Hell and High Water

The Great Flood of 1927: A cataclysm in pictures

If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break,

If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break,

When the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay.

Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,

Lord mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,

Got what it takes to make a mountain man leave his home.

These words—the opening lines of Led Zeppelin’s reworking of Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy’s “When the Levee Breaks”—immortalize what was arguably the worst natural disaster to hit the state of Arkansas and one of the worst North American floods on record: the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, which engulfed more than 10 percent of the Natural State 90 years ago this month. The rising waters, which lapped over levees and seeped into rural homesteads and downtown thoroughfares along the Mississippi and its tributaries, were the result of a series of extraordinarily wet months that began as early as the summer of 1926. From that August through April of 1927, widespread heavy rain and snow fell in the Mississippi River Valley. Pine Bluff, Little Rock and Fort Smith flooded on the Arkansas River. DeValls Bluff, Newport and Batesville on the White. Many communities along the St. Francis River, Ouachita River and their tributaries were also inundated. More than 6,600 square miles were covered over, some for months at a time.

In other words, it did keep on raining, and the levees did indeed break.


SET ADRIFT | The White River was another river that flooded in the spring of 1927, since high levels in the Mississippi River acted as a drain plug backing water up the tributaries. Water was several feet deep in front of this drug store in DeValls Bluff.

Courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives, 5752


Natural levees created by natural processes have been part of the river system since time immemorial. But man began raising the tops of these levees along the Mississippi River as early as the 1720s to protect towns such as New Orleans. In 1927, most, if not all, of the land in Arkansas adjacent to the Mississippi River and other major rivers was protected by manmade levees. Some of the levees, which protected nearby farmland and towns, were better than others—higher, wider, better maintained.

Local folks all along the river knew the importance of intact levees. But they also knew that if levees were breached elsewhere—say, downstream—there would be less pressure on the ones that protected their properties. They brought sand in by the train load and shoveled it into sandbags. Near Varner, some 30 miles southeast of Pine Bluff, hundreds of black prisoners and a few white guards from the nearby prison slogged through water and mud in the middle of the night to fortify a levee north of the prison. Meanwhile, men from the Mississippi side of the river tried to sneak across and dynamite Arkansas levees to relieve pressure on levees on their side; men from the Arkansas side were eager to return the favor. Many levees broke without the help of dynamite, casualties of the water’s will. Men working to shore up the levees were swept away, never to be seen again.

The deluge wasn’t one of those flash floods that surprise people over the span of a few hours. Flooding in the upstream parts of the Mississippi River Basin began months before April and was widely reported in Arkansas newspapers. But levee breaks, like the ones that plagued Arkansas that April, were more likely to catch people by surprise. African-Americans typically did not have telephones and often were not warned by white authorities. After the levee above Arkansas City broke, latter-day Paul Reveres rushed through the lowlands between the break and the town warning people of the oncoming water. A September 1927 National Geographic article reported that at noon Arkansas City streets were dry, two hours later mules were drowning in those streets, and before dark homes were standing in six feet of water. In some places, the water was reported to be as much as 30 feet deep.

Arkansas was hit harder by the flood than any other state. Almost 100 people died. More than 350,000 people were affected by the floodwaters. Eighty refugee camps were set up across the state (many on top of levees, the only dry land around for miles), more than 41,200 families received relief, and more than 3,000 square miles of farmland were inundated. In monetary terms, the losses in Arkansas (totaling over $1 million in 1927 dollars) surpassed that of any other state affected.

As the waters receded, it was clear that the flood not only destroyed homes and possessions, but forever changed the social, economic and political makeup of the state. Black and white sharecroppers were left without jobs. With little to tether them to the Arkansas Delta, many African-Americans who could moved to Chicago and other northern cities. And as the photographs gathered in these pages show, the home they left behind would never be the same.


NARROW ESCAPE | These mules being led past the Silvery Simple Cash and Carry in Pine Bluff are presumably among the farm animals that survived the flood. More than 9,200 mules and horses and 21,000 cattle perished in Arkansas as a result of the flood.

Courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives, 5536.16


 

SEEKING REFUGE | Not all refugee camps were on levees—this camp of more than 120 tents was about 3 miles east of Forrest City on the bank of the St. Francis River diversion ditch. People at the camp were “lucky” enough to be supplied by the adjacent railroad. Most people spent a few weeks in the refugee camps, but some were forced to stay for months.

Courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives, 2040.51

 


 

 

IN DEEP WATER | Because of its proximity to the Mississippi River and its major tributaries, Arkansas City was hit particularly hard. Not much of this part of the town, which was flooded when an upstream levee broke, was above water—almost nothing but the rooftops.

 Courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives, 2040.1

 

 


ON THE HOME FRONT | The residents of this house in rural Phillips County encircled by floodwaters in early April (before the worst of the flooding) await the rising waters. Firewood and other supplies on the porch suggest that they were hoping to outlast the flood.

 Courtesy of the Delta Cultural Center Collection


 

CAUSE AND EFFECT | The fight to save the levees included building them higher with sand bags, buttressing the river side with timbers to soften the sting of waves hitting the side, and plugging the springs, called sand boils, that developed as water pressed its way under the structures. Despite efforts, the Pendleton levee broke on April 21, unleashing water that soon engulfed Arkansas City some 30 miles to the southeast.

 Courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives, 2040.16


SEARCH AND RESCUE | Tents of one of the 80 refugee camps in Arkansas line the top of a levee adjacent to Arkansas City. The Red Cross attempted to make these camps as comfortable as possible, providing food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. Boats of all sizes and description (from Coast Guard cutters and steamboats to privately owned fishing boats) were used to rescue people from rooftops, trees and other high spots during the flood and bring them to the camps. After the initial flooding, the boats were used to transport supplies to the camps.

 Courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives, 2040.17


 

 

RAINED OUT | Flooding caused by upstream rainfall extended up the Arkansas River as far as Fort Smith. Here, floodwaters lap at the door of the Mitchell and Mitchell Manufacturing Company in Fort Smith, manufacturers of “steel feathered bed springs,” in April 1927.

 Courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives, 4984.5

 

 


PITCHING CAMP | These refugees in a Red Cross camp near West Helena wander among Army tents used to shelter refugees from the flood.

Courtesy of the Delta Cultural Center Collection


AT WORK | These men in Phillips County were probably on their way to a Mississippi River levee, as imperiled structures required large groups of workers. At times, white authorities forced black men to work on the levees or clean up debris on city streets. Across the Delta, there were many reports of African-Americans being treated unfairly as the flooding approached, during their time in Red Cross camps and after the flooding receded.

 Courtesy of the Delta Cultural Center Collection

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