Professor David Spanagel gave his paper “Harold N. Fisk’s (1944) Maps of the Meandering Mississippi River” at the Geological Society of America annual meeting in Seattle on Monday, October 23, 2017. Geomorphologists and others flocked to hear the paper, which was part of a technical session devoted entirely to “Great Maps in the History of Geology.” George Davis, a past president of GSA, remarked afterward to the session chair that he was especially impressed by two of the papers he heard, “the invited paper by Mott Greene that he had expressly come for, and that one about Fisk’s Maps.”
Spanagel’s abstract: In the spring of 1941, as Americans anxiously wondered whether the nation could indefinitely postpone becoming embroiled in Europe’s latest war, Major General Julian Schley (the United States Army’s Chief of Engineers) authorized an ambitious geological investigation of the alluvial valley of lower Mississippi River. This project would occupy the staff of the Vicksburg-based Mississippi River Commission for the next three and a half years, and its final report would ultimately exhibit the remarkable analytic and cartographic talents of a Louisiana State University geology professor named Harold Fisk. Using aerial photography and a systematic program of 16,000 borings into the alluvial plain, Fisk produced standard topographic maps of the river valley, contour maps of bedrock substructures, cross sections displaying the nature and distribution of various alluvial deposits of sand, gravel, and soils, and a magnificent visual history of the river channel. Fisk’s brilliant and colorful meander maps traced where and how the Mississippi’s path evolved during recent geological time. This paper examines the reception and direct impact of Fisk’s meander maps within the fields of geology and engineering. It also explores how these maps have stimulated other scientific, humanistic, and cultural interpretations of the Mississippi River’s past, and finally addresses how the maps might help us to better understand and cope with the mighty river’s relentless migratory impulse.