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Biography: Benjamin G. Humphreys

 

Benjamin G. Humphreys (1865-1923) of Greenville, Mississippi, known affectionately as "Our Ben" to his constituents, was the member of a family whose ancestors played active roles in U.S. history dating back to the Revolutionary War. Humphrey's father was Benjamin Grubb Humphreys, a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army who fought at Gettysburg and who served as Governor of Mississippi after the war (1865-1868). Ralph Humphreys, a paternal great-grandfather, was Colonel of a Virginia regiment in the Revolutionary Army, and his wife Agnes was a descendant of James Wilson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. When Ben Humphreys married Louise Yerger, daughter of Greenville's mayor, Jefferson Davis was among the guests.

Ben Humphreys was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1902 from the Third District of Mississippi, and went to Washington determined to make the nation conscious of flooding problems on the lower Mississippi River. Humphrey's efforts went largely unrewarded until 1912, when severe flooding struck the river and cries went up for federal relief assistance; devastating floods also occurred in 1913 and 1916. In 1914, Humphreys published a paper "Floods and Levees of the Mississippi River", with testimony and historical narratives describing the ravages of flooding and the destruction of lives and livelihoods. The paper advanced the notion of the Mississippi as the drainage canal of the nation, and made a case for federal responsibility in its control. Humphreys' brilliant paper swayed public opinion and touched the nation's conscience.

Control of the nation's rivers was the responsibility of the House Rivers and Harbors Committee, of which Humphreys was a member. After repeated attempts to get his national flood control program out of a seemingly indifferent committee, Humphreys and a caucus of other interested colleagues waged a short and furious battle in Congress and wrested authority of flood control away from Rivers and Harbors. The new Flood Control Committee toured the Mississippi River in 1916. Committee members saw firsthand the vast stretches of water held back by puny earthen dikes. They returned to Washington convinced that "Ben was right, something has to be done and done quickly."

On March 4, 1917, Congress passed the Ransdell-Humphreys Flood Control Act, "for controlling the floods and for the general improvement of the Mississippi River." The nation had assumed the task of lifting the great burden of flooding from the people of the lower Mississippi Valley.

Ben Humphreys died in October of 1923, and at his request, was buried in the Greenville Cemetery. A 1950 Greenville Delta Democrat Times newspaper article recalling his life and the bridge that bears his name observed, "it seems appropriate that the massive structure of steel and concrete which links two sides on the great river he loved should be dedicated to his memory. His life work had been the conquest of that river beside which he now sleeps."