2/8/1990: The day the levee broke

CS 3 The day the levee brokeby Virginia Jewell
(Third in a Series)
(Appeared in The Hickman County Gazette, Clinton (Hickman County, Ky.) on Feb. 8, 1990)

While the Union Army was in command of Columbus during the Civil War, the people of the community were ordered to build a levee to control Mississippi River floodwaters. Lewis Collins in his “History of Kentucky” stated that Negro soldiers stood guard while white citizens did the work. The town did not conceal its sympathy for the Confederacy.

It is likely that future levee constructions made use of whatever remnants of embankments there were. Such construction was expensive and tedious in a day before bulldozers.

There were many great floods at Columbus — 1862, 1878, 1903, 1912, 1913, 1917, and on and on. As the floods became more frequent, they also became more devastating as levees were built in Missouri (1912 and 1913) to reclaim valuable farm land.

It was feared that the flood of April 1927 would be the worst yet. And it was. The resolute citizens, who had cleaned up after many a flood, had no way of knowing that a second flood would wreak more havoc a few weeks later in June.

Why was it that the 1927 floods sounded the death knell for the old town of Columbus while it had survived the others?

Of course, the Missouri levees were a principal factor. They had the effect of narrowing down the river during the flood stage, with folds on the Kentucky side coming out as losers.

A second factor was the ice gorge of 1917-1918 which formed at the upper end of Island No. 3 north of Columbus. Spring flooding broke the ice jam loose, forcing it down the shorter three-mile chute on the east side of the island rather than the former 10-mile channel on the west side. The shortened current became swifter and instead of being deflected by a 200-foot bluff north of Columbus, it struck directly against the front of the town, lapping away at its sandy soil. Each year the new channel deepened.

After the 1912 flood, the existing levee at Columbus had been enlarged at great cost. It was 12 feed high at the south end of town and 12 feed wide at the base. Its six-foot wide top was used as a walkway.

Raymond Henley, who was 14 years old when the 1927 flood struck, said the levee ran along the river side of the town near Kentucky Street, angling back a block near the public school. In preparation, the flood gate between the school and canning factory had been closed and flood drills were being held on the levee near the school.

Mrs. Charlie Scott (the former Eugenia Keirce), who was an eighth grader at the time, said it was feared the children might be trapped in the school if the levee gave way at the north end of town. Flood drill, she explained, consisted merely of climbing to the flat top of the dike to await rescue, if needed. This did not happen, she said, because when the levee broke as predicted, school was being held in army tents on higher group.

Henley said when it appeared the north end of the dam was weakening under stress of the angry water, a U-shaped earthen barrier was built behind the eroding section to give additional protection.

The people worked tirelessly, carrying and piling sand bags, driving teams and scrapers, and using spades and shovels. Volunteers came from nearby towns to help save Columbus.

But it was of no use, Henley said. The flood broke through both the old levee and soft earth of the newly constructed barrier.

He and a friend, full of curiosity, but compelled to stay at a safe distance, were standing on the levee when the waters surged through.

It was 63 years ago on April 14 that Old Man River dealt Columbus a life-threatening blow which was underscored in June with a repeat performance.

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