Ram­bling on the Red

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Rex Nel­son Rex Nel­son is a se­nior ed­i­tor at the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette.

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.

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