Historical Gold Castle
US Army Corps
of Engineers ®

Engineer Research and
Development Center

Aerial view of the Mississippi Basin Model looking toward the Gulf of Mexico

Main Building in 1981

The First 75 Years:

History of Hydraulics Engineering
at the
Waterways Experiment Station

Dr. Ben H. Fatherree
U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center
Vicksburg, Mississippi



Dr. James R. Houston, Director, ERDCThe history of engineering is the story of men and women in their attempts to understand, control, and accommodate their environment. In 1929 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers established a small hydraulics laboratory in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in recognition of the increasingly vital role of scientific investigation in a laboratory setting as a necessary adjunct to the age-old practice of actual hands-on observation. Discoveries emanating from the laboratory, designated as the Waterways Experiment Station, paid immediate dividends and sparked a new confidence among the nation’s engineering community to make bold advancements and challenge or affirm long-standing doctrines. This initial success broadened the Waterways Experiment Station’s activities from mere hydraulic experiments for the Mississippi River to a Corp of Engineers-wide mission encompassing diverse fields of research.

In this way, that early hydraulics laboratory was the building block of the modern Corps of Engineers’ research and development mission administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC). Headquartered at the Waterways Experiment Station reservation, the ERDC continues the tradition of advancing the limits of the engineering frontier. From its modest beginnings in hydraulics experimentation, the Corps of Engineers’ research and development mission now spans the globe— from building better levees on the Mississippi River to supporting our military operations in Iraq, the ERDC is there; from providing solutions to benefit threatened and endangered species to providing the nation’s warfighters with superior knowledge of the battlefield, the ERDC is there; from building sustainable military bases at home to nation building abroad, the ERDC is there.

The History of Hydraulics Engineering at the Waterways Experiment Station traces the evolution of hydraulic engineering at the Waterways Experiment Station from the establishment of a small, narrowly focused laboratory in 1929 through the impressive achievements in the dawn of the twenty-first century. It is, however, more than an unadorned compendium of technological advances and setbacks. Intertwining complex human factors, administrative and organizational developments, and technological progress, this history attempts to capture the total institutional experience of this outstanding national asset.

The Author

Ben H. Fatherree is a native of Quitman, Mississippi. Chair of the Social Sciences Department and Professor of History at Hinds Community College, Raymond, Mississippi, he holds a Ph.D. in history from Mississippi State University, was a Visiting Scholar at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University, and studied as a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at Columbia University. While serving as historian for the U.S. Army Engineer District, Vicksburg, on a part-time basis from 1987 to 1989, Fatherree published numerous historical articles.


As in the case of the history of geotechnical engineering at the Waterways Experiment Station (WES), this work was the product of many hands and minds. Early guidance was provided by the late Dr. Michael C. Robinson, former historian and Public Affairs Chief, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi Valley Division. Invaluable assistance was also provided by Dr. William H. McAnally, Chief of the Estuaries and Hydrosciences Division, WES Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory, who served as project coordinator. Richard A. Sager, former Acting Director, WES Hydraulics Laboratory, and Dr. James R. Houston, Director, U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, and former Director, WES Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory, were also more than generous with their support and input.

Particular thanks must go to the personnel of the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory, both past and present, who gave so willingly of their time and expertise and who are too legion to name individually. However, the late Frederick R. Brown, WES Technical Director from 1969 to 1985, freely shared his WES memories. In addition to McAnally, Dr. Billy H. Johnson, John F. George, and Thomas J. Pokrefke were especially helpful in providing technical interpretations.

Billy C. Bridges, Chief, WES Public Affairs Office, and Wayne A. Stroupe, WES Public Affairs Specialist, were invaluable in contributing insights concerning the operation of “the Station” and how best to get things done in an expedient manner. Nor could there be a more professional or helpful cadre than the staff of the WES Research Library, especially Deborah J. Carpenter. Thanks also go to Marilyn Holt and the staff of the WES Visual Production Center for their splendid efforts in designing and laying out this study.

Dr. William Baldwin and Dr. Martin Reuss, both senior historians with the History Office, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Charles Camillo, the historian for the Engineer Research and Development Center, the Mississippi Valley Division, and Mississippi River Commission, reviewed this manuscript and made invaluable suggestions for its improvement. Their unique scholarly insights served as guidelines throughout.


The history of hydraulics engineering at the U.S. Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station (WES) and its organizational successor, the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), is an inspiring story. Seventy-five years ago, an Army Engineer lieutenant carved a modest facility out of a creek bank in the wilderness near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Born in controversy, within 20 years that facility was internationally known and led the world in some research areas. Seventy-five years later, it continues as a leader in many engineering fields and shows every evidence that it will remain so in the future.

It has been a challenge to chronicle the evolution of WES. With the exception of the World War II era, a regular army officer served as the Station’s chief administrator in the Corps of Engineers’ chain of command from 1930 through 1992. Yet, nearly all other employees were civilians, with civilians holding the vital post of WES Technical Director from 1940. WES, therefore, historically operated under a splendid mix of civilian and military leadership. In 1992, however, a restructuring of organizational roles placed the overall leadership of the laboratories under the WES Director—a civilian position, with the army officer serving as WES Commander and Deputy Director. In 1999, WES was absorbed into ERDC, which was headquartered at the WES site. The WES Director’s position was converted into the ERDC Director’s position, which was charged with overall responsibility for the new organization and was permanently filled in May 2000 by Dr. James R. Houston. A full civilian ERDC Deputy Director’s position was established at ERDC’s Alexandria, Virginia site, and was permanently filled in October 2001 by Dr. Walter F. Morrison, Jr. The WES Commander, Colonel Robin R. Cababa, was reassigned to be the first ERDC Commander with responsibility for the ERDC installations, oversight of administrative functions, and assisting the Director and Deputy Director in planning and executing the technical program.

It has been an equal challenge to trace the evolution of the Hydraulics Laboratory, which in 1996 merged with the former Coastal Engineering Research Center to become the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory (CHL). CHL persists as one of the seven laboratories comprising the ERDC.

This study makes liberal reference to WES. This is by no means a slight toward ERDC, rather it represents an attempt to remain true to the historical accuracy of the time period covered. Moreover, I am not (it will become apparent) an engineer. Herein, the goal is to provide the reader with the history in nontechnical terms of hydraulics engineering by the Corps of Engineers.

The history of engineering is the story of men and women in their attempts to understand and control the environment. The Hydraulics Laboratory is a story filled with successes, failures, surprises, and all other elements of human existence. It is the story of Lieutenant Herbert D. Vogel, a 29-year-old sent with orders to construct a laboratory “gradually as information develops” in Vicksburg (a place he knew only as “a long dusty ride with a cemetery at the end”). It is as well the story of Garbis H. Keulegan, an inspiring figure who began his WES career at the age of 72 and retired (again) at the age of 98. It is further the story of a remaining multitude of engineers, technicians, and support staff who made WES what it is.

This work is first dedicated to the people who chose the most common compound in nature – water – as the focus of their engineering careers. It is second a tribute to their discoveries and inventions, their feats and failures, that surround our lives.



The Author



1–In the Beginning

The Waterways Experiment Station

The Birth of Hydraulic Engineering

Hydraulic Modeling

John R. Freeman

The Corps of Engineers and Flood Control

The 1927 Flood

Establishment of WES

Herbert D. Vogel


2–The Vogel Years, 1930-1934

Facilities and Equipment

Recruiting Personnel

Organizational Evolution

First WES Projects: Sedimentation Studies

First WES Models: Ohio River Lock and Dam

First Outdoor Model: Illinois River Backwater

Yazoo Backwater Project

The Cutoff Controversy

The Corps Opts for Cutoffs

First WES Cutoff Model

Outdoor Cutoff Model

Ferguson and the Cutoff Program

New Madrid Floodway

Other Model Investigations

First WES Tidal Model

Theoretical Research

Expanded Mission: Soil Mechanics

Hydraulic Modeling Ascendant


3–Coming of Age, 1934-1941

Falkner as Director

Organizational Evolution

Attempts at Field Verification

Movable-Bed Model Discrepancies

Model Improvements

Field Verification of Model Studies: Successes

Field Verifications: Failures

Verification of Improved Models

Increase in Tidal Model Projects

Mississippi River Flood Control Model

Flood of 1937

Thompson as Director

WES: Center of Corps Hydraulic Research

Hydraulics Research Center

Fields as Director

Improved Experimental Equipment

Outlet and Spillway Studies

Johnstown Flood Control Model

A Decade in Retrospect

ASCE Hydraulics Division


4–From War to Peace, 1942-1949

The Impact of War

Early Military-Related Projects

Wartime Research: Harbor Improvements

New Jersey Ship Canal Study

Ponton and Pneumatic Float Development

D-Day Breakwater Tests

Other WES Connections in the European Theater

Mississippi Basin Model

Civil Projects: Meandering of Alluvial Rivers

Civil Projects: Geological Investigations

"Fisk '44"

The Valley Disclosed

Aftermath of War

Transfer to OCE


5–Hydraulics Research Giant, 1949-1963, Part I: River Modeling, Potamology, and Hydraulic Structures

Expanded Functions and Facilities

More Growing Pains

Administrative Evolution

The Korean War

MBM: Administration and Construction

MBM Instrumentation

The 1952 Flood

Basin-Wide Testing Program

MBM Sightseeing Facilities

MBM Retired

Niagara Falls and St. Lawrence Seaway Projects

The Old River Dilemma

Old River Geological Investigations

Old River Model Studies

Further Geological Investigations

Old River Hydraulic Structures

Potamology Investigations

Potamology Field Investigations

Potamology Laboratory Investigations

Hydraulic Structures Development

Breakwater Design

Hydraulic Design Criteria

Lock Design


6—Hydraulics Research Giant, 1949-1963, Part II: Tidal Estuaries and Nuclear Weapons Effects

New Frontiers in Tidal Estuary Modeling

Saltwater Intrusion: Lower Mississippi River

Garbis H. Keulegan and WES

Savannah Harbor Study

Committee on Tidal Hydraulics

Delaware River Studies

Charleston Harbor Shoaling

Multiple Uses for Estuary Models

Hudson River and New York Harbor Studies

Military Research: Nuclear Weapons Effects

Nuclear Weapons Effects Division

WES Starts its Fourth Decade: An Overview

Professional Developments


7—The Computer Revolution, 1963-1983, Part I: Estuaries and Wave Dynamics

Organizational and Administrative Change

WES Enters the Computer Age

Early Numerical Modeling

Changing the Guard

Mathematical Hydraulics Group

Chesapeake Bay: Pollution and Politics

Physical versus Numerical Modelers

Chesapeake Bay Model: Design, Construction, Verification

Chesapeake Bay Model Closes

Chesapeake Bay Model Highlights

Hybrid Estuary Modeling

Transition: Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Study

Turning Point: Columbia River Estuary

The Corps, Dredging, and the Environment

Dredged Material Research Program

Environmental Effects Laboratory

Wave Dynamics Division: Great Lakes Study

Ocean Wave Information Study

WES versus CERC

Rise of the Wave Dynamics Division

Transfer of CERC to WES


8—The Computer Revolution, 1963-1983, Part II: Waterways and Hydraulic Structures

Rivers and Hydraulic Structures: Physical Modeling Vindicated

Ohio River Overhaul

Ohio River Locks and Dam Studies

Locks and Dam 26: Key to the Upper Mississippi River

Replacement Lock and Dam No. 26 (Melvin Price)

Lock Capacity Computer Analysis

Arkansas River Project

Arkansas River Model Studies

Arkansas River Locks

Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway

Tenn-Tom Tests

Old River Challenges the Corps — Again

New Old River Model Studies

Auxiliary Control Structure

Ohio River Flood Flows

Numerical Modeling of Flood Flows: SOCHMJ and FLOWSED


9—Current Trends and New Directions, 1983–2004

Approaching the New Millineum

Computer Upgrades

New Facilities

TABS-2: Numerical Modeling Triumph

The Growing Atchafalaya Delta

Red River: Sedimentation Nightmare

Red River Hybrid Studies

The Third Dimension: Chesapeake Bay

Chesapeake and Delaware Canal

Ship Simulator

Continued Physical Modeling

River Engineering: Bendway Weirs

River Engineering Continued: Olmsted Locks and Dam

Urban Flood Control: Los Angeles County Drainage Area

Environmental Activism: Northwest Salmon

Salmon and the Corps

Watershed Engineering: Demonstration Erosion Control Project

Military Hydrology

Hydrology in Practice: The Sava River Challenge

Organizational Change and The Merger

U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center

Future Direction: ESTEX Hyperflume

The WES Mission Continued


Appendix A: Organization Charts

Appendix B: Projects in Progress, 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970

Appendix C: Bibliography


Federal Government Sources

Nonfederal Secondary Sources



Archival Sources