The Flood of 1890 was a natural disaster that lasted from January to April and impacted the Lower Mississippi Valley, including Lawrence County Arkansas and the town of Powhatan. While important during the time period, the spring floods of 1890 are largely forgotten due to the catastrophes that occurred in Arkansas during the Mississippi River Valley Floods of 1915, 1927, and 1937.  


The Mississippi River has often been called “the Nile of North America.” Frequent flooding brought nutrients to the banks and soil farther inland, resulting in rich agricultural lands. The river was a vital economic lifeline for European colonists, and even more so for the young United States when steamboats made transportation faster. Yet, the Mississippi was treacherous and unpredictable. Floods could easily drown crops in the very soil where they thrived, and each time the water level changed, fallen trees and sandbars presented a real danger. From 1811 to 1899, nearly two hundred vessels were lost to these “snags” between St. Louis and the Ohio River alone.[1]

 Though the federal government began trying to improve river navigation as early as 1820, it did not get involved in flood control until the Swamp Lands Act of 1850. This law provided a mechanism by which the government would sell swamp lands to the public, which would then be drained and converted for agriculture. The money was used for several things, including levee construction, but a lack of coordination between the states led to a faulty system where each levee was built to different standards.{C}[2] The Civil War severely hindered these efforts, and by the time the Mississippi River Commission was founded in 1874, the levees were in disrepair. The Commission estimated that it would cost about forty-six million dollars to rebuild the entire system.[3]

 While work began to repair and rebuild levees, other efforts were underway to professionalize and develop the new science of weather forecasting with it’s all important sub-field of flood prediction. In 1870, the United States Army Signal Corps was charged, " provide for taking meteorological observations at the military stations in the interior of the continent, and at other points in the States and Territories...and for giving notice on the northern lakes and on the seacoast, by magnetic telegraph and marine signals, of the approach and force of storms..." Forecasting flooding upon the nation's major navigable rivers was included in the duties of the new meteorological branch of the Signal Corps. The next two decades saw weather observation stations scattered across the United States along with smaller river observation sites located on important waterways across the country.[4]

The Flood   

Trouble began in December 1889 when the U.S. Army Signal Service issued a bulletin, warning that a flood was imminent along the Mississippi River due to melting snows near the headwaters at Cairo, Illinois. Melting snow was only part of the concern, however. Over the course of the first three months of 1890, much of the Lower Mississippi Valley was to see nearly 30 inches of rain.[5] This combination made flooding a certainty for both those living along the Mississippi River but also the majority of it’s tributary rivers, such as the Arkansas, White, and Black River Basins.

Excerpt from the 1890 Signal Corp Annual Report, describing the amount and location of the excess rainfall that occurred from January-March.

On New Year’s Day 1890, the Mississippi River rose to eighteen feet at Cairo and continued rising 1 3/8 feet every day. As the river swelled along its length, the muddy water acted as a plug for all it’s tributaries. Unable to flow downriver, rain filled and then overflowed the smaller waterways in northeast Arkansas and towns such as Powhatan, far away from the Mississippi began to experience major flooding as the Black River rose out of its banks.[6]

 Arkansas’ biggest newspaper, The Arkansas Gazette, described the destructive path the water took.

 "Black Rock, March 13—The river here was ten inches higher last night than ever known before. It was fallen four inches this morning. All the saw mills are under water and a vast number of shingles have been swept away, together with thousands of dollars’ worth of logs and lumber…the mills have run very few days…great want and distress being felt among the operators…Every store in Powhatan is under water except the post office, which stands on the side of the hill; several bridges have been washed away and many cattle, horses, and hogs have been drowned."[7]

Long-Term Impact

The flood reached its zenith by April 24. Fifty-six miles of levee had been destroyed along the Mississippi River. Lawrence County and Powhatan suffered $50,000 in damages but reported no fatalities associated with the disaster.[8] Recovery in the worst-hit states, like Louisiana and Mississippi, took months. Fifty thousand people had been displaced and Signal Corp Stations reported at least 30 African Americans lost their lives in the flooding, but no detailed information exists on fatalities beyond the single line found in the report. [9] The MRC changed its levee standards and began the long process of rebuilding. By 1910, over fifty-three million cubic yards had been added by the federal government, and seventy-three million by private citizens. 

Army Signal Corps Map showing levee breaks along the Mississippi River during the 1890 flood.


[1] Norris, F. Terry.  “Where Did the Villages Go? Steamboats, Deforestation, and Archeological Loss in the Mississippi Valley.” In Hurley, Andrew’s Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis. St. Louis, Missouri Historical Society Press. 1997. p.82.

[2] Rogers, J. David. “Evolution of the Levee System Along the Lower Mississippi River.” University of Missouri-Rolla.

[3] Ibid.

[4] National Weather Service Staff. “History of the National Weather Service.” NWS National Headquarters.

[5] Greely, A. W. Brig.-Gen. 1890. Annual Report of the Chief Signal Officer of the Army to The Secretary of War for the Year 1890. Annual Report, Washignton D. C: United States Signal Corps.

[6] National Weather Service Staff. “Flooding in Arkansas.” NWS National Headquarters.

[7] “Flood Gates Ajar!” Arkansas Daily Gazette. March 14, 1890. p.1

[8] Ibid

[9] Davis, Allyn Lee. Natural Disasters. Fact on File, Inc. New York, NY. 2008. p.188