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Arthur Morgan—A Mover of Earth, A Pourer of Concrete, a Shaper of Minds - Page 2

By Mark Bernstein

He declined. Wider fields were opening. Based on a competitive national examination, he was one of four engineers hired by the Department of Agriculture's Office of Drainage Investigation.

He left Minnesota to pursue his work but also perhaps to distance himself as well from the death of his first wife, Urania, just four months after the birth of their first child, Ernest. Later, he would feel remorse at his absences, worry that if he were to die, his son - left in the care of relatives - would grow up an orphan, and so he wrote a series of letters to be given to young Ernest at age two, age five, age eight, and so on, should anything happen to him.

Remarkable letters. Never sent, but remarkable still; never quite convincingly warm, nonetheless compassionate, filled with admonition and somewhat distant advice. Young Ernest was enjoined to "avoid a life limited in its aims to the ordinary aims of men, and work out a practical, active, useful life," bearing in mind that "the very deepest doubts you have do not affect your everyday life as deeply as you think. Do you ever imagine any possible development of truth which will make it desirable for you to be cruel, impure, selfish or indolent?"

The style of writing would, with little modification, stay with Morgan. The sentences were long, the phrases graceful, but nonetheless sparse, spare, with the engineer's reach for efficiency combining with a Puritan’s horror of waste to lock every word in its place, bricks in a wall, and never a subordinate clause to explain what he meant by duty, character, honesty, progress and truth.

He knew what he meant by duty. Twice while working for the agriculture department, the deadline on major projects passed before the task was complete. Both times, Morgan was ordered back to Washington. Both times, he refused. They could fire him if they wished, but he would not leave a job half finished. Both times he was allowed to remain.

He knew what he meant by honesty. Once, in temporary charge of the agency's Washington office, he refused to release a report on the Everglades because he believed it a cover for a get-rich-quick land scheme. Backers of the plan had Morgan's supervisor dismissed. Morgan went to the press, sparking a Congressional investigation that led to the "resignation" of those officials in league with the developers and the reinstatement of Morgan's supervisor.

By then, Morgan was out of government. In 1910, he established the Morgan Engineering Company in Memphis. The following year, he married Lucy Griscom, a young biology instructor on the Wellesley faculty, whose Quaker sense of mission would do little to soften her husband's drive. At 33, Morgan had, at long last, completed his apprenticeship.

"Monday it seemed as if the windows of heaven had opened. The rain descended in floods. The sky would lighten, the sun seem at the point of shining. Then another black mass of clouds would sweep across the sky. There was lightning and mad rain. Time and again throughout the day the process would be repeated."

Dayton Daily News April 5, 1913:

The Great Miami River rose the day after Easter, pouring over its banks and inundating downtown Dayton at a rate of 250,000 cubic feet of water a second. When floodwaters crested on Wednesday, March 26, 10 square miles of the city were covered. John H. Patterson, head of National Cash Register, wired The New York Times: "Situation here desperate. All people, except on outskirts, imprisoned by water. They have had no food, no drinking water, no light, no heat for two days."

Even as he wired The Times, Patterson was converting NCR to the mass production of rowboats with which to reach the stranded. As the waters receded, Dayton's energetic civic leadership shifted its concern to preventing a repetition of the disaster. A Flood Prevention Committee - urging Daytonians to "Remember the Promises You Made in the Attic" - raised $2 million toward that task.

At that point, Edward Hanley, Democratic "boss" of the city, told the committee's chairman, Colonel Edward Deeds, that the city council was about to name a flood control engineer, one more likely to be politically correct than professionally competent. If Deed's committee wanted a professional, Hanley added, it had better move fast. It did. Contacted in Memphis on a Saturday, Morgan was in the flood-stricken city by Monday noon and was hired by day's end.

The main hindrance to successful large-scale flood control, Morgan told city leaders, was that public clamor to "make the dirt fly" would cause officials to press ahead with inadequate plans. Flood control for Dayton, he insisted, must be approached regionally, and that would require lengthy and painstaking planning. Rather to Morgan's surprise, Deeds' committee agreed.

Dayton might be united, but cities upstream believed that protection for Dayton would mean destruction for them. When the state legislature passed the enabling act for the Miami Conservancy District, a newspaper in Troy claimed the law would "bring Ruin, Death or Starvation to Miami County."

While Deeds took the campaign to the public in an energetic speaking tour, Morgan initiated extensive engineering studies. He posed a question so fundamental that its answer had never seriously been sought: How much flood control is enough? Before the 1913 flood, Dayton had considered a flood control plan that would guard the city against a hypothetical flow of 90,000 cubic feet a second. The real flood was nearly three times that size.

Morgan sent an engineering team to Washington to undertake the first comprehensive rainfall analysis ever attempted. Gathering half a million facts, they plotted detailed maps for the 160 greatest storms in the country's history.

The 1913 disaster was regarded as a 500-year flood; that is, the greatest flow of water to be expected in five centuries. How much larger might a thousand-year flood be? Morgan sent an engineer to a castle on the Danube where high-water points for floods had been marked for nine centuries. The Great Flood of 1066, his engineer reported, was only 25 percent larger than a hundred-year flood. Leaving a margin for error, Morgan decided to design for a flow 40 percent above that of 1913.

Opposition upstream, especially in areas that felt themselves likely candidates for a dam site, ran high. Englewood, where Morgan lived with his wife and their children, was one of them. Neighbor­hood boys taunted Ernest, the eldest, but never harmed him because, Ernest decided, they feared "the aura of evil that emanated from my father, who was going to drown them all."

Morgan now practiced what he termed "conclusive engineering analysis," by which all options were studied in detail until they were ruled out. For the Miami Conservancy District, one such idea was the construction of dry dams, empty reservoirs that would be farmable in normal years, but into which floodwaters could be di­verted in emergency, permitting only such runoff as the river could safely carry away.

Initially, dry dams were a minor option, but as engineering stud­ies came in they gained in attraction. A chief characteristic of the Great Miami - which "rises to rain like a trout to a fly" - was the variability of its flow. Dry dams would handle that variation; suita­ble sites were available - sites free of cities, factories and railroads.

At the time, there was no American precedent for an earthen dry dam scheme, and European examples were small scale. Morgan noted that "the thought of dams without water behind them offended some people's intuitions of propriety and provided a text for the opposition." That opposition gathered en masse in Dayton's Memorial Hall on October 3,1916, when Morgan presented his plans to the Miami Conservancy Court.

Morgan's "cross examination had not more than started," the Dayton Daily News reported, "before it was apparent to everyone that he had a grasp of the subject clearly beyond anything that was to be expected." Every alternative plan put forward by opponents had already been studied by Morgan's engineers; studied in depth, rejected and the reasons for that rejection made clear. "During the five days that Mr. Morgan was on the stand, there was no request for information made... that was not met with instant response. The promptness and thoroughness of the answer was always more surprising and unexpected than the question itself."

Legal challenges and other delays followed, but the major hurdle was past. On January 27, 1918, work began on Huffman Dam, the first of five earthen structures that ring Dayton to this day, and which have never spilled a drop.

In Dayton one morning in 1919, an acquaintance remarked that the morning paper had announced Morgan's appointment as a trustee of Antioch College. "This," Morgan wrote subsequently, "was news to me." Indeed, Morgan - who for six years had lived within thirty miles of the school - had never heard of the place, which may stand as fair comment on the low fortune to which the institution had fallen.

Antioch had been founded nobly enough. In 1853, Horace Mann - "the father of the public school" - left the comforts of New Eng­land to plant the seeds of enlightenment in the recently turned soil of southwestern Ohio. At Antioch, that seed fell on stony ground. Local sponsors were fundamentalist in outlook, and Mann, worn out by inadequate finances and doctrinal infighting, collapsed and died not long after his ringing 1859 commencement address in which he enjoined his graduates to "be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."

If Mann had won a victory in Ohio, it was an obscure one. The college continued as a largely local institution, with more ups than downs, until 1919, when final liquidation loomed. And so, the newly appointed trustee drove out with his wife, Lucy, to Yellow Springs, home of the college, for a first-hand assessment. Though the campus was bordered by an extraordinary natural area, both the work of Mann and the works of man were in pitiable condition. Plumbing, Morgan noted, was nonexistent; heating inadequate; and much dormitory space in a state of abandonment and disrepair Rainwater cisterns and household pumps substituted for a water system.

Morgan considered the situation excellent. "I believe it is near enough dead," he wrote, "to start over in the form I dream of." Other men might have been preoccupied with overseeing the largest flood control project of the day, but Morgan's imagination always teemed with new ideas, many of them concerned with transforming American higher education, which he considered danger­ously narrow, overspecialized and out of touch with the practical world. He itched to put his ideas into practice.

Now considering the Conservancy task nearing completion, Morgan found he was being offered a college for his own; lock, stock and cistern. If the board didn't know that when they appointed Morgan a trustee, they learned of it forcefully six weeks later, when he presented his "Plan for Practical Industrial Education."

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