The Mississippi River Basin Model at the Waterways Experiment Station (WES) was the largest hydraulic model ever built. It was also the most complex attempt ever undertaken to model the river system that drains a good part of the North American continent. The purpose of the model was to test the behavior of the 1.25 million square mile Mississippi River and Tributaries Project and evaluate levees, floodways, cutoffs, and reservoirs. The ambitious project was conceived by Lt. General Eugene Reybold in the early 1940s after smaller models had proven their worth in examining the behavior of individual projects.
During World War II, many engineers and technicians were serving in the war effort and manpower was scarce. General Reybold arranged to use German prisoners of war as laborers to clear and prepare the site. A site was chosen in Clinton, Mississippi, about 35 miles east of the Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg. By the end of the war, about 1,800 prisoners of the Afrika Korps were living nearby in an internment camp. I have read that many of these men were engineers and highly-trained professionals who worked on the project with enthusiasm and typical German precision and engineering prowess. (Also, this assignment may have been a bit more pleasant than cutting timber in lumber camps in Wisconsin in winter.). Some of the officers married Clinton women.
The project took 20 years to complete, with the last sections finished in 1966. WES used the model during the great flood of 1973 to predict what would happen if the Old River Control Structure were to fail, allowing a major portion of the of the Mississippi system's water to flow down the Atchafalaya watershed. The last use was in 1993, during the record-breaking floods of the Mississippi system in the upper Midwest. When the Corps planned to breach some of the main stem levees near Prairie du Rocher and Fort de Chartres, Illinois, the model was partially revived to examine water flow and effects of the levee breaches. The Corps finally closed the project permanently and turned the land over to the City of Jackson in 1993. The City of Jackson mowed the grass through 2006, but abandoned all maintenance after that.
Life After People.
Update May 7, 2013 (anniversary of V.E. Day): The historian of Mississippi Valley Division, Mr. Charles Camillo, generously sent me this photograph of the POWs working on one of the drainage canals. Date and photographer not recorded.
Update July 26, 2016: For more photographs of the Basin Model, please click the links: