© 2024 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 98.3 FM in the Quad Cities, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, or on the WVIK app!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Big One

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When it comes to having to put your money where your mouth is, you can afford a much bigger mouth if Congress will foot the bill, as James Buchannan Eads found out back in the nineteenth century.

Eads was an entrepreneur and self-taught engineer from Le Claire, Iowa, who had worked on the Mississippi River for years when he met the chief of the United State Army Engineers, Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, trained at West Point. General Humphreys had come to the Mississippi valley in the 1850s to devise a way of controlling the Mississippi's periodic floods, an increasing problem for the growing population along the river, especially on the Lower Mississippi from Cairo south.

The two engineers clashed from their first meeting. Humphreys, in good nineteenth century American fashion, believed the answer lay in containing the floods by high, thick levees along the lower river's entire length. Nature must be controlled by man. Humphreys' theoretical calculations showed that such levees would help scour the river bottom of centuries of sediment, creating a channel that could contain any imaginable flood.

Eads begged to differ. Living along the Mississippi had shown him the river's power to do as it wished. Humans must accommodate themselves to that power by creating outlets for flood waters, flood plains where the excess water was free to go.

Humphreys refused to listen. Eads' plan seemed downright un-American. The General succeeded in convincing Congress to establish a levees-only policy for the Mississippi. The result was an extensive and expensive system of levees along the whole Lower Mississippi.

The Humphrey levees made people feel safe—until the flood of 1927. The big one, as it came to be called, made short work of the levees. Crevasses appeared all along the levees, pouring walls of water into fields and towns, sweeping away trees and buildings with ease, proving as it went, that theoretical textbook knowledge is not always enough.

New editions of those same textbooks eventually called James Eads another Leonardo da Vinci, or, some said, the Thomas Edison of the Mississippi. Congress, who had appropriated the money for Humphreys’ levees, said very little.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.