The Levee



An "Eyewitness Account" of the 1897 Crevasse

Editor's Note: Time being as inexorable as the flow of water down the Mighty Mississippi, there are no remaining witnesses to the 1897 levee crevasse at Flower Lake in Tunica County History, however, is but the after-fact chronicle of the contemporary. From the excellent account of F.M. Norfleet, as recorded in "Riparian Lands of the Mississippi River", coupled with a little journalistic license, what follows is the closest thing possible to an eyewitness account. This is what a breached levee was like, from someone who experienced it 100 years ago.

Flower Lake—In early March the Mississippi River had reached danger stage at Cairo, and with the main tributaries adding additional volumes, I began to feel uneasy for the safety of the whole levee system and particularly that line fronting my planting interests in Tunica County here.

I decided to make a personal examination of the situation and help if I could. I found a four or five mile stretch of levee which was below the general grade at a very exposed place where the levee line was running East and West, directly opposed to the current of the Mississippi River.

After a meeting of concerned area residents, we began to raise the levee at once under the management of Capt. T.C. Ferguson, one of the YMDL District Commissioners, with the best forces we could muster, but it quickly became apparent that those efforts would prove too little, too late.

The Chief Engineer and other officials of the YMD Levee Board were fighting desperately to hold the levee line at Green Grove, in Coahoma County, exhausting virtually all the resources of the organization in that effort, which would ultimately prove successful, due largely to a break in the levee on the Arkansas side which allowed the crest of the great rise to flow off through the White River basin.

At that point, the YMD Levee Board was able to redirect its energies to the Flower Lake front under the supervision of Capt. A.L. Dabney, but it was too late for miracles.

The land in back of and along the line of levees had become so thoroughly saturated with seep water, that dirt could no longer be had to fill either sacks or wheelbarrows. Although we had piled sacks of earth on top of the levee four and five deep and backed them up with dirt for miles, we could see the rushing floods might well laugh at our puny efforts.

We knew then we must plan for the inevitable.

On April 3, Saturday afternoon, I told the heads of the families living on my place to cease working on the levees and arrange to protect their families, household effects, and livestock. (We had already built an enclosure adjoining a strong section of levee and had corralled all the livestock there for protection.)

There was little sleep for anyone in that period. We were experiencing the most terrific rain and wind storms, and peals of thunder shook the weary from their beds.

There was a pervasive sense of dread. I was apprehensive that this menacing wall of water might break through in the darkness, carrying death and destruction in its path. If the crash could have come earlier, before the water had been dammed to such a great height, the danger would have been less, but the long drawn-out fight and higher water only intensified the now expected calamity.

Amid drizzling rain, I sat in a chair on the levee all that night, accompanied by a dozen boys from the place, patrolling the levee with lanterns to see if the water was coming through.

At daylight of an otherwise beautiful Sunday morning it was obvious that the levee would not hold past noon. I returned to the plantation headquarters and notified the manager to prepare for the worst.

Later, accompanied by T.H. McKenzie of Lulu [now Lula], we rode on horseback to the levee to see if anything else might be done. McKenzie rode ahead down the levee, and when he had gone but a short distance, I heard him shout: "Bring 25 men with shovels and sacks—quick!"

When I joined him, I could see the waters breaking through the levee about one-third of the way down from the top—it was a high levee at this point—in a stream three or four inches in diameter. Before getting to where McKenzie stood, it was the size of a stove pipe. In less than a minute it grew to the size of a water bucket, then a barrel, and before I could even mentally describe it, the whole top of the levee was twisting in.

Then the water was forcing its way through in a great torrent, and striking the ground beyond the base of the levee with terrific force, rebounding in awful anger. White waves 20 feet high tore great oak and gum trees out by the roots and tossed them about as if they were cork.

The ends of the levee began to erode quickly on either side of the break until well over 15 acres were torn out like a great well, with holes and pits, some of them 50 feet deep.

The rushing, swirling, tumbling waters were at the same time a sight of wondrous grandeur and appalling solemnity.

The caving became more gradual until the break was about a half mile wide. Now absent the dreadful apprehension and facing its reality, we concentrated on getting all our families out of danger and then tried to prevent additional breaks.

I had witnessed the greatest crevasse that ever occurred on the banks of the greatest river in the world and from it I gleaned some insights which may prove useful in the future.

The result of my observations is that there is not half the danger to life and personal property in being located behind a great levee when the break occurs as one might think. For instance, it was at least six hours before the water covered my place. Also, just to the extent that the water raised on the land side, the level was lowered on the river, so that by the time there was an average of four feet on the land, the river had fallen four feet. The water never attained the depth one might have imagined.

Although four or five tenant houses were swept away, all the people on my place and those on adjoining places had ample time to get away to elevations of safety.

If the break (as feared) had occurred at night there might have been some loss of life, but I don't think it truly probable. The rapid fall of the river after the break relieved the levee line above and below, so that it dried out quickly, affording a safe place for humans.

We had weathered the worst which was less than the worst of our imaginings, and we were encouraged by a pair of thoughts: The river was predicted to fall, and we had the assurances, augmented by previous successes, of the YMD Levee Board officials that the breach would be repaired as quickly as humanly possible.

Life had been but interrupted, not ended.

Landowners as Flood Fighters

From the earliest days of flood fighting in Mississippi, adjacent landowners have played a major role in that crucial activity. Landowners had strong motivation to protect their own lands and workers, thereby helping their neighbors in the process.

F.M. Norfleet, source of the "eyewitness account" of the 1897 levee failure at Flower Lake, exemplifies the committed landowners who answered the challenge of the floods of the Mississippi River.

Norfleet was a planter and cotton merchant who divided his time between his business interests in Memphis and his farming interests in Tunica.

He was actively involved in flood fighting matters over a period of years, and his opinions were highly respected within the flood control community.

Repairing the Break: The Great Flood Fight of 1897

Flower Lake—Exhausted flood fight leaders watched proudly on May 15, 1897, as Capt. A.L. Dabney, Principal Assistant Engineer, telegraphed his report to YMD Levee Board headquarters. Dabney could report the successful closure of the disastrous Flower Lake Crevasse on the previous afternoon, thereby shutting off all inflow of high water from the Mississippi River.

Nearly six weeks of round-the-clock effort by hundreds of men were spent stemming the torrents that poured through the levee when it broke on that fateful Sunday morning, April 4.

What resulted was little less than an engineering marvel.

As reported by F.M. Norfleet, as the opening between the ends of the levee widened to about 2,000 feet, Maj. T.G. Dabney, Chief Engineer, ordered the ends revetted with a mattress woven of willow trees and secured in place with sandbags strung on ¾-inch grass ropes, anchored well back in the sound portion of the levee.

With the ends of the levee secure, it was decided to construct pole dikes from each end in a large semicircle to the landward until they met in the middle, allowing the closure of the crevasse.

The skeleton dikes consisted of rows of wooden posts driven into the ground under the water by use of heavy hand mauls (hammers). The rows were about five feet apart, and the posts in the rows were about one foot apart.

Cross bracing and walkways were added as the rows were built, and sandbags were thrown in at the base of the posts—cut by hand on site until flatcars of sawmill lumber could be brought in from Helena, Arkansas—to prevent scouring. Depending on the depth and speed of the water, two to five rows of posts were utilized.

On Friday, May 7, Capt. Dabney reported difficulty in acquiring and holding sufficient numbers of labor, and with the prospect of local planters beginning their operations on dry ridges, the numbers were likely to become more depleted. Also, as the pile dikes lengthened, the greater the strain became on the men hauling sandbags. Dabney requested that headquarters send him 150 men, 50 pairs of blankets, and $250 in silver for payroll.

By May 9, he could report significant progress in the repair efforts, and by May 14, the remaining gap to be raised was about five feet deep and 150 feet in length.

The closing operation was accomplished by concentrating a large force of men who threw sandbags into the water on the upper side of the dike with such rapidity that in exactly 20 minutes, a dam of sacks was raised above the water surface. All further flow was cut off.

About 25 percent of the cultivated land in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District was overflowed in 1897, but the newly protected land drained quickly enough that the year's cotton crop could be planted.

The cost of closing the Flower Lake Crevasse was about $15,000 out of a total of about $100,000 spent by the YMDL District in the 1897 high water campaign.

The men standing around the telegraph that warm 15th day of May had no way of knowing the full impact of what they had done.

Although resting within the weary satisfaction of the hard, diligent work that produced a "job well done", they could not know that they were also enjoying—along with the other citizens of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District—the first day of 100 years free from the floods of the Mississippi River.

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