Bargaining With The Flood

This past Tuesday [May 3], the Army Corps of Engineers blew several holes in the Mississippi river’s levees. As a result, floodwaters are pouring into the Missouri lowlands. Eventually they will cover 130,000 acres of farmland (that’s 195 square miles to us cityfolk). When the Spring floods abate, the ground will re-emerge under a thick cover of silt and debris that will make it un-farmable this year and maybe next.

It hardly seems the best way to handle the problem, but there are no ideal solutions in flood control—only trade-offs. The only alternative was to let the flood lift the river over the Illinois bank to wash away the town of Cairo.

This is not the first time the Engineers sacrificed the planting season of Eastern Missouri to save Cairo, Illinois. When they first employed the Birds Point/New Madrid floodway, back in 1937, they drove 5,000 Missourians from their property to keep the 13,000 residents of Cairo above water. This year, the controlled flood will affect 300 Missouri households to spare 2,800 residents across the river.

Naturally, Missouri farmers are unhappy about this trade-off. Nor are the people of Cairo delighted with their prospects. While they may have been spare this year, their families, homes, and businesses will continue to live with the annual threat of flooding.

Another Illinois town, just 98 miles up the Ohio river, faced a similar challenge. After 135 years of determinedly fighting the river, they finally admitted defeat, as the Post reported in 1940.

looking down from the top of the levee
Looking down from levee top to ferry at normal river stage.

Fourteen times the river has burst through on Shawneetown in major floods, each usually worse than the last, and the last worst of all, in 1937. It was then that the town, which did not know when it was licked, gave up.

There were disastrous floods in 1832, in 1847, in 1853 and 1858. When another came in 1859, the exasperated town folk started the first levee. In 1867 the river rose to a new high and burst over and through the levee.

Shawneetown responded by enlarging and strengthening its levee, which kept the flood out of town for 15 years.

Then came the three successive floods of 1882, 1883 and 1884, each set­ting a new mark and driving everyone to the hills. This time the Federal Government came to the aid of Shawneetown. At a cost of $200,000, it raised the levee one foot and length­ened it.

The sixty-one-foot mark at top of levee.
The sixty-one-foot mark at top of levee. The Ohio River reached sixty-six feet in 1937.

In 1898 the river topped fifty-five feet for a new record and drowned twenty-six persons, with a huge property loss. The levee was lengthened and strengthened again, but not raised, for never could there be such a flood as 1898’s again.

All was well until the great flood of 1913, when the Ohio topped fifty-nine feet. When Shawnee­town dug out of this, it spent an addi­tional $130,000 on its barrier wall. These were large sums for a town of never more than 2000 persons. Twenty years went by without a repetition, but the wary dwellers by the river re­built the levee in 1933 just to make sure, raising it to sixty-one feet above the low-water mark. At normal river stages the town was almost invisible from passing boats.

Then the long-sleeping Ohio in 1937 vaulted high over all past records to sixty-six feet. This was five feet higher than the top of the levee, but long be­fore the river reached that stage the town had been evacuated and the levee dynamited to prevent the possibility of its sudden collapse. The waters swirled twenty-five feet deep in Main Street and surged twenty-two miles inland to engulf Harrisburg, a town of 12,000.

“How deep was the water in here?” you ask the clerk in the high-ceilinged drugstore.

“About eight or nine feet,” he says, “upstairs!”

The refugees gathered in a Red Cross camp inside the township high school to discuss their future.

They were reminded that the Federal Government and the Red Cross had spent in fifty years more than $600,000 on the levee and for rescue and rehabilitation work here.

The refugees… voted 44 to 1 to surrender to the river.

Government-built new town on the hill.
Government-built new town on the hill. Most of the houses are new; a few have been moved from the old town.

A few residents stubbornly held on, living in the old family homes downtown, but most residents moved to high ground, three miles from the river. They left the houses and commercial buildings to the inevitable flood they knew would sweep them all away.

Today, 1200 people live Shawneetown, Illinois. Down by the river, though, 200 residents live in Old Shawneetown, which still survives, along with its old houses, stores, and its great neo-classical Bank. The great, all-destroying flood that Shawneetown fled to escape never arrived.