River more spectacle than disaster

Published 12:08 am Friday, May 20, 2011

I suspect that if Edward L. Salmon Sr. stood on the Natchez bluff today, he would look across the Mississippi River with both pride and respect.

I say this with some confidence, even though I never met the man. Salmon died in 1987 a few years before I started dating his granddaughter. I never had the chance to hear his voice and have only seen him in a couple of photos since marrying into the Salmon family.

But the family stories that I hear across the holiday dinner table and on the back porch give me a glimpse into this man who spent 45 years working the mighty river.

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Salmon joined the Corps of Engineers just out of high school in 1922. Paying no attention to his mother’s pleadings to work in a downtown dry goods store, Salmon signed up for a life on the river at the age of 19.

At the time there was no bridge, no levees and no Giles cut — just the untamed Mississippi River winding wildly toward the Gulf of Mexico.

The biggest floods of the century would come in the next 15 years. People’s lives, property, and livelihoods were at stake.

Salmon told many stories from those life-changing events and from his years working on the river, building levees, forging the river through Giles cut and building the Morganza spillway.

Family members say that the stories came constantly.

But for one story of Salmon rescuing a cat from the roof of a vacant house floating down the swollen river, few details remain vivid in the memories of those few still alive who first heard the stories he told about the two great floods.

Two generations later, the stories have faded and nearly disappeared.

Over the last two weeks, we have witnessed another great flood — one that the media is already calling the “Flood of the Century.”

Thankfully, the circumstances in Adams County and Concordia Parish seem different this time.

Because of the engineering marvels built by Salmon and thousands of others in the Corps of Engineers, pictures broadcast from the flood of 2011 do not yet match the devastation and desperation documented more than 74 years ago.

In 1927 alone, 246 people were killed, 137,000 buildings were destroyed and 700,000 people were left homeless.

Lasting photographs from 1927 and 1937 show images of people and animals on roofs, and entire towns inundated by the floodwaters.

The situation in 1927 and 1937 was so dire, few considered lining up the family on the Natchez bluff for a snapshot of history. Of course, photography was not as accessible in the early 20th century as it is today, when a cellphone camera is just an arm’s reach away.

For those not directly threatened by the flood, 2011’s rising waters are more spectacle than disaster.

But the flood is not over yet and will not be until weeks after the river reaches its crest Saturday.

It is a reminder that, as Salmon used to tell family members, the Mississippi River can be dangerous, unpredictable and requires respect.

After all, the potential for disaster is just one unattended sand boil or levee breach away. That has not happened so far and officials are confident that it won’t.

Let’s hope that they are right and the 2011 flood remains more a spectacle than a disaster for the Miss-Lou.

Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.