Notes on Some Selections from the Visual Images Database of the Mississippi Valley Division of the US Army Corps of Engineers
1) Vicksburg Harbor Project, Warren County, Mississippi. Operation of East Retaining Dike Spillway Hydraullic Fill Control Sturcture, with 35 logs in place. Elevation of top of logs, 105.5, MSL. Pool elevation, 101.2, MSL. Photo taken by U.S. Army Engineer District, Vicksburg, Corps of Engineers, February 3, 1960. Photo file #A9/1145.
2) Vicksburg Harbor Project, Warren County, Mississippi. Construction of industrial fill, habor and approach channels by hired labor and leased dredge. Outlet end of Hydraulic Fill Control Structure. Six stop logs in place, 36 inches high. Dredge leased from: Jahncke Service, Inc. Contract No. DA-22-052-CIVENG-59-450, dated 13 February 1959. Funds: Flood Control, Mississippi River & Tributaries. Allotment: 1255-09. Photo taken by U.S. Army Engineer District, Vicksburg, Corps of Engineers, January 11, 1960. Photo file #A9/1140.
3) This post has been on queue for months, gathering a thick layer of dust. And it looks as though I've waited far too long to write it, since the Visual Images Database of the USACE Mississippi Valley Division is now defunct. Perhaps it's been relocated or maybe undergoing some maintenance, but its link on the homepage has certainly been deleted. It was listed under Information > Documents & Photos, but it's gone. I've sent several emails, of course, but have yet to receive a reply.
If it seems as though I'm freaking out, I am, because the archive contained some of the best publicly accessible, i.e. free, historical B&W photographs of hydrological engineering out there. Or simply the best B&Ws. And at print-ready high resolution! In fact, one could easily confect a high caliber museum exhibit to make fans of Edward Burtynski and David Maisel catatonic with awesomeness.
4) Fortunately, I've downloaded quite a few images, of which fifteen appear here. And you can check out all the originals on Flickr Pruned where they are titled according to their file ID number.
Unfortunately, except for two labels shown above, I didn't think to copy and paste the others. So now I'm not sure which project is which.
5) Still, there is no substitute for the original archive. You can't recreate the joy of witnessing the Mississippi — and all its arterial tributaries, streams, and rivulets, its watersheds, floodplains, and wetlands — barricaded, recontoured, rebared, channelized, angled, and tiled with merely the force of will of the Army Corps of Engineers into a network of levees and dams. An intricate choreography between concrete, earth, water, and gravity. Indeed quite possibly the greatest Theatrum Machinarum in the world. (Or should that be one giant Rube Goldberg contraption — a single misalignment and the entire intercontinental infrastructure suffers complete critical failure?)
6) But in the event of a catastrophe, monitoring stations and several detachments of scouting patrols — proto-nervous and immune systems, if you will — up and down the length of the river should alert central command immediately. Which leads me to wonder: 1,000 years from now, when the entire expanse of the Mississippi River Valley has been fully mechanized and automated, its constituent drainage basins computerized and overseen by a central Pentagon AI, will the entire thing suddenly become self-aware? After shaking off some trees, cows, and people, will it just get up and go? The long captive bastard child of Mary Shelley and the Army Corps of Engineers, creeping about the earth with only vengeance on its mind. Or perhaps a benevolent Alluvial Ent, off to visit his good friends the Yangtze, the Nile, the Rhine, the Po, and the Ganges-Bhramaputra, all by then as roboticized as the Mississippi. (Peter Jackson, are you reading this? Email me.)
7) And another thing: what would remain? A post-glacial, pre-Clovis Man landscape in which stormwater and groundwater go into a non-stop, frenetic search for lesser contour lines? Two things are for certain though: a) the Army will be there to start defying gravity and geology all over again; and b) Pruned will also be there to blog it all.
8) Meanwhile, here are three quotes that seem to have collected themselves in this post as it awaited publication:
a) In his book The Control of Nature, John McPhee quotes James B. Eads, who the author describes as “probably one of the most brilliant engineer who has ever addressed his attention to the Mississippi River”: “[E]every atom that moves onward in the river, from the moment it leaves its home among the crystal springs or mountain snows, throughout the fifteen hundred leagues of its devious pathway, until it is finally lost in the vast waters of the Gulf, is controlled by laws as fixed and certain as those which direct the majestic march of the heavenly spheres. Every phenomenon and apparent eccentricity of the river—its scouring and depositing action, its caving banks, the formation of the bars at its mouth, the effect of the waves and tides of the sea upon its currents and deposits—is controlled by law as immutable as the Creator, and the engineer need only to be insured that he does not ignore the existence of any of these laws, to feel positively certain of the results he aims at.”
8b) But apparently these engineers are not of the god-fearing sort and so undertook a frontal assault against the Creator: “This nation has a large and powerful adversary. Our opponent could cause the United States to lose nearly all her seaborne commerce, to lose her standing as first amongst trading nations... We are fighting Mother Nature... It's a battle we have to fight day by day, year by year; the health of our economy depends on victory.”
8c) BLDGBLOG explains it a little clearer: “It's too easy, not to mention slightly vindictive, to blame all of hurricane Katrina's catastrophic impact and aftermath on the Army Corps of Engineers; but it is worth remembering that New Orleans – in fact the near totality of the lower Mississippi delta – is a manmade landscape that has become, over the last century at least, something of a military artifact. To say that New Orleans is, today, under martial law, is therefore almost redundant: its very landscape, for at least the last century, has never been under anything *but* martial law. The lower Mississippi delta is literally nothing less than landscape design by army hydrologists.”
9) One final thing: looking at all these monumental earth-moving hydroengineering, is it possible that entire mountain ranges from who knows where, maybe Canada, Peru or even China, may have been blasted to bits and then shipped off to the Midwest? A futures market in mountains, something to exacerbate debilitating trade imbalance with China? Maybe not, but I particularly like the image of a whole Andean mountain passing through the Panama Canal on a Panamax supertanker. Ghosts of dead Land Art artists haunting its slopes. Rolling boulders up to the summit. And of an entire Chinese mountain, 1/10000th of the Himalayas, holding back the Mississippi in the guise of a Native American burial mound.
10) So whether it is a hydropolitical war or a religious war or a trade war or whatever, Visual Images Database has documented it all, making it one of the greatest repository of photojournalism out there.
POSTSCRIPT #1: The database is back online.