One of the remarkable components of the A.A. Humphreys papers is the documentation of the surveys the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers conducted during the 1850s and 1860s. These surveys were done in response to repeated flooding along the Mississippi Delta. Humphreys was appointed head of a team to make recommendations about how to remedy the flooding problem. He and his assistant, Henry L. Abbot, spent many months along the River assessing the viability of the levee system. They published two voluminous reports on the matter–Report on the Mississippi River (1861) and Report upon the Physics and Hydraulics of the Mississippi River; upon the protection of the alluvial region against overflow (1861). Both of these reports offered studies of the rise and fall of the Mississippi and its tributaries, and provide background about the geographical structures and physical features of the land. They describe their methodology for the conduct of the survey, and illustrate the text with tables detailing ratios between velocities, gauge readings, discharge per second, and other technical data.
Their correspondence innumerates the difficulties of the survey–including the challenges of weather conditions, illness, and the differences of opinion on the value of building up the levees or creating jetties.
I was truly riveted by these documents–the level of sophistication of their science, the earnestness of their engineering perspective, how firm their ideas that they could “fix” nature to conform to human desires. I am amazed by the ways that the modernist view of the natural world permeated everything in the early days of industrialization and mechanization. I look at the results of this belief that we can form and mold nature into what we desire, remembering the destruction caused by the failure of the levee system holding back Lake Pontchartrain and other areas along the Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina. I certainly can’t blame A.A. Humphreys and Henry L. Abbot for their spirit of innovation. I have just been reflecting on the ways that we humans often think that our actions have no impact. Holding back walls of water is a tricky business, as evidenced by the depth of study necessary to repair the levees in the 1860s. My personal views aside, this is a fantastic collection of documentation about the Mississippi River surveys done by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1850s and 1860s. I am excited that these documents will soon be much more accessible than they were just three months ago. I hope to have the finding aid for the collection posted in the next few weeks.