The Great Red River Raft
Make Way for... Everyone
But there was rumbling. The Red River flowed quite freely through eastern Texas/Indian Territory and Arkansas, but without a way to
connect to the lower portion of the river, the settlements in those regions simply could not grow as large as they hoped. In 1824,
Fort
Towson, founded along the river in Indian Territory (in today's Choctaw County) to protect the newly-arrived Choctaws and Chickasaws
from hostile Amerindian and Americans, could not receive much-needed supplies due to the unmanageable river downstream. Thus, the
federal government ordered the Army Corps of Engineers (founded by Jefferson) with removing the Great Raft, who in turn hired Captain
Henry Shreve to carry this out.

Henry Shreve (1739-1851) began his career as a river boat captain. He was instrumental in stopping steamship monopolies, and his
refusal to honor the monopolies of Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston on the Mississippi River brought the Supreme Court decision to
allow unimpeded interstate water navigation in
Gibbon v. Ogden (1824). Shreve helped to develop steam ships by inventing new devices
and improving designs. One of his inventions was the "snag boat," which he used to first clear the Mississippi, then the Red River. The
Heliopolis was built specifically for the removal of the Great River Raft from 1833 until 1838. Note that the boat assisted, but the main work
was done by men - specifically, enslaved men and immigrants.

With the removal of the raft, new towns prospered and old ones found themselves shut out - Natchitoches, for example, was suddenly
located on a river cut-off and not on the main channel. This river cut-off became known as the Cane River, and plantations had to use land
transport to get their cotton and indigo to market.

On the other hand, Shreveport (named in honor of Captain Shreve, who also was an investor in the town charter) was founded on the
newly cleared land in 1839 and soon became a large trading center. Jefferson (Marion County, Texas)'s location on the Big Cypress Bayou,
a deep water lake carved from the raft and now navigable after the raft's removal, allowed the hamlet to become one of Texas' most
important port cities.  

More Removals to Come
The Great Raft, however, was not completely cleared, and the natural cycle of floods and debris build-up soon repeated itself. In 1873, the
Corps of Engineers began in earnest to open up the Red River once again, this time using nitroglycerin. With the river finally opened,
steamships and paddle wheelers could navigate north into Arkansas and as far west as Jonesborough and Fort Towson.

But the many lakes and bayous that the Red River had created in Louisiana and East Texas drained away. The river shortened its path to
the Mississippi. To stop the destabilization of the land surrounding the river, the Corps of Engineers had to implement billions of dollars
in lock and dam improvements to keep the river navigable.

By the late 1870s, however, river navigation began to trickle downward. Railroads, and the resulting boom towns, left the Red River
increasingly silent. The "heads of navigation," which at one point reached all the way to Gainesville (Cooke County, Texas) eventually
dwindled eastward until by the 1940s, only local rock barges traversed the Red River.

The state of Louisiana did not want to lose its connection to the river, however. In the 1990s, the Army Corps of Engineers built several
locks and dams to accommodate the state's and cities' investments in river ports. Today, the Red River at and below Shreveport is once
again humming with shipping traffic. It is still vital, however, for the Corps to continue to clear the waterway lest it dam up again.
The Great Red River Raft (or, the Big Mess) in the 1870s, after the first raft was cleared. Photo courtesy of Texas Beyond History
(www.texasbyondhistory.net)
Not-so-natural Disasters
Two of the greatest man-made natural disasters occurred along the Red River Valley. One was Dallas' decision to practice flood control on
the Trinity River. In the 1930s, the city straightened out the stream, built earthen levies (many of which are not so stable now), and moved
the entire river a few hundred yards to the east. Today, the re-engineered Trinity has shrunk to the size of a creek. So, when you drive on
Interstate 35 through downtown Dallas, you're actually driving on the old Trinity River bed, and you'll notice that the courthouse actually sits
on a natural bluff of where the river once flowed.

That's really bad, especially because over the years, many pundits have pondered why Dallas grew so large, since it didn't have any
discernible "natural advantages." Whatever... It goes to show that there aren't many people willing to understand a place's history and
geography before they go about disparaging it.

That's what happened in the second example of man-made disaster: the removal of the Great Raft along the Red River just north of
present-day Shreveport. Not that that's how you'd hear history books tell it. According to school textbooks, this 40-year project,
spear-headed by the Corps of Engineers, helped to open up trade in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas.  And that may be true
enough. What isn't said, however, is that removing the natural dam that had existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years, ruined
Caddoan culture and the natural geology of Louisiana.

Red River Exploration
After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Thomas Jefferson ordered the exploration of the Red River north of Natchitoches, in the hopes that
the river would lead to Santa Fe. The men tasked with this undertaking, Peter Custis and Thomas Freeman, had to first slough through a
"log jam" that they described as at least 100 miles wide and maybe 130 miles long. Spanish troops ended their expedition at Spanish Bluff
before the river could be fully explored. But the impressions that Custis and Freeman brought back with them - of the flora and fauna, and
of the immense wooden dam along the river - assisted with establishing settlements in western Louisiana and eastern Texas.

The "log jam" was indeed immense. Every Spring, flash floods would dislodge cottonwoods, post oaks, pines, and other trees along the
sandy, silty banks of the river. Huge trees sunk to the bottom of the shallow river along bayous, creating a natural dam as more and more of
them toppled onto each other. The jam allowed water to back up into large, deep lakes, but was porous enough to create a constant and
consistent river south of the dam.

The Caddos, who lived along the Red River, used this natural phenomena as a way to record time. During the spring floods, they could hear
the immense cracking of new trees being swept into the dam. The newly cleared land created by the floods marked the places where they
could plant their crops. To them, the river's natural propensity assisted their way of life.

Early European settlers saw the Great Raft, as they called it, as simply a part of a natural cycle, too. The French planters who settled around
Natchitoches built their plantations along the river to send their cotton down to New Orleans.
Jefferson lost a lot of business during the second Great Raft removal. It's been said that if the removal hadn't occurred, Jefferson would have
rivaled Dallas today.
Nachitotches was the first victim of the Great Raft removal. By the late 1830s, the oldest town in the Louisiana Purchase suddenly found itself
on a shallow outlet lake instead of on the Red River.
Henry Shreve's snag boat design from 1838 was a true marvel. Shreve warned successors that the river will once again jam, but his
admonishments were not heeded until the 1870s. (Library of Congress photo)
Shreve's snag boat, the Heliopolis, ate trees for breakfast, lunch,
and dinner. (Harper's Weekly, Library of Congress)
Today, the Red River's main channel flows north of Natchitoches and the Cane River plantations that once abutted it. The Army Corps of
Engineers has a constant task of monitoring river flow in order to keep the silty, alluvial Louisiana land stable.
My book, The Red River Valley in Arkansas, explains the
Red River Raft removal in detail.
Click to order your copy!
Questions or comments? E-mail me: robin@redriverhistorian.com