On the left, the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers (USA) as seen by Google Earth. On the right, the confluence as seen by Harold Fisk (1944).
On the left, the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers (USA) as seen by Google Earth. On the right, the confluence as seen by Harold Fisk (1944).

I didn’t discover Harold Fisk’s legendary maps of the Lower Mississippi channel belt until two years ago. Now I find myself returning to them with regularity, as to a favorite kitchen cookbook or to an album whose sounds keep getting richer.

I encountered them through this New York Times article by Isabel Wilkerson, part of coverage on the floods that swept the US Midwest in 2011. (The article revives Wilkerson’s reporting on Mississippi flooding in 1993, for which she earned a Pulitzer Prize.) Fisk’s Plate 22, Sheet 1, appears on the fifth slide of the Times‘ accompanying slideshow. Fisk’s maps document in vivid color the geography of the Mississippi River’s relict channels from the Ohio confluence (shown above) down to the Louisiana coastal plain. Compiled for the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi River Commission, which contracted Fisk as a consultant, the full technical report – “Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River” – runs 170 printed pages without the map plates.

In his memorial to Fisk, who died in 1964, before the age of 60, Richard Russell describes the Mississippi work as “exhaustive” and “monumental” (Russell, 1965). And given its exquisite detail, Fisk also completed the work with mind-boggling speed. He notes in the report’s introduction that the project launched in May, 1941; his signature on the title page is dated 1 December 1944. (According to Russell, Fisk’s rise through the faculty ranks in the Department of Geology at Louisiana State University was equally meteoric – hired at Instructor grade in 1941, he made Professor by 1946.)

For those interested in taking themselves through a web-based portal into Fisk’s fluvial morphodynamic cartography, I recommend Bill Rankin‘s fascinating website radicalcartography.net. Rankin is on the faculty in Yale’s Program in the History of Science and Medicine – a link to his page on Fisk is here. For those of you who own plotter printers (or can commandeer one) and are not wanting for ink cartridges, a PDF of Fisk’s 1944 report and digital copies of the map plates are freely available to download from the US Army Corps of Engineers here.

Have fun. And cancel your plans for the rest of the day.


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