Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America

Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America

by John M. Barry


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Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John M. Barry

An American epic of science, politics, race, honor, high society, and the Mississippi River, Rising Tide tells the riveting and nearly forgotten story of the greatest natural disaster this country has ever known — the Mississippi flood of 1927. The river inundated the homes of nearly one million people, helped elect Huey Long governor and made Herbert Hoover president, drove hundreds of thousands of blacks north, and transformed American society and politics forever.
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award and the Lillian Smith Award.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684840024
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 04/28/1998
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 104,226
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.40(d)
Lexile: 1120L (what's this?)

About the Author

John M. Barry is the author of The Ambition and the Power: A True Story of Washington, and co-author of The Transformed Cell, which has been published in twelve languages. As Washington editor of Dunn's Review, he covered national politics, and he has also written for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated. He lives in New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt


On the morning of Good Friday, April 15, 1927, Seguine Allen, the chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board in Greenville, Mississippi, woke up to the sound of running water. Rain was lashing the tall windows of his home near the great river with such intensity that the gutters were overflowing and a small waterfall poured past his bedroom. It worried him. He was hosting a party that day, but his concern was not that the weather might keep guests away. Indeed, he knew that the heavy rain, far from decreasing attendance, would bring out all the community's men of consequence, all as anxious as he for the latest word on the river.

Tributaries to the Mississippi had already overflowed from Oklahoma and Kansas in the west to Illinois and Kentucky in the east, causing dozens of deaths and threatening millions of acres of land. The Mississippi itself had been rising for weeks. It had exceeded the highest marks ever known, and was still rising. That morning's Memphis Commercial-Appeal warned: "The roaring Mississippi river, bank and levee full from St. Louis to New Orleans, is believed to be on its mightiest rampage....All along the Mississippi considerable fear is felt over the prospects for the greatest flood in history."

Now it was raining again. Hours later, with the rain heavier yet, the men of consequence appeared at Allen's door. Even LeRoy Percy appeared.

No man mattered more in the Mississippi Delta, or perhaps anywhere the length of the river, than he. Sixty-seven years old, still imperious, thick-chested and vital, with measuring eyes, a fin-de-sicle mustache, silver hair, and frock coat, he seemed a figure from an earlier age. If so, he had been a ruler of that age, and in the Mississippi Delta he ruled even now. Not only a planter and lawyer but a former U.S. senator, an intimate of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and a director of railroads, the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, and a Federal Reserve bank, Percy's political and financial connections extended beyond Washington and New York to London and Paris. Only his closest friends addressed him by his first name.

At Seguine Allen's party that afternoon it was "Senator Percy, how are you?" and "Senator Percy, good to see you," and "Senator Percy, do you think the levees will hold?" Percy began to answer, but, as if to mock anything he might say, thunder shook the house, wind rattled the windows, and the rain suddenly intensified. The party fell silent. Men and women listened, holding food and cocktails — the Greenville elite separated themselves from hill-country Baptists by ignoring Prohibition with great show — uneaten and unsipped in their hands. The rain pelted the roof, the windows. The sounds of the black musicians echoed hollowly, then the musicians too fell silent before the great booming cracks of thunder and pelting rain.

It had rained heavily for months. Henry Waring Ball, whose social rank fell somewhere between friend and retainer of the Percys, had recorded it in his diary. On March 7 it had been "rainy"; March 8, "pouring rain almost constantly for 24 hours"; March 9, "rain almost all night"; March 12, "after a very stormy day yesterday it began to pour in torrents about sunset, and rained very hearty until 10....[At] daylight, a steady unrelenting flood came down for four hrs. I don't believe I ever saw so much rain"; March 18, "a tremendous storm of rain, thunder and lightning last night, followed by a tearing wind all night....Today is dark, rainy and cold, with a gale blowing"; March 19, "rain all day"; March 20, "still raining hard tonight"; March 21, "Quite cold. Torrent of rain last night"; March 26, "Bad. Cold rain"; March 27, "still cold and showery"; March 29, "very dark and rainy"; March 30, "too dark and rainy to do anything." April 1, "Violent storm almost all night. Torrential rains, thunder, lightning, high winds"; April 5, "much rain tonight"; April 6, "rain last night of course."

Finally, April 8, Ball wrote that "at 12 it commenced to rain hard. I have seldom seen a more incessant and heavy downpour until the present moment. I have observed that the river is high and it is always raining...we have heavy showers and torrential downpours almost every day and night....The water is now at the top of the levee."

Since then, the Mississippi River at Greenville had risen higher than it ever had before. Now came this new rain, the heaviest yet.

Indeed, no one present at Allen's party knew it, but the storm of Good Friday, 1927, was extraordinary for its combination of intensity and breadth. That day the great storm would pour from 6 to 15 inches of rain over several hundred thousand square miles, north into Missouri and Illinois, west into Texas, east almost to Alabama, south to the Gulf of Mexico. Greenville would receive 8.12 inches of rain. Little Rock, Arkansas, and Cairo, Illinois, would receive 10 inches. New Orleans would receive the greatest rainfall ever known there; in eighteen hours officially 14.96 inches fell, more in some parts. That amount, in less than a day, exceeded one-quarter the average precipitation New Orleans received in an entire year.

Senator Percy, do you think the levees will hold?

Allen addressed the question, reminding everyone that the levees were far stronger than they had ever been. They had held a record flood in 1922. They would hold this one. They would have the fight of their lives, but the levees, Allen assured everyone, would hold.

Percy suggested that they inspect the levees right now. Perhaps the storm would uncover a weakness they could address. Others nodded. Two dozen men, including Allen, put on their gun boots and raincoats, piled into their cars, and drove the few blocks to the center of downtown, where the levee rose up abruptly. A few decades earlier the levee had been blocks farther west, but one day the river had simply devoured it, taking much of the old downtown as well. Since then the city had covered the levee adjacent to downtown with concrete to prevent a further loss to the river and to serve as a wharf, and the men drove up the slope of the levee itself, parking on its crest, even with third-story windows in the office buildings, high above the city streets, high above millions of acres of flat, lush Delta land. A hundred yards upriver, where the concrete ended, a work gang of a hundred black men under one white foreman struggled in the driving rain to fill sandbags. For hundreds of miles on both sides of the river, other black work gangs were doing the same thing. Then Percy, Allen, and the others climbed out of their cars; leaning against the wet wind, their boots seeking a purchase on the soaked concrete, they faced the river.

It was like facing an angry dark ocean. The wind was fierce enough that that day it tore away roofs, smashed windows, and blew down the smokestack — 130 feet high and 54 inches in diameter — at the giant A.G. Wineman & Sons lumber mill, destroyed half of the 110-foot-high smokestack of the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, and drove great chocolate waves against the levee, where the surf broke, splashing waist-high against the men, knocking them off balance before rolling down to the street. Out on the river, detritus swept past — whole trees, a roof, fence posts, upturned boats, the body of a mule. One man working on the levee recalled decades later, "I saw a whole tree just disappear, sucked under by the current, then saw it shoot up, it must have been a hundred yards away. Looked like a missile fired by a submarine."

The river seemed the most powerful thing in the world. Down from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado this water had come, down from Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada, down from the Allegheny Mountains in New York and Pennsylvania, down from the Great Smokies in Tennessee, down from the forests of Montana and the iron ranges of Minnesota and the plains of Illinois. From the breadth of the continent down had come all the water that fell upon the earth and was not evaporated into the air or absorbed by the soil, down as if poured through a funnel, down into this immense writhing snake of a river, this Mississippi.

Even before this storm, levees along every significant tributary to the Mississippi had been shouldered aside by the water. In the East, Pittsburgh had seen 8 feet of water in city streets; in the West, outside Oklahoma City, 14 Mexican workers had drowned. And the Mississippi was still swelling, stretching, threatening to burst open entirely the system designed to contain it.

At the peak of the great Mississippi River flood of 1993, the river in Iowa carried 435,000 cubic feet of water a second; at St. Louis, after the Missouri River added its waters, it carried 1 million cubic feet a second. It was enough water to devastate the Midwest and make headlines across the world.

In 1927, a week after and a few miles north of where Percy and the others stood upon the levee, the Mississippi River would be carrying in excess of three million cubic feet of water each second.

LeRoy Percy did not know the immensity of the flood bearing down upon him, but he knew that it was great. His family had fought the river for nearly a century, as they had fought everything that blocked their transforming the domain of the river into an empire, an empire that had allowed its rulers to go in a single generation from hunting panther in the cane jungle at the edge of their plantations to traveling to Europe for opera festivals. The Percys had fought Reconstruction, fought yellow fever, fought to build the levees, all to create that empire. Only five years earlier, to preserve it, LeRoy had fought the Ku Klux Klan as well. He had triumphed over all these enemies.

Now the river threatened those triumphs, threatened the society his family had created. Percy was determined that, even if the river burst the levees, that society would survive. He had power, and he would do whatever was required to preserve it.

Four hundred miles downriver from Greenville, the Mississippi flowed past New Orleans. There, a handful of men were Percy's peers, hunting and investing and playing poker with him, and belonging to the same clubs. Some were men of the Old South, controlling hundreds of thousands of acres of timber or sugar cane or cotton. Some were men of the New South, financiers and entrepreneurs. Some, like Percy, bridged those worlds. For decades they had controlled New Orleans and the entire state of Louisiana.

The river threatened their society too. And like Percy, they would do whatever was required to preserve it.

Their struggle, like Percy's, began as one of man against nature. It became one of man against man. For the flood brought with it also a human storm. Honor and money collided. White and black collided. Regional and national power structures collided. The collisions shook America.

On the levee in downtown Greenville, the men watched the river rage for a few more minutes. The rain stung. The river was, literally, awful. Yet they took a certain pride in its awfulness, in the greatness of the river. Confronting it made them larger. For a few more minutes, frozen by it, they stood there.

When they left, neither Senator Percy nor anyone else, not even Seguine Allen, the host, returned to the party. They would not go home for hours; some would not go home for days. They had work to do.

Copyright © 1997 by John Barry

Table of Contents


Prologue 13


Chapter One 21

Chapter Two 32

Chapter Three 46

Chapter Four 55

Chapter Five 67

Chapter Six 78


Chapter Seven 95

Chapter Eight 107

Chapter Nine 122

Chapter Ten 132

Chapter Eleven 143

Chapter Twelve 156

Part Three: THE RIVER 169

Chapter Thirteen 173

Chapter Fourteen 179

Chapter Fifteen 190

Chapter Sixteen 202

Part Four: THE CLUB 211

Chapter Seventeen 213

Chapter Eighteen 222

Chapter Nineteen 234

Chapter Twenty 245


Chapter Twenty-One 261

Chapter Twenty-Two 272

Chapter Twenty-Three 282

Part Six: THE SON 291

Chapter Twenty-Four 293

Chapter Twenty-Five 303

Chapter Twenty-Six 318

Chapter Twenty-Seven 324

Part Seven: THE CLUB 337

Chapter Twenty-Eight 339

Chapter Twenty-Nine 344

Chapter Thirty 352


Chapter Thirty-One 363

Chapter Thirty-TwO 378

Chapter Thirty-Three 387


Chapter Thirty-Four 399

Chapter Thirty-Five 412


The River Today 423

Notes 427

Bibliography 481

Acknowledgments and Methodology 497

Index 501

What People are Saying About This

David Herbert Donald

John M. Barry's Rising Tide is a highly original and absorbing book, which I found fascinating. His account of the great Mississsippi River flood of 1927 brilliantly recaptures the panic, the desperation, and the suffering of one of the greatest natural disasters in American history.

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Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading Rising Tide, I will never think about the Mississippi River in the same manner. The book is an eye opener about the power of the river, levees, politics, and racism. I really enjoyed reading the book and recommend it as a preliminary insight into the 2005 Katrina flooding.
JStoneAZ More than 1 year ago
The Mississippi is currently flooding at or above the levels of 1927. So, after hearing John Barry on NPR, I decided to read the book, hoping it wouldn't be too boring. What a surprise! I could not put it down!! His amazing descriptions of the complexity of the River; the engineers; the politicians; the tragedy of the flood. The history is amazing, but so is the insight into the never ending story of the mighty Mississippi River. Thanks to the book I have an understanding of what is currently taking place along the River.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading this book, I can see why the back cover of my edition is filled with glowing reviews and lists of honors and awards. This is an epic, scholarly story recounting the economic, political, and social history of the lands and peoples of a Lower Mississippi Valley region called 'The 'Delta', a vast strip of the Mississippi River floodplain east side of the river with Greenville, Mississippi as its commercial and cultural hub. The history of the region is told through the lives of its most powerful and influential people and framed by observations of the river and region from the days of the first Spanish explorers to the election of Huey Long and the dark days of the Great Depression. These latter events effectively marked the end of the insular, rich, white, power structure that had dominated the region since before the Civil War. Skillfully woven into this saga are the natural history of the river, accounts of earlier flood events, and analyses of competing hydrologic and hydraulic theories that shaped levee construction, flood control projects, and navigational improvements prior to the 1927 flood. With each new levee or flood control project, land prices surged and once-'useless wetlands and swampy forests were opened to settlement and agricultural development. Power was exercised, speculators thrived, and fortunes were made. The great flood of 1927 exposed a fickle sense of security and well-being nestled behind a flood control infrastructure riddled with shortcomings and an inability of local to national, private and governmental organizations to deal effectively with the flood and its chaotic aftermath. The 'final taming' of the Lower Mississippi took shape as a massive public works project, portending fundamental changes in the federal government's prerogatives and scope of responsibilities to emerge later during the Great Depression. Many readers will 1) retool their ideas about the post-Civil War history of land ownership and race relations in this part of the South; 2) visualize the flood event as basin-wide in nature and six months in the making; and 3) recognize that the flood played a pivotal role in how we, as a society, now respond to disasters, provide for post-disaster reconstruction, and enact land-use policies designed to reduce loss of life and property damages. I enjoyed the book and would strongly recommend it. However the reader is forewarned. Have a U. S. atlas handy; the only map in the book depicts the entire Mississippi drainage basin.
Mayosister More than 1 year ago
If you want to understand the history of the Mississippi River delta, this is the book for you. Some of it is hard to wade through (pun intended), but when I finished I felt like I'd studied a semester with one of the most gifted history teachers.
GuitarGus More than 1 year ago
It's hard to say that this book is simply about one of the greatest tragedies in our nation's history. In our time, Katrina stands as one of the worst tragedies-- and it certainly is (I do not want to tak away from that). However, the great flood of 1927 killed thousands and destroyed the homes of tens of thousands. Can you imagine standing on your front porch 75 miles from the Mississippi River and seeing a wall of water 10 to 15 feet high coming across the field? But the book certainly reaches much farther than just the story of the flood. The author weaves well-researched accounts of history, personalities, cultures, and politics into a story that covers decades of events from before the civil war to years after the great flood. And many of the decisions made back then still affect those of us who live in the Mississippi basin today. I was particularly amazed and angered at the corruption that was in our political system even way back then. The author did not hide any of the scurilous dealings of our government officials. I also was taken aback at the ineptness of many in leadership at the time. But there were a few amazing individuals who rose above the others and stand out as heros. Lastly, I was greatly saddened at the treatment of our black American brothers by some (certainly not all) of the white "leaders" in a couple of areas along the river. This is a great book, in my opinion.
eduscapes on LibraryThing 9 days ago
After reading "The Great Influenza", I decide to buy other books by this acclaimed nonfiction author. I really enjoy Barry's wealth of background information and ability to see the big picture beyond the individual event. It was a spooky coincidence that I'd purchased "Rising Tide", because a couple months later Hurricane Katrina caused flooding through Lousiana and Mississippi. Like the hurricane of 2005, the Flood of 1927 was filled with scandal and cries of racism.
brewergirl on LibraryThing 11 days ago
This was a fascinating read and an excellent example of how one event can have long-lasting ramifications that touch geography, politics, race relations, economics, etc. It was a great snapshot of the racial and social attitudes of the day ... and leaves you wondering about the extent to which they may be different today. It also showed how a disagreement between experts/scientists (contain-the-river vs. let-the-river-branch-out) can have a real impact on an entire country.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This meandering mess contains more tributaries than the river it describes. Clearly, Barry likes research. Unfortunately, he includes each and every interesting tidbit he encounters along the way. I suspect that if Barry wants to travel from St. Louis to Memphis, he will go via Missoula, Montana, Paducah, Kentucky, and Washington, D.C.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am from the Mississippi Delta, and have lived here most of my life. I decided to read this book to educate myself further about the area in which I live, and after reading this book, which I could not put down, I must say even I learned something about my heritage and about the people, culture and socioeconomics of the Mississippi Delta. It is truly a fascinating read, even for those of us who thought we already knew everything about where we live.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of the most interesting books I've read in a long while. From the descriptions of the technologies used for flood control to the political intrigue in New Orleans make Rising Tide one of those you can't put down. Barry's stirring descriptions of living conditions along the levees paints a gripping tale of squalor and hopelessness. It gives reason to the almost wholesale movement of a people from their ancestral home to Detroit, Michigan to make cars.