water.
The trickle of water through the trench would gradually widen until a large part of the
levee was taken away, creating a crevasse.
During the flood of 1897 an attempt was made to cut the levee at Friars Point, Mississippi,
but the guards fired on the cutter and the levee was saved. It was the custom in levee
districts during high water to kill any man found cutting a levee. No investigation or
embarrassing questions were asked of those who killed the levee-cutter.
By March 14 the area across the river near the Frisco Bridge was under several feet of
water. In some areas the water was halfway to the ceilings of homes. The superintendent
of the Kansas City, Memphis and Birmingham Railroad refused a request for railroad
cars for the flood victims to live in. His reason was that the roadbed was so weak that
he might lose the engine if cars were carried into the flooded areas.
Marion, Arkansas was under two feet of water. Near Marion one of the flood victims
was living in a tree. He had a stove in a fork of the tree and plenty of firewood that he had
fished out of the water and stored in the tree above him.
The Mississippi stopped rising on March 18 and it was though the worst was over, but
two and one-half inches of rain fell, sending the river higher than it had been since the
Weather Bureau began keeping records at Memphis. On March 19 the river passed
the 37-foot stage. Towns as far away as Luxora, Arkansas were reported under several
feet of water. Most of Mississippi, Poinsett, Cross, St. Francis, Crittenden and Lee
counties in Arkansas were covered by flood waters.
Residents of Memphis had problems also. People living on Hen and Chicken Islands
had to be moved out. On Presidents Island, men, women, children and stock stood in
water ranging from one foot to neck deep. North of Memphis the Neely plantation
was completely inundated and several homes were carried away by the water. Bayou
Gayoso and Wolf River began to back up from water overflowing the Mississippi.
Many factories along the two streams were flooded for the first time.
Memphis did its best to take care of the refugees as they poured into the city. Several
thousand were being provided for by the city and several real estate companies opened
vacant houses for the victims. A local relief association was established and set up
operations at Front and Adams. The relief association let a contract to William Cox
to feed the victims of the flood at 8.5 cents per person.
Many black refugees were turned away, resulting in the formation of a black relief
agency created by Lymus Wallace. (Editor’s Note: Wallace was a black, who had been
a city councilman, 1885-91). This group did its best to provide as much relief as
possible to the victims, not leaving it up to the whites of the city. Not everyone was
so generous. Local stores were selling skiffs for $50.
Several drowned and some were confirmed, but no accurate count was kept. Twelve
were reported drowned in Marion, Arkansas. The death toll was put at 70, but no one
knows how accurate the figure was. From 100 miles north of Memphis to 200 miles
south of the city, an area of 5 to 40 miles wide was submerged. Nearly 50 towns were
under water, and the property of 50,000 to 60,000 people had been destroyed or
damaged. About 39,500 farms were under water. Below Cairo, Illinois, the total area
under water was 15,800 square miles, of which 7,000 were in Mississippi, 4,500 in
Arkansas, 1,750 in Tennessee and 450 in Louisiana. Flood losses were placed at
The important aspect of the flood of 1897 was that not a single levee gave way that
had been constructed by the Mississippi River Commission and local levee boards.
Well-constructed levees had proven to be the most effective flood control device
to hold back the mighty Mississippi.
©Bobby Joe Williams 2008