Looking Back at the 1927 Flood - TIME Magazine

We're keeping our fingers crossed, of course, but except for certain low-lying areas of north and south Memphis, most of our city has — so far — been spared from what everyone is calling "The Flood of the Century."

They can call it that, though, only because the most damaging floods in our city's — or for that matter, our nation's — history took place in the previous century — in 1912, 1927, and 1937. Since Time magazine has recently put its entire archives online, we were curious what they had to say about the great flood of 1927, which is usually considered the worst of all time.

The April 25, 1927, issue painted this dire portrait of affairs in our area, as the flood was really just beginning: "Last week residents of Memphis, Tennessee, saw somebody's house bobbing down the Mississippi, headed toward the Gulf of Mexico. Soon other houses followed, plus bodies of drowned cattle, and debris of every description. For the Mississippi, rain-swollen and high-rising, was flooded from Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico. Many a levee went out, thousands of lowland acres turned into lakes, 24,000 refugees appealed to the Red Cross for aid, and 11 lives were lost.

"Southern Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas were the worst flood sufferers. In the streets of Judsonia, Arkansas, water reached a depth of four feet. One estimate placed 2,000,000 Arkansas acres under water. The entire town of Columbus, Kentucky (pop. 654) was abandoned. Columbus, though hardly more than a village, was founded 105 years ago and at one time was considered as a possible site for the national capital. Levees at Memphis, Tennessee, were populous with slimy, writhing snakes, flooded out of their swampy homes."

That was then, this is now. The current issue of Time has a summary of our nation's 10 worst floods. Writing about the 1927 event, they consider it "the most destructive river flood in the history of  the U.S., with 500 killed and 600,000 homeless. The sheer landmass involved in this flood makes it incredibly noteworthy. Across Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, some 16 million acres of land — 26,000 square miles — were inundated with water from the mighty Mississippi. At Vicksburg alone, the river was 80 miles wide."

Back to the present. Just for comparison, experts say the river at Memphis, which is normally half a mile across, now stretches for three miles. That's mighty impressive, but it's nowhere near the absolute devastation caused by the flood of 1927. So take your pictures, everyone, but bless your lucky stars (and watch out for the snakes!).

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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