Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Mississippi River Basin Model, Jackson, MS

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.)

The project took 20 years to complete, with the last sections finished in 1966. WES last 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. WES finally closed the project and turned the land over to the City of Jackson in 1993.

The concrete portions of the model are still largely intact. You can easily visit the site by taking Springridge road south from Interstate 20 and then turning left on McRaven Road. Part of the site has a fence, but much of it has fallen down. The land is no longer clear as in the aerial photograph above, and brush and trees are slowly taking over. But, as of January 2010, you can still easily climb the observation platforms, walk around in the river basins, and pretend that you have walked from Baton Rouge to Sioux City.

The concrete shaping of the landscape was amazing. Imagine the survey skill required to precisely shape the terrain representing a major portion of the continent. The little pegs in the channels are friction elements.

Some of the buildings are falling down, but several of the control houses are largely intact.

The control buildings still have rows of Stevens paper chart recorders on shelves, abandoned in place just as if the technicians planned to return to work some morning. One of my coworkers was a property officer and remembers how she had to record the serial numbers on all the instruments and pumps annually. (July 2016 update: the recorders have been stolen)

The massive pumps are still in place, slowly rusting and getting overgrown. From what I can tell, the City of Jackson does not maintain anything on the site. This is a good example of how nature takes over, a small scale experiment of the transitions speculated in the History Channel's Life After People.

I took these photographs on January 18, 2010 with an Olympus E-330 camera. The first three photographs in this blog are courtesy of the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory, Engineer Research and Development Center, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Vicksburg, Mississippi

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:

UPDATE JULY 2017:  A volunteer organization has been formed to clean and clear the site and develop it as an education/interpretive center. Readers interested in participating in the cleanup work, please contact: 

Sarah McEwen
President, Friends of the Mississippi River Basin Model
Twitter: @MSRiverBasinMod
Facebook: @FriendsofMississippiRiverBasin Model


  1. There's more info on this site:

    When I was a student as MC, this vast area of land was used (and may still be) for collegiate cross country tournaments. One of my history profs said that the presence of this POW camp meant that Clinton, MS was home to more German WWII officers than any other city, save Berlin.

  2. This upsets me. I was looking for information on this place so that I could take my children there later this week. I had told them with great excitement about the place my dad took me to. There is another, I think it is indoors in Vickburgs, but this one...

  3. Super Mom, you may want to wait until winter to tour the site. There is a lot of underbrush and poison ivy you will have to thrash through.

    As for the models in Vicksburg, there are now only a few indoor physical models still being used for tests. Because of the high cost of construction and maintenance, most studies of rivers and coasts are now being done with numerical models rather then scale physical models. It is a pity, these were a magnificent way to model out world and they were so intuitive.

  4. Great post. I'd (incorrectly) remembered the outdoor model as being in Vicksburg, and was there on at least one field trip in elementary school. I had forgotten that it's on the Clinton side of Jackson. I wish there were some way to preserve it.

    Last year I called the Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg and asked for a tour, but was politely told no. My kiddo would have loved seeing the outdoor model in its heyday.

    1. Your memory may be correct: there was a predecessor model of smaller scale and scope in Vicksburg, but I do not know details.

  5. My father worked at the WES in Clinton during WWII. I was a small child and lived on what was called the "compound", where the officer quarters were located. I remember the POW's very well , and still have art work that they did. I also remember the model.Thank you for these photos.

  6. I hope to go see this in the next few weeks

  7. I saw the model today and this blog helped me understand what it was. they built it well as it is still very intact!

  8. Just went to this yesterday...all of the Stevens Recorders are now gone. It was raining a bit which made it kind of more amazing. Did you happen to walk through one of the larger abandoned buildings towards the west? It was filled with water with a catwalk you could walk over. Unreal.

  9. AS a kid in the 60's I use to ride my bike down from Clinton and look at the expanse of the model. I knew it was built by German prisoners but didn't realize the prison camp was such a large facility. A few veterans have told me there were more German officers there during the war than anywhere else in the world except Berlin!

  10. I would love to connect with any of you who posted with experiences (or relatives who had experiences) from Camp Clinton in the 1940's. I've just released my new book, Der Geist "The Ghost" which begins with an escaped P.O.W. from Camp Clinton who has a connection to a vast fortune. Please contact me with your stories and images at Thank you...

  11. I can still remember going out there as a kid in the late 50s. My uncle worked there. I was amazed at the entire place and the size of the entire facility! I seem to recall they even had a working "model" of Niagara Falls in one of the buildings so they could study its erosion patterns. Its ashamed to see it virtually abandoned, but that is believeable with the computer-models of today.

    1. The Niagara Falls model was in Vicksburg on the Waterways Experiment Station (WES) campus, In the past, Niagara Falls a popular tourist stop, but after September 2001, WES was closed to tourist visits, and since then, the hangar that housed the model of the falls has been demolished.