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The End of the River

The End of the River

The End of the River

4/5 (35 ratings)
44 pages
37 minutes
Apr 14, 2020


When it comes to climate-change-inspired threats, it is rising sea levels we hear most about. But if the oceans are, as Herman Melville put it, “the tide-beating heart of the earth,” rivers are its circulatory system. In the United States, there is no river more storied, symbolic, and vital than the Mississippi, and none, to use Mark Twain’s word, more lawless. The struggle to control it has been going on nearly as long as there has been human civilization on its banks, and the attendant drama and dangers have been memorialized by many writers, among them Twain and, in his seminal 1987 New Yorker account, John McPhee. Now Simon Winchester, the consummate, critically acclaimed storyteller and bestselling author of Atlantic and The Professor and the Madman, turns his eye to what could well be the height of the battle, one increasingly doomed by man’s interference.

The most fateful instance of this interference was accomplished by an inventor and steamboat captain, Henry Miller Shreve, in the nineteenth century. In vivid detail, Winchester re-creates the smashing and digging and the great man- and steam power that Shreve wielded to clear the river of snags and logjams and, in order to shorten the passage to New Orleans, carve an entirely new channel for it. What no one foresaw was that his celebrated shortcut, Shreve’s Cut, would form a sloping chute to an adjacent river, the Atchafalaya, and, aided by gravity and shifting weather patterns, increasingly tempt the waters of the Mississippi in its direction. Resisting this trend with ever more ingenious methods (and ever more expense) began just after, first with a system of levees, then with added spillways, and, finally, with the conception and construction of a floodgate system, the Old River Control Structure, still in place today. And the stakes are high: If—many say when—the Atchafalaya captures the Mississippi’s stream, it will be the end of life as it’s currently known in the American South. The great cities of Louisiana—New Orleans and Baton Rouge—would be rendered fetid swamps; entire sections of the American infrastructure, from pipelines to electricity and water supply, would collapse. Homes would be displaced and livelihoods, if not lives, would be lost.

Deftly combining the hydrological and the historical, Winchester tours the challenges that upped the ante on the Mississippi River Commission’s duty to protect the watershed and its inhabitants: the upheavals that came in the form of the Great Flood of 1927, one of the most destructive natural disasters of all time, displacing more people than almost any event in American history, and the record-breaking inundations of 1937 and 1973. He pays tribute to the Army Corps of Engineers, for their Herculean efforts to keep the river on its current track, and to one civilian, Albert Einstein’s son Hans Albert Einstein, a hydraulic engineer and one of the main architects of the mighty control structure that continues to divide the Mississippi from the Atchafalaya. But how long can it hold in a time when extremes of weather are the norm, when storms come faster and more furiously, sending sediment-loaded water pounding against the floodgates—events that not only pit man against nature but, given that we cannot always agree which causes and correctives to pursue, man against man?

In this elegant synthesis of past and present, the exigencies of the natural world and the human, Winchester offers an engrossing cautionary tale that readers cannot afford to ignore. It is a call to arms that asks whether accepting defeat—letting nature take its course—may be the only way to win.

Apr 14, 2020

About the author

Simon Winchester is the bestselling author of Atlantic, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, Krakatoa, The Map That Changed the World, The Surgeon of Crowthorne (The Professor and the Madman), The Fracture Zone, Outposts and Korea, among many other titles. In 2006 he was awarded the OBE. He lives in western Massachusetts and New York City.

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The End of the River - Simon Winchester

The End of the River

Why the long struggle to hold back the Mississippi may soon be lost, wreaking trillion-dollar chaos across the American South

By Simon Winchester

Copyright © 2020 by Simon Winchester

All rights reserved

Cover design by Catherine Casalino. Cover photography by David Freese.

ISBN: 9781094404424

First e-book edition: April 2020

Scribd, Inc.

San Francisco, California


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The End of the River

FROM A MILE UP in the thick Louisiana summertime air, the structure looks so fragile, just a spidery wisp of a pale-colored highway bridge crossing an expanse of flat-brown river, the waters of the Mississippi brimming on one side and the outflow like slashing white brushstrokes running down on the other. Even closer, from as close as it is safe to go, it still doesn’t look like much, not too different from a thousand other dams—with its myriad lock gates and moving cranes and tall walls of gray cement—that are charged with holding back water all across America.

But this construction, improvidently christened half a century ago as the Old River Control Structure, is distinctly different, and tasked with the near impossible: controlling the course of America’s biggest and most important waterway. And yet the Mississippi, with its amply deserved reputation for wayward behavior, is with every new day resisting being controlled. The natural world in these parts has been altered greatly in recent decades. The Mississippi is no longer the river it was when engineers first set out, with the construction of these iron and concrete behemoths, to truss and guide it. Yet the future of much of the American economy, the livelihood of millions at home, as well as the fate of much of the developing world have long depended on this Control Structure surviving, intact, for numberless years to come.

And yet it appears that this construction is in reality every bit as fragile as it looks from above. For a multiplicity of reasons—climate change being foremost among them—it could well fail at any time and, by doing so, trigger a cascade of unimaginable and irreversible catastrophes. And if present conditions persist, no amount of money—which to date has been spent in incalculable sums—nor the brandishing of any amount of American engineering savvy will be able to stop it. Nature will win—as many before have long predicted she is destined to do.

THE MEN WHO RUN BARGES along the river know this all too well. Even for a seasoned Mississippi towboat skipper charged with driving a thousand-foot train of coal barges south toward New

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35 ratings / 5 Reviews
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  • (5/5)
    Essentially an update of John McPhee's "Control of Nature" in The New Yorker many years ago, generally accurate, well written, and timely. Reminds me that "Nature bats last" but he needs to learn that cement is just a powder. Dams are made of concrete.

    Frank C. Smith, Jr. P.E.
  • (5/5)
    Having been born in New Orleans and grown up along the Mississippi, I have long been interested in the history and geology of the region. I first learned about the Old River structure from John McPhee's book Control of Nature. If you look at a map of southern Louisiana it seems clear that the Mississippi has coursed back and forth, east and west, over the millennia. Seems pretty certain that one day it will do it again. As they say, "It's not nice to try to fool Mother Nature"!
  • (1/5)
    Garbage garbage garbage garbage climate garbage that says it all
  • (5/5)
    Excellent, really points out the hubris of the Corps. With increased warming it could happen at any time!
  • (4/5)
    Very short but makes an interesting point about the interface between "natural" and "Artificial" parts of the Mississippi.