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Mississippi Flooding - Are Historic Sites Threatened?

By Gerald D. Swick 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: May 16, 2011 
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This CNN video on YouTube shows this sort of destruction that is resulting from the historic flooding along the Mississippi River.  The loss of homes, businesses and crops is tragic and of monumental proportions.

Many historic sites and museums are in the Mississippi River basin. HistoryNet contacted newspapers and historic sites from Missouri southward to ask what has been damaged and what might be threatened.

In Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the town's floodwall is a long mural depicting moments from its storied history—including floods. Across the railroad tracks from that floodwall is a historic downtown with many preserved buildings, including one that reportedly served as headquarters for Ulysses S. Grant while he was commanding in Missouri early in his Civil War career. Erin Hevern, a reporter for the Southeast Missourian, said no damage from the 2011 flood had occurred to historic buildings near the river downtown, although there had been some flooding in the Red Star District.

News footage from Memphis, Tennessee, show floodwaters rising on Mud Island and creeping toward the famed Pyramid Arena. The town's many historic sites and museums, including the National Civil Rights Museum and Elvis Presley's Graceland, are located away from the river, though, and are not in any danger. Among the closest sties to the Mississippi is the Memphis Cotton Exchange Museum downtown. Executive Director Anna Mullins reported, "No damage whatsoever. We're sitting pretty close to the river but we have a good levee."

Even on Mud island, the entertainment park will reopen May 24; flooded roadways were the primary reason for its temporary shutdown.

Vicksburg, Mississippi, is no stranger to high water, but the Vicksburg National Military Park has nothing to fear.

"The water's about 35 feet downhill from the National Cemetery," Chief of Interpretation Tim Kavanaugh reported, "and that's the lowest part of the park. The river's going to go up another three feet at most. Most of the park follows the siege lines, so we're well up on the bluff—about 200 feet above the river. All those bluffs people were fighting over 150 years ago serve us well in times like this.

"One area of the park, Grant's Canal, is across the river in Louisiana, but as long as the levee holds we're in good shape."

When asked about other areas in the historic river town, Kavanaugh said, "The old railroad depot is sitting in about six feet of water. It was built in the 1920s. Even in the area where the Confederate hospital was, the water hasn't crossed the railroad tracks and isn't expected to.

"In the 1800s, people built their homes on the bluffs, not near the river, due to flooding and fears of yellow fever and other diseases they believed were cause by 'miasma' from the river."

Farther down the Mississippi, however, Grand Gulf Military Park  had to close and evacuate artifacts in advance of the rising waters. The Civil War site is about eight miles from Port Gibson.

As in Vicksburg, homes in the town of Natchez, Mississippi, were built on a bluff well above danger, but the area known as Under-the-Hill is flooding. Jim Barnett, director at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians site said, "We can see across the river into Concordia Parish, Louisiana, and they are sweating it out because the water has never been this high before at Natchez, and its putting the levees to the test."

The Grand Village site itself isn't threatened. "Saint Catherine Creek will back up, but it won't flow over into the Grand Village Park," Barnett said. At the time of the interview, he had just returned from dedication activities for the Coker House, part of the Champion's Hill battlefield west of Jackson.

On the west side of the river, the town of Helena, Arkansas, was the third part of a trilogy of bad news for the Confederacy on July 4, 1863. Robert E. Lee retreated from Gettysburg, Vicksburg surrended, and some 7,000 Confederates under Lt. Gen. Theophilus Holmes were repulsed in their attempt to recapture Helena. In recent years, the town has been adding historical markers and a cannon to better recognize its Civil War heritage.

Randy Hogan, managing editor of Helena's newspaper, The Daily World, said, "There's no damage to the town whatsoever. We're sitting pretty close to the river, but we have a pretty good levee."

A bright spot in the story of a river swollen to historic proportions is that at least along most of its length historic sites and museums seem to have been spared.

Has the flooding affected any hitsoric sites or museums in your town? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Gerald D. Swick is senior online editor for the Weider History Group.



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