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
Gibbons 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. The work was done by free men, as Shreve did not lease from slave or
convict labor.

Some Problems
With the removal of the raft, new towns prospered and old ones found themselves
shut out.
Natchitoches, for example, which was already on the Cane River, now was
at least a mile further removed from the main channel of the Red River. Plantations
had to use land transport to get their cotton and indigo to market.

The raft removal was not done very precisely, either. The logs and debris proved to
be too much for Shreve's snagboats to handle. Much of deadfall was simply placed
along smaller channels, such as Bayou Pierre. This created clogging and backwater
problems for planters located along these waterways. Enslaved workers on some
plantations dug new channels so that the planters could charge toll for passage;
others destroyed or removed the debris pile, allowing some of the plantations to
become dry-docked. The parishes requested state assistance to fix these
infrastructure problems, but while promised, real monies never materialized.

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's (Marion County, Texas) 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 lead to more Problems
The Great Raft, however, was not completely cleared, and the natural cycle of flodss
and debris build-up soon repeated itself. In 1873, the Corps of Engineers under Lt.
Woodruff 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.

The second federally-funded removal left many lakes and bayous drained. The most
notable one was Big Cypress Bayou, home to Jefferson. By the turn of the century,
its deep-water port was gone and the Great Raft's lake had shrunk into Caddo Lake.
The other problem was Yellow Fever. Confederate-leaning newspapers in the area
criticized the raft removal for having caused the 1873 Yellow Fever epidemic.

Lastly, the raft removal allowed the river to shorten 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.

And all for naught
By the late 1870s river navigation had begun 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 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  in the 1870s,40 years after the first raft was cleared.  
(www.texasbyondhistory.net)
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.
The Great Red River Raft
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.
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.
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)
The Red River Valley
in Arkansas, explains
the Red River Raft
removal in detail.
Click
to order your copy!
Shreve's snag boat,
the Heliopolis, ate
trees for breakfast,
lunch, and dinner.
(Harper's Weekly,
Library of Congress)
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.
This 1839 map  of
post offices and
postal roads in
Mississippi,
Arkansas, and
Louisiana details the
Great Raft north of

Natchitoches
and
west of Lake
Bastineau. (LOC)
During the second federal
raft removal in 1873, Lt.
Woodruff used a crane
boat to remove the stumps.
This was a tedious
process. Area newspapers
like the Shreveport Times
accused the removal effort
of creating the conditions
for the massive, 1873
Yellow Fever outbreak. Lt.
Woodruff himself fell
victim to this disease.
(LOC)
Under Lt. Woodruff, the
second raft removal
included the use of
nitroglycerin. The
resulting explosions
drained the bayous that
the raft dammed to such
an extent that the
wetlands, plantations,
and port cities along them
became dry-docked; they
were no longer part of the
river system. (LOC)
The steamer R.T. Byarly
was photographed by Lt.
Woodruff's crew as it made
its way up the Red River
using the Sale and Murphy
Channel, a private
thoroughfare that was
tolled. This channel was
closed in 1884 when
congress appropriated
monies to ensure the
"improvement of the main
channel of the Red River."
(LOC)