2017 Marks 90 Years Since Historic Floods

Department of Arkansas Heritage - Wednesday, May 03, 2017

By Brian Irby, Arkansas State Archives

In September 1926, the rain started to fall. And it continued to fall through the spring of 1927 as the snow in the North began to melt. And the Mississippi River, the lifeblood that carves its way down the middle of the country on a journey to the Gulf of Mexico began to swell in ways that it had not before. Levees that had kept the river at bay for years began to crack. A single crack in a levee could flood hundreds of acres of good farm land. The farmers could do little but wait and watch. The levees were supposed to hold. But, maybe someone should have recalled Mark Twain’s quote about the Mississippi, a river he knew well, “The Mississippi River will have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.” The Mississippi River was not the only river affected by the overabundance of water that spring, the Arkansas and White rivers both overflowed their banks as the water from the Mississippi River backed up into its tributaries. The constant rain over the end of 1926 and 1927 had ruined many of the crops that lay in the path of the rivers. As levees burst throughout the Mississippi River Valley, those crops that had survived were now under water. The year became a total loss for many eastern Arkansas farmers. As a result, 1927 became a transformative year for Arkansas and much of the Mississippi Valley.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of this horrific natural disaster. Much of the research into the flood and its effects has been performed at the Arkansas State Archives which holds a number of important collections that relate to the flood. Perhaps the most interesting of the collections is the Governor John Martineau Papers. Martineau was governor of Arkansas in 1927, and much of the collection addresses how he dealt with this natural calamity. In particular, his papers reveal the desperate situation in eastern Arkansas during the spring of 1927. For instance, on April 24, 1927, C.C. Hemingway of Arkansas City telegrammed the governor’s office calling for urgent action because 500 families were homeless and their crops were four feet underwater. The next day, Hemmingway telegrammed the governor that overnight the number of homeless families was now 800 and that the crops were now under 14 feet of water.

Other collections at the ASA further contribute to the story, such as an interesting report put together by the Little Rock Water Company. The book details the day by day struggle of the workers at the water plant to keep Little Rock’s water supply from being contaminated by flood waters seeping into the plant. Another source at the ASA written ten years after the flood by the Works Progress Administration provides some eye opening statistics: By the end of April, 91 people had been killed in Arkansas and 200,000 people throughout the Mississippi River Valley were forced to flee their homes. The flood would set Arkansas’s economy back in the final years of the 1920s economic boom as agriculture suffered and tens of millions of dollars evaporated from Arkansas’s economy. Poor farmers lost the year’s crops and went further into debt. The banks that held the debt failed after those who owed them could not afford to pay. Railroads found themselves with a loss of transportation revenue – much of the train track had been washed away or was under water. The flood left much of Arkansas’s economy in ruin years before the Great Depression arrived to compound the state’s misery.

There have been a number of interesting studies of the 1927 Flood, including John Barry’s comprehensive Rising Tide. Yet, there are questions about the flood that remain unexplored. The ASA invites patrons to continue to seek answers about this difficult yet important topic.