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VOL. 117 | NO. 32 | Friday, February 14, 2003

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River walks

River walks


The Daily News

Bobby Littlejohns first childhood memory of the mighty Mississippi River was traversing from Arkansas to Tennessee across the train tracks of the historic Harahan Bridge.

Two new, neighboring bridges and several decades later, his informal, though intimate, knowledge of the famous river acquired while he worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers holds riverboat tales spanning 1,600 miles: from Illinois to Rosedale, Miss.

The Earle, Ark., native retired in 1998 after 40 years of work with the Corps which included projects that stabilized Riverside Drive as well as the riverbanks supporting Tunicas casinos.

Yes, I feel like I have a relationship with the river, Littlejohn, a fan of Mark Twains folksy literature, said. The one thing I learned working on the river is that you dont ever force it to conform.

You cant ever make the river do what you want it to unless it wants to.

In July, Littlejohn was inducted into the Corps of Engineers Gallery of Distinguished Civilian Employees at the Memphis district office.

He was a University of Arkansas engineering student when the Corps recruited him for summertime employment work that helped him pay his way through college and secure a job after graduation.

Today, Littlejohn and his wife, Donna, divide their time between their West Memphis, Ark., home and their condominium at Greers Ferry Lake a popular recreation spot near Heber Springs, Ark.

He works part-time as a private consultant for river-related projects, and remains especially drawn to the Mississippi River where overseeing projects that deal with high and low water levels remains both interesting and challenging.

It was a very big responsibility working on the river, he said. I visited many farmers with requests for help. Sometimes you could help, sometimes you said, No, the Corps cant. I am sorry.

Littlejohn takes particular notice each May when thousands of people crowd Tom Lee Park to eat barbecue or listen to live music.

In the early 1980s, he was chief of river stabilization for the Corps of Engineers Memphis district when it saw the need to alleviate random flooding from Ol Man River onto Riverside Drive a key thoroughfare to and from Downtown.

Littlejohn recalled the road often was a muddy roller coaster.

The Corps $7 million corrective project included construction of a 50-foot dike along the river near the Waterford apartment building.

As a result, the city of Memphis was able to triple the size of the park from 11 acres to 33 acres.

Every time I drive down there by the park, I cant help but to reflect and take a lot of pride in what we did, he said.

Littlejohn later supervised a project concerning a 10-mile stretch of the river that surrounded Buck Island-Commerce Reach in Tunica, Miss.

Three consecutive years of flooding had created instability in an area that, coincidentally, later became home to riverboat gaming establishments.

Littlejohn said the Corps negotiated and purchased about 500 acres from landowners for what became a $24 million, 10-year project.

We had no foresight about casinos coming, but there could have been disastrous results (without the corrective work), he said. Parking lots, buildings and people could all have been lost due to collapsing banks.

Remembering a friend who nearly died in his car during the Midwest flood in 1993, Littlejohn said the Mississippi River is more dangerous than most people realize.

The river has many faces, he said. It has extreme lows and extreme highs. If your boats engine dies on the river, you are in trouble.

Several times, Littlejohns expertise has led him to work with engineers in Bolivia and Venezuela where flood work has been done on the Orinoco River, one of the largest rivers in the world.

Their dream is of one day having another Mississippi River, of doing what we have done here, Littlejohn said with pride.

PROPERTY SALES 74 196 20,828
MORTGAGES 86 244 23,989
BUILDING PERMITS 138 453 43,046
BANKRUPTCIES 64 174 13,354