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Always, like the Great Mississippi, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been a conduit of hope and fear and scientific conjecture, of faith in American progress and terror of what progress has wrought. Always the Engineers have shouldered much of the credit and blame for massively spectacular projects. Always, since the 1820s, when the agency emerged as a builder and broker on the Mississippi, the Corps has enlisted science in the service of waterway engineering that defenders call monumental and detractors call grandiose.

My involvement began in the aftermath of Earth Day when the Corps, said a famous critic, was the environment’s “public enemy number one.” The critic, quoted in the magazine Playboy in 1969, was Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Ten years later and eight blocks from Douglas’s courthouse, on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., I labored on a dissertation about engineering traditions in the Corps office of history in Washington, D.C. The dissertation led to a book that Corps insiders applauded and elsewhere denounced. One intelligent reader was General Robert Flowers of the Corps’ Lower Mississippi Valley Division (since expanded northward to include the upper valley). Flowers admired the book but claimed I had understated the depths of the Corps’s commitment to environmental protection. Would I visit the Corps in Vicksburg and tour the river up close? Corps historian Michael Robinson, who worked closely with Flowers, arranged for a sabbatical grant. Tragically, in 1998, Robinson died of heart failure. Two years into the project, with four of five chapters complete, the research was suspended. Chapters and excepts were published in a dozen places—in online exhibits on the Vicksburg division’s web page, in Technology and Culture, Illinois Heritage, The Military Engineer, and Craig Colten’s edited volume of New Orleans essays published in 2001.

Hope for the Dammed retrieves three regional parts of the 1990s research. Moving north against the current, and metaphorically against the flow of my own assumptions about the Corps on the Mississippi, the study extends from the Head of Passes to the locks of St. Louis. It sojourns in places besieged and bitterly contested—in St. Bernard Parish below New Orleans where swampers blame the rising ocean on shipping; in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya and Yazoo’s cotton plantations; in the dredged aquatic freightway of the Corps’ slackwater dams.




American Public Works Association

Publication Date



Kansas City, MO


U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, construction, Mississippi delta

Hope for the Dammed: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Greening of the Mississippi