Rambling on the Red
When Arkansans think of fields of cotton, they focus on the Delta region of east Arkansas. What we consider Arkansas’ cotton country was mostly covered by bottomland hardwood forests and swamps until the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of the state’s early cotton growers actually made their fortunes in the southwest corner of Arkansas near the Red River.
“The Red River formed an alluvial plain and shared some of the same qualities of the Mississippi River region,” wrote the late Arkansas historian C. Fred Williams. “It had oxbow lakes, swamps and dense undergrowth that presented a challenge to early farmers. But the Red River valley sat higher and was not as subject to flooding, and the soil had a sandy loam rather than a clay base. Because it required less effort to cultivate, it became the first region to be dominated by the cotton monoculture.”
As I cross the Red River on U.S. 71 between Texarkana and Ashdown,
I’m reminded of how little Arkansans in other parts of the state know about this region. They’re more likely to think of the Red River as forming the border between Texas and Oklahoma than they are to view it as a stream that played a significant role in Arkansas history.
The French established trading posts along the Red River in the 1700s. By the early 1800s, new settlers were growing cotton here. Washington in Hempstead County (where the Historic Washington State Park has become this state’s version of Colonial Williamsburg) became an early center of commerce.
“Until the late 19th century, the Red River’s utility as a transportation corridor between the Mississippi River and points west of present-day Shreveport was impeded by the Great Raft (or Red River Raft), an enormous logjam that clogged the lower part of the river,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “It extended to more than 130 miles at one point. The raft likely existed for hundreds of years. It was so old that, according to some sources, it actually became a part of Caddo mythology.
“In 1828, Congress set aside $25,000 for the raft’s removal. Capt. Henry Miller Shreve, then serving as the superintendent of western river improvement, was assigned the task of clearing the raft in 1832. In 1838, he completed the task, though it reformed farther up the river soon thereafter and eventually extended to the Arkansas border. Congress hesitated in setting aside more money for the clearance project with many members feeling it to be a lost cause.”
The part of the raft that had reformed was removed in 1873. Dams were placed along Red River tributaries to keep the raft from forming again.
“Despite the eventual clearing of the river, no major towns in Arkansas were established upon the Red, though Texarkana, Hope and Lewisville all lie at a few miles’ remove,” Lancaster writes. “Until 1900, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened the channel of the river with the result that steamboat traffic increased as boats were able to transport goods from the mouth of the Mississippi River through Arkansas and into Texas and Oklahoma . . . . The river was navigable all year to Garland in Miller County where the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railway (Cotton Belt) crossed the river. The railroad—as well as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway, which crossed the Red River at Fulton— provided stiff competition for steamboats, soon replacing them entirely.”
The economy of this rural area was boosted from 1961-66 by the construction of Millwood Dam by the Corps. The dam is on the Little River and was designed to control flooding downstream along the Red. The earthen dam is 3.3 miles long. The lake it created covers 29,200 acres, but construction didn’t happen until after a lengthy political battle.
The dam had been authorized by the federal Flood Control Act of 1946. Dierks Forests, which was a political power in those days, didn’t like the fact that it would lose more than 6,000 acres of valuable timberland. The Ideal Cement Co. at Okay objected because it feared its quarries would be flooded. The Corps agreed to build a $2.5 million levee with pumps to protect Ideal’s interests.
A group known as the Little River Valley Improvement Association continued to object to the fact that the dam would be built in profitable bottomland areas rather than the hill country upstream. Meanwhile, the state governments of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas fought over who had the right to dam various Red River tributaries. Congressman Oren Harris from Arkansas finally broke the deadlock during a 1956 meeting of the Red River Valley Association.
Harris, who was born in rural Hempstead County, had practiced law at El Dorado prior to being elected to the House in 1940. He served in Congress for almost 25 years before being appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as a federal judge in 1965.
”Harris presented a plan whereby the proposed dam was reduced in size by 25 percent and redesigned to provide a stable water supply as well as flood control,” Lancaster writes. “A provision was made for the construction of smaller dams elsewhere in the Little River basin three in Oklahoma and three in Arkansas—making Millwood Dam the centerpiece of a sevendam system. The compromise was accepted and written in the Flood Control Act of 1958.”
While most Arkansans have heard of Millwood, few outside the southwest part of the state know about the three smaller Corps lakes created by this compromise.
A dam on the Rolling Fork River formed De Queen Lake. The Rolling Fork covers 55 miles before emptying into the Little River. It starts near Hatton in Polk County and flows south through Wickes and Grannis. Work on the dam began in April 1966 and continued until 1977.
A dam on the Saline River (not to be confused with the much longer river of the same name to the east) formed Dierks Lake. This Saline also begins in the Ouachita Mountains of Polk County. It flows to the south through Howard County (forming the boundary between Howard and Sevier counties at one point) and empties into Millwood Lake. Work on Dierks Dam took place from 1968-75 and resulted in a 1,360-acre lake.
A dam on the Cossatot River formed Gillham Lake. The Cossatot begins in Polk County and flows south through Howard and Sevier counties before emptying into the Little River just north of Ashdown. The dam forms 1,370acre Gillham Lake. Work began in June 1963 but stopped several times due to lawsuits filed by environmental groups. The dam began storing water in May 1975.