A huge model of the Mississippi River Basin, constructed in the 1940s by German prisoners of war, is wasting away after it was used for years to predict and control floods, Quad-Citians learned Sunday during a speech by an expert on German culture.
The Mississippi Basin Model on 200 acres near Jackson, Miss., depicted land up to the Quad-Cities and beyond, said Cora Lee Kluge, professor of German at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She discussed flood-control efforts using German models and manpower from German prisoners of war. She presented “Managing the Mississippi: German Engineering POWs and the Mississippi River Basin Model” Sunday afternoon for an audience of about 40 people at the German-American Heritage Center, 712 W. 2nd St., Davenport.
Kluge said that flooding on the Mississippi River had become a problem after the Great Mississippi Flood in the spring of 1927 and floods in the Northeast and along the Ohio River after that. The Flood Control Act of 1928 authorized money for dams, locks and levees.
In 1929 and 1930, Kluge said, hydraulic laboratories were established at several locations around the United States. American civil engineer John R. Freeman had seen these laboratories — essentially small-scale models — in Germany and introduced them to the United States.
Maj. Gen. Eugene Reybold, then chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, proposed the MBM in 1942, and Congress approved it the same year.
Clinton, Miss., a small town just west of Jackson, was chosen for the site, and a POW camp was established there to provide manpower for the project.
German POWs who had surrendered in North Africa began arriving in August 1943, she said. As many as 3,400 prisoners were at Camp Clinton.
“It was a unique group, including not only enlisted men handpicked for the project, but also 25 generals and other important officers. This was the only camp in the U.S. where German generals were held,” Kluge said. Officers could not be forced to work, according to the Geneva Convention, she said, but enlisted men could be required to work for 80 to 90 cents per day.
The prisoners removed trees and cleared 600 acres of land as well as installing a storm-sewer system with about 85,000 linear feet of pipe. According to an International Red Cross report, “230 POWs are employed within the camp, with 1,750 working externally. A German lieutenant at the camp wrote that the prisoners “were allowed to take walks of two hours per day through this terrain if we stated that we would not flee.”
By the summer of 1946, most of the POWs had been returned home.
“Of the 12 camps that were in Iowa, most were dissolved before 1945,” said Janet Brown-Lowe, executive director of the German-American Heritage Center.
“At the same time, and not surprisingly, the cost of the project also rose dramatically when POWs were no longer available,” Kluge said. The MBM, which was finished in 1966, had forecast crest stages and levee failures that prevented about $65 million in damages, Kluge said.
“The MBM had also become a major tourist attraction … hosting some 5,000 visitors per year through the 1960s,” she added.
In the early 1970s, the MBM was declared surplus — “Computers won out,” Kluge said — and was turned over to the city of Jackson to use as a park. Now it is abandoned and deteriorating, “a decaying monument to a scientific endeavor.”
“The POWs who worked on the MBM were very proud of their work,” Kluge said. “They still hold reunions.”
Brown-Lowe learned about Kluge’s research, and the MBM, in a mass email from the Max Kade Institute at the University of Wisconsin. Kluge and colleagues visited the Quad-City museum a few years ago.
Kluge's presentation fit into the center’s “Land and Water” exhibit that ended Sunday.
Matthew S. Zager, civil engineer, is the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which was a sponsor for the presentation. He introduced Kluge, and said after her presentation that he was “not real aware of the history. I learned something new."