Harvey echoes the Great Flood of 1927

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, September 5, 2017

BNSF Railway track near Cleveland, Texas, is submerged by flooding caused by Tropical Storm Harvey. BNSF Railway photo
The impact of flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey in southeast Texas and western Louisiana will be felt for months and years. The toll in human lives and injuries, the damage to homes and infrastructure, the threat to the environment — all seem beyond assessment. Simply put, Harvey was a devastating calamity.

Less appalling perhaps, but no less painful to its dependents, is the damage to railroading in the region. BNSF suspended all service in and out of Houston. Union Pacific closed 500 miles of main line between Brownsville, Texas, and St. Charles, La. Every regional railroad and short line felt the sting of the storm. 

History tells us the railroads will recover, though. They’ve been through this before. Flooding along the Gulf Coast and across the vast watershed of the Mississippi and its tributaries is, unfortunately, a repeat offender. One need only refer back to the summer of 1993, when much of the railroad mileage of the central Midwest was under water for weeks.

Then there was the granddaddy of them all: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

Comparisons between 1927 and Harvey or 1993 or other recent disasters are difficult. The ways people live and the methods to measure the cost of disaster have vastly changed.

Still, any way you look at it, the 1927 flood was epochal. The rains that began in late 1926 kept falling for months, and by Good Friday, April 15, 1927, a writer at the Memphis Commercial-Appeal could see the looming disaster: “The roaring Mississippi River, bank and levee full from St. Louis to New Orleans, is believed to be on its mightiest rampage . . . All along the Mississippi considerable fear is felt over the prospects for the greatest flood in history.”

At its peak that summer, the flood covered 27,000 square miles across 10 states, forcing approximately 630,000 people to flee their homes. The official death toll was estimated at 500. Ground zero was the table-flat expanse of the Mississippi Delta in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

An Illinois Central crew works near Helm, Miss., to restore a section of line damaged in the Great Flood of 1927. ICRR photo
The flood affected a number of railroads in the region, among them Missouri Pacific, Frisco, Louisiana & Arkansas, and Mobile & Ohio. The M&O later was obliged to relocate nearly two miles of main line in Columbus, Ky., after the city decided to beat the floods by moving the whole community to the bluff above the Mississippi. At one point or another, approximately 3,000 miles of railroad was under water, reported Railway Age in its September 17, 1927, edition.

But none suffered quite like Illinois Central, whose Chicago–New Orleans Yazoo District main line and that of its subsidiary Yazoo & Mississippi Valley took a hit worthy of Noah himself. Most of the IC’s Delta main lines south of Memphis were shut down as long sections of track washed away. The railroad later reported it suffered more than $2 million in damage, or about $27 million in 2017 dollars.

At one point, Railway Age reported, the IC put as many as 500 men at the government’s disposal to help shore up weak spots in levees between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, with “only skeleton section gangs being retained on the railroad.” At Vicksburg, the railroad used 150,000 sandbags in the construction of a 2,300-foot wall to protect terminal assets. Early in the flood, the IC shipped 556 freight cars to Cairo, Ill., all of them filled with sand and dirt for riverbank protection.

Thanks to the IC, the photographic record of the 1927 flood is especially good. At some point as the disaster unfolded, the railroad sent a photographer down along the line. Although his intent was simply to take the measure of the damage to the railroad, so many people in Mississippi flocked to the IC tracks for shelter that images of their plight have become a significant record of human tragedy.  

Today many of those IC photographs can be seen in the archives of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and at the National Museum of African-American History. Together they show how railroading played what Railway Age called a “heroic role” in assisting the Red Cross. 

Some of the photos also made their way into the Classic Trains library. They are part of a larger collection of Illinois Central photos that, so the story goes, were headed for the dumpster in the early 1970s were it not for the interference of Kalmbach’s then-librarian Stanley H. Mailer.

The power of these photographs can be seen in a stark image presented here, showing an IC official, perhaps a track supervisor, gamely posing for the photographer as the track disappears into muddy, swirling waters at Helm, Miss., about four miles north of Leland on the Y&MV.

Again near Helm, Miss., an Illinois Central worker poses for the photographer with a numbered placard as part of the road's effort to document the damage it suffered in the 1927 flood. ICRR photo
The Great Flood of 1927 left a national legacy. Then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover parlayed his work on behalf of flood relief into the 1928 Republication presidential nomination. The Flood Control Act of 1928 gave the federal government control of the Mississippi from Cape Girardeau, Mo., south all the way to the Head of Passes, in Louisiana, where the river delta spills off into the Gulf.

Most profoundly, the flood hastened what later came to be known as the Great Migration, the movement of hundreds of thousands of African-Americans from Arkansas and Mississippi to the industrial cities of the north. The dislocations of the flood left a legacy of interment camps and forced labor, leading huge numbers of people to conclude that sharecropping in the Jim Crow south had no future. When they headed north, it was often aboard the trains of the Illinois Central. 

John Barry, author of 1997’s much-honored book Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America, had this to say about the flood in the November 2005 issue of Smithsonian magazine:

“When it was over, the Mississippi River and its tributaries had killed people from Virginia to Oklahoma, flooding the homes of approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population. At its widest point, north of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the river became an inland sea nearly 100 miles across. No one knows the death toll; officially, the government said 500 people died, but a disaster expert who visited the flooded area estimated that more than 1,000 perished in the state of Mississippi alone.”

Even 90 years later, the scars of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 are visible on the landscape. Leave it to singer/songwriter Randy Newman to write the purest lament of all: “Louisiana, Louisiana, they’re tryin’ to wash us away.”

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