Friends uncover Mississippi River marvel

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Kendra Ablaza, Mississippi Today

Wayne O’Neal, a former project engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Waterways Experiment Station, leads a tour of the Mississippi River Basin Model.

There is an engineering marvel in Jackson that some worry might one day be forgotten, because it was once hiding under an overgrowth of trees at Buddy Butts Park.

The Mississippi River Basin Model is a 200-acre scale replica of the Mississippi River Basin made of concrete and window screen wire, among other things. The location on McRaven Road is listed on websites such as Atlas Obscura and Roadside America, online travel guides dedicated to unusual and unique attractions.

Constructed in parts from 1943 to 1966, the model was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ answer to designing flood-fighting plans at a time when floods were a major threat to communities along the Mississippi River and computers and calculators were not yet available.

German prisoners-of-war, who were housed in a nearby camp in Clinton, built the foundation and drainage infrastructure of the model.

The site closed in 1993 for financial reasons.

Kendra Ablaza, Mississippi Today

View from an observation tower within the Mississippi River Basin Model. The site spans over 200 acres.

The nonprofit Friends of the Mississippi River Basin Model formed last year to restore the elaborate model and surrounding park. Though the site no longer can be used as a river model, the nonprofit is organizing efforts to clear the area of trees and will eventually carve out pathways and display educational exhibits so visitors can take self-guided tours of the model, which represents 41 percent of land area in the United States and 15,000 miles of river.

The nonprofit organized its first annual public tour of the site Friday, which drew about 80 people.

Sarah McEwen, president of the group, said she hopes the tours will help spread the word among community leaders and the public about the nonprofit’s plan to restore the model so future generations of residents and travelers can appreciate it again.

Three former Army Corps employees who worked closely with the model led Friday’s tour.

Kendra Ablaza, Mississippi Today

Wayne O’Neal, a former project engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Waterways Experiment Station, next to a old photo of himself working on the Mississippi River Basin Model.

One of them was Wayne O’Neal, a former project engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Waterways Experiment Station. O’Neal oversaw the river basin model and others when it was in operation. He said it is the largest known model of its kind in the world.

“It was an engineering feat for the time (and) state-of-the-art technology,” O’Neal said. “I have no idea that any model, numerical or physical, can produce what this has done on this scale.”

McEwen said the nonprofit’s focus in its first two years is to clear the model and access areas of trees and excess vegetation. Over five years, she would like to see additional trails around the site, but their efforts depend on grant funding.

The nonprofit also would like to increase recreational access in that area of Jackson, where there are not a lot of safe walking paths, McEwen said.

“We really want to focus on STEM programming and increasing everyone’s access to engineering concepts,” she said. “Think of an interactive museum for hydraulics and hydrology with a lot of cross-programming based on geography.”

Jackson City Councilman Ashby Foote, who participated in Friday’s tour, said he has been to the site on his own and appreciates what the nonprofit is doing to bring attention to the model’s strengths.

“(The site has) many different aspects of the world of science that can be used as a great teaching tool for schools in the area,” Foote said.