I could walk the river! It had taken me over 100 days in 2003 to paddle the entire Mississippi River. There was a scale model of it in Mississippi covering a couple hundred acres. I could walk what I’d paddled. Maybe do it in an hour or so.
I’d seen a reference to the Mississippi River Basin Model Waterways Experiment Station a while ago. I knew it was no longer in use, but it was still in existence. Here’s a pretty cool home movie of it from 1969.
Fascinated by the idea, I put a visit there on my to-do list during my recent road trip to Texas from Connecticut. A quick internet search turned up an address in Jackson, Mississippi, and this comment, from a 2013 newspaper article, “overgrown, but open to the public.”
Here’s my 2015 description: “Not easy to find, completely overgrown, almost entirely destroyed by the elements, vandals and scavengers, but still recognizable for what it was if you know what you’re looking for.”
Yes, what was once a working model of the entire Mississippi River watershed (41 per cent of the US translated into a massive hydrological model with a vertical scale of 1:100 and a horizontal scale of 1:2000) is now an abandoned ruin largely hidden from view by trees and brush behind a chain link fence.
The massive slabs of concrete contoured to reflect the river basin and the ruins of some of the buildings that housed the data collection equipment are about all that’s left of it. And for some reason, much of the accordion-folded metal screening that was used to simulate woods and other vegetation along the waterway is still there too. Gone is most of the metal piping and all of the monitoring equipment, some of which was still around as recently as 2010, according to one account.
The project was conceived of and overseen by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Gen. Eugene Reybold. Construction started in 1943 and was completed in 1966. The model was in operation from 1949 until 1973. Reybold began the construction with the labor of German prisoners of war from North Africa, who were being kept in an internment camp in nearby Clinton. The water source was an existing creek and when in operation an entire day on the river could be simulated in about five minutes.
The present day obscurity and condition of the place belie the important role it played during its productive years. In 1952, for example, faced with predictions of massive Missouri River flooding, the mayors of Omaha and Council Bluffs asked the Corps to use the model for the first time to predict flood stages.
According to Places Journal, “Engineers issued prototype conditions to the newly installed instruments, generating simulations that forecasted likely events over the next month — crest stages, discharges, levee failure and more. As water poured through the Missouri River section of the model, the resulting data were relayed directly to aid workers in Omaha and Council Bluffs, who were able to respond with brigades of civilians and sandbags to points where levees needed to be raised only slightly; areas predicted to flood dramatically were evacuated. In total the Mississippi River Basin Model prevented an estimated $65 million in damages.”
Even more importantly, the successful use of the model forced planners to look at the basin as a whole and move beyond the thinking that had resulted in ineffective local approaches that had hindered flood control efforts in the 1920s and ‘30s.
From Places Journal: “For two decades, Reybold’s model was the tool used to extend this line of thinking throughout the Mississippi River Basin, determining flood control strategies from Montana to Louisiana. From 1949 to 1971, engineers completed 79 simulation packages at the basin model, with most requiring a minimum of two weeks and some as long as eight weeks. The tests ranged from altering the course of the river to spot-raising levee heights in vulnerable locations. The Basin Model Testing Record reads like a battle transcript. In February 1962, a series of hypothetical floods was introduced to the Ohio River. In 1967, the effects of roadway construction on the flow of the Mississippi River were tested in Lake County, Tennessee. In 1969, various channel alignments were examined in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and basin-wide tests were conducted to verify the holding capacities of floodways and reservoirs throughout the lower basin.”
However, the computer age was coming to river basin modeling. The Corps’ Hydrologic Engineering Center had developed a river hydraulics software package in 1971. A study was set up to compare results of the two competing methodologies. The computer won and the physical model was used only sporadically after that.
By the early 1990s the Corps had abandoned it completely and it was turned over to the City of Jackson, which formed a park around it. What’s left of the 200-acre model is now behind a fence in the middle of Buddy Butts Park.
The park isn’t all that easy to find. It’s on the western fringe of Jackson, almost in
neighboring Clinton. The actual street address, 6180 McRaven Road according to the town’s website, isn’t at the park entrance. When I got to the eastern end of McRaven, I turned around and slowly made my way back west on the badly pot-holed road and finally spotted the entrance, set back off the north side of the road.
There, along with a driving range, soccer fields, a small cart track, a model airplane landing strip, mountain bike trail and disc golf course, is the river model. There is no sign saying what it is. If you know what you’re looking for you will find it, behind a fence that encircles a huge wooded area in the middle of the maintained area of the park.
What was once a unique and successful water flow testing model and tourist attraction (tours at 10 and 2) and named in 1993 as a Mississippi Landmark was declared in 2011 one of Mississippi’s 10 most endangered historic places.
Today, any reasonable person would just call it an overgrown, vandalized eyesore, albeit a barely visible one.