What Mark Twain said about the Corps of Engineers
April 11, 2012
By Bernard Tate
Editor's Note -- For more than a century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has had the mission to keep the Mississippi River open for navigation. The changes that USACE brought to the river were astounding to those who watched it happen.
Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River before the Civil War. In 1882 Clemens traveled down Mississippi River and wrote a book about the journey. "Life on the Mississippi" is part travel book, part social commentary, part memoir, part tall tale, and as readable today as when first published in 1883.
In chapter 28, Clemens commented on how much the Mississippi River had changed since his days as a steamboat pilot. Although Clemens does not mention the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by name, the operations that he describes were all USACE missions, and still are today.
"As we approached the famous and formidable Plum Point, darkness fell, but that was nothing to shudder about -- in these modern times. For now the national government has turned the Mississippi into a sort of two-thousand-mile torch-light procession. At the head of every crossing, and at the foot of every crossing, the government has set up a clear-burning lamp. You are never entirely in the dark, now; there is always a beacon in sight, either before you, or behind you, or abreast.
"One might almost say that lamps have been squandered there. Dozens of crossings are lighted that were not shoal when they were created, and have never been shoal since; crossings so plain, too, and also so straight, that a steamboat can take herself through them without any help, after she has been through once.
"Lamps in such places are of course not wasted; it is much more convenient and comfortable for a pilot to hold on them than on a spread of formless blackness that won't stay still. Money is saved to the boat, at the same time, for she can of course make more miles with her rudder amidships than she can with it squared across her stern and holding her back.
"But this thing has knocked the romance out of piloting, to a large extent. It and some other things together, have knocked all the romance out of it. For instance, the peril of snags is not what it once was. The government's snag-boats go patrolling up and down, in these matter-of-fact days, pulling the river's teeth. They have rooted out all the old clusters which made many localities so formidable; and they allow no new ones to collect…
"Plum Point looked as it had always looked at night, with the exception that now there were beacons to mark the crossings, and also a lot of other lights on the Point and along its shore; these latter glinting from the fleet of the United States River Commission, and from a village that the officials have built on the land for offices and the employees of the service.
"The military engineers of the Commission have taken upon their shoulders the job of making the Mississippi over again, a job transcended in size only by the original job of creating it. They are building wing-dams here and there to deflect the current; and dikes to confine it to narrower bounds; and other dikes to make it stay there. For unnumbered miles along the Mississippi they are felling the timber-front for fifty yards back, with the purpose of shaving the bank down to low-water mark with the slant of a house-roof, and ballasting it with stones; and in many places they have protected the wasting shores with rows of piles.
"One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver, not aloud but to himself, that ten thousand River Commissions, with all the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey; cannot save a shore that it has sentenced; cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it cannot tear down, dance over, and laugh at.
"But a discreet man will not put those things into spoken words; for the West Point engineers have not their equal anywhere; they know all that can be known of their abstruse science. And so, since they conceive that they can fetter and handcuff that river and boss him, it is but wisdom for the unscientific man to keep still, lie low, and wait till they do it…"
Editor's Note -- The U.S. River Commission is now the Mississippi River Commission (MRC), a group of federal and civilian engineers responsible for maintaining the river as a navigable waterway and preventing flooding. The president of the MRC is the commander of the Mississippi Valley Division (MVD), and the MRC's missions are executed through MVD's districts in St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans. The MRC headquarters is in Vicksburg, Miss., in the Mississippi Valley Division Building.