The United States Engineers had charge of the improvements and maintenance of “Old Man River” and its tributaries: locks, dams, levees, dredging, etc. The head office was in St. Louis under Col. Spaulding for the Missouri and lower Mississippi with sub-offices in Rock Island for the upper Mississippi, and Cincinnati, for the Ohio and its tributaries. Mr. Putnam made these three divisions lighthouse districts, and in addition to their other duties, the head engineers were made Superintendents of Lighthouses.
There were hundreds of buoys and channel lights in the Mississippi River system, particularly in the lower river which had to be shifted continually to mark the rapid changes in the channels. A typical stern wheel type river tender was assigned to each district: the Oleander, Wakerobin and Greenbrier.
In 1927, the Commissioner of Lighthouses George Putnam’s boss was Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce. The worst flood in the history of the Mississippi valley occurred. Rain fell over the entire watershed simultaneously for weeks. The weather bureau sent out dire warnings of the impending flood. Pittsburgh and towns on the Ohio below were inundated. All protective works down to St. Louis were submerged and still the river was rising.
The levees which had contained the river were the product of higher and higher construction for over 50 years. I was ordered to report to Col. Spaulding with the three tenders for rescue work. Captain Good on the Oleander had spent his life on the lower river. He was a tower of strength with his understanding of that rubber snake of the Lower Mississippi River.
In spite of desperate efforts to reinforce the levees with sand bags, they gave way in several places opposite Natchez and other places. The valley country with its thousands of farmers always living below the level of the river were trapped by the flood. They had hastily gathered their property, chickens, hogs, cattle, and mules, in the high spots if there were any, or made log rafts hastily constructed and then hopelessly awaited rescue.
The Life-Saving Service sent its surf boats by rail from the East Coast. The red cross rushed in food and established compounds to care for the refugees. The tender Oleander roamed all over the back submerged country towing a huge scow, furnished by the engineers, collecting the poor people and their property. The bare levees that were not washed out were crowded with livestock and fowls and later moved to enclosures ashore on the Natchez side.
When the river started to recede, Secretary Hoover visited the region assuring crowds that heard him speak that the Federal Government would reimburse the suffering people for their losses due to the flood and liberal appropriations were made for rehabilitation of those who were losers. I received the following letter for my part in the rescue work:
Mr. Fred P. Dillon
Superintendent of Lighthouses
Department of Commerce
Dear Mr. Dillon,
I wish to express the appreciation I feel for the splendid service you performed in the flood region. Your devotion to this work and the ability you have shown have, in the final analysis, resulted in the saving of thousands of human lives, and no man would ask for a greater opportunity for service than this. I would like this letter to be made part of your official record.
Editor’s Note: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States, with 27,000 square miles inundated up to a depth of 30 feet. Ninety-four percent of the more than 630,000 people affected by the flood lived in the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
This excerpt is taken from "The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer," the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.
This story appeared in the
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