The Great Red River Raft

There are many stories of the land that became Oklahoma that are nearly forgotten. One of these and one of the most interesting is the story of the Great Raft.

With the acquisition of the land that is known as The Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States suddenly gained a very long border with Spanish territory that later would become Texas. The United States feared the intentions of the Spanish government and immediately sent expeditions to survey the newly acquired lands along the Red River.

The Red River was the northern boundary of the Spanish Territory. Unsure if the Spanish planned an attack into the area that became Louisiana and Oklahoma, a plan was adopted to make the Red River navigable for gunboat patrols to protect it's southern boundary. If the Red River was the northern boundary, the Spanish believed that the Red River winding down through western Louisiana was also the eastern boundary of Spanish territory. The U.S. considered the Sabine River the eastern boundary of Spanish territory.

Centuries ago the Red River did not flow into the Mississippi River. Instead, it cut through the Atchafalaya of Louisiana south to the Gulf of Mexico. As all rivers do at some time in their life, the Red River changed course and cut through eastern Louisiana to the Mississippi River. This change is thought to be the cause of the great raft.

The Great Raft was a gigantic logjam, a series of "rafts," on the Red River that was unique in North America. Possibly it had begun to form around 1100-1200 AD, though it may have been in progress long before that. Its lower end was about ten miles upstream from Natchitoches, Louisiana by 1806 and it stretched nearly 300 miles up the river.

The reason for the raft's formation is thought to be caused when the Red River finally joined the Mississippi and the high flooding stages of the Big River caused a backup of flood debris during the heavy rains each spring. Once the first logjam occurred, the process continued building upstream. It took many years for the logs on the front of the jam to rot or dislodge. During this process the logjam continued to build up at the back end faster than the front was eroding away.

The constant flooding and erosion of the tributaries of the Red continued building the tremendous logjam. As the area became populated two problems hindered riverboat travel. One was the logjam and the other was the low water level during the summer and fall. Some people downstream thought that the folks up stream needed to pray for a little more for rain.

In June of 1806 an expedition attempted to navigate the Red River. One of the members of the expedition recorded in his journal "The first raft is not more than 40 yards through. It consists of the trunks of large trees, lying in all directions, and damming up the river for its whole width, from the bottom, to about three feet higher than the surface of the water. The wood lies so compact that large bushes, weeds and grass cover the surface of the raft." The expedition was forced to retreat overland after an encounter with the Spanish Army.

As can be seen in the description above, one could easily cross the raft and not realize there was a river beneath their feet. Often, a part of the raft was a short as forty yards but it was completely jammed tight with logs from bank to bank. There would then be clear water for a few yards or even a few miles. The largest single logjam was thought to be thirty miles long.

With the establishment of Ft. Towson in the Choctaw country and Ft. Jesup protecting western Louisiana, it became imperative for the army to clear the river so as to quickly supply the garrisons by riverboat. Citizens of Arkansas and Louisiana began petitioning Congress for funds to clear the river.

Several remedies for the raft were brought forward. The first was to cut a canal from the Red River to the Trinity River in Texas. The folks down stream in Louisiana didn't like this idea at all as it would drastically reduce the flow of the river. The second more viable solution was to build an artificial logjam to trap all the upstream debris. But, the people upstream thought this was a terrible idea. Another solution, which was really a bad one, was to build canals around the logjams. This would have been a tremendous undertaking in money and manpower. And what happened when the logjam moved or deteriorated?

One has to remember that steamboats were the major means of transportation in the early development of the west. There were no roads or railroads. In 1820 the first steamboat called the Beaver reached Natchitoches that was at the lower end of the great raft. By 1825, seven steamboats were regularly plying the waters of the lower Red.

In 1825 the Arkansas territorial legislature petitioned the Congress to provide funds to remove the great raft so as to allow riverboat traffic to Ft. Towson in the Choctaw country. So, as today, Congress appropriated funds to study the raft. Nothing was done and again in 1829, Congress again appropriated funds to study the raft.

Finally, in 1832, $20,000 was appropriated to begin work on the logjam. On April 11, 1833 Captain Henry M. Shreve of the army engineers arrived at the lower end of the raft and began work. Shreve brought four "snag boats" and one hundred fifty men to do the work. By the time the first funds were exhausted, Shreve had cleared twenty-one miles of river. Not bad, only $950 dollars per mile.

The speed and efficiency of work performed by Captain Shreve's company quickly made him a hero in the area. A steamboat landing in Louisiana was later named for him called Shreve Port.

In 1833 Congress failed to fund the project and work halted. In 1834 Congress again funded it and Captain Shreve continued work. He made such rapid progress that when funds were exhausted he had only nine miles left to clear.

By 1836 the river was cleared one hundred ten miles upriver and cotton began flowing down the river. In 1834, over 42,000 bales of cotton were shipped to New Orleans from the area of the great raft.

Captain Shreve made it clear to Congress that this was an ongoing process and the project needed annual funding to keep the river clear. In 1841, Congress appropriated $75,000 and provided a new snag boat.

In 1844 Congress saw fit to give the job to a civilian contractor who knew little of the process of clearing the logjams. The cost of clearing the river quickly grew to the incredible cost of $7,000 per mile. The Senate held a hearing into the cost overruns and the job was returned to the army. It was about this time that the Mexican War broke out and more important things took the place of a few logs floating in the river.

President James Polk took office in 1849 and stopped all expenditures for the project. The logjams returned and closed river traffic for a distance of thirteen miles. In 1854 new funds were once appropriated by Congress to study the logjam. By this time the cost of clearing the river was estimated to be an astounding $10,000 to $12,000 per mile.

Congress refused funds and the project was abandoned. The Civil War quickly came and the Confederate Constitution strictly forbade the spending of national funds on "internal improvements". This meant that the Confederacy would not provide funds for roads, bridges, seaports, river landings or river channel work. Local communities were required to provide the funds for these projects. The Red River, once again, became impassible.

In March of 1864, the Union officers General N.P. Banks and Admiral David Porter planned an attack on Shreveport. They obviously did not have very good local intelligence concerning the navigability of the river. Since the Federal and Confederate governments had abandoned the river for more than ten years it was foolish to execute a river attack on Shreveport.

On April 8, 1864 the Battle of Sabine Cross was fought and the Union forces were forced to withdraw. As the Union boats neared Alexandria, Louisiana the river was now too low to allow the heavier boats to pass the rapids. The Union forces were stuck. At first it was decided that the heavier boats would be burned to avoid falling into enemy hands. But cooler heads prevailed and a plan was devised where a dam would be built below the rapids and the boats would be floated across the rapids to their escape. The plan worked. This event became one of the most famous actions ever contrived by combat engineers.

During reconstruction, nothing was done to clear the logjam from the Red River. In 1869 a convention was called at New Orleans with the topic being the clearing of the Red River. Much bitterness and little leadership quickly lead to nothing being done on the river.

In 1872 the Congress appropriated $170,000 to clear the river once again. By this time steam saws and explosives were in use.

Within a year the entire channel of the Red River was cleared and steamboat traffic once again plowed the entire length of the Red by 1878. By now the Army and Congress had come to the realization that the river required continuous maintenance. In 1879 more than 103,000 bales of cotton were shipped from the area up river from Shreveport. There were now 150 steamer landings all along the river.

But by 1880 the time of the riverboat was fast fading. The railroads were a much more dependable means of transportation and were quickly spreading through Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Indian Territory. Trains were not bothered by the queer traits of nature.

The high cost of constant maintenance of the river channel, the coming of the railroads and the slow and restricted service areas of the steamboat spelt the end of the river traffic. The great river raft was finally dead after eighty years of hard work. There were many more water routes that were far better than the Red River and they also failed with the coming of the railroad.

In 1909, an army engineer wrote "General Banks found the Red River navigation was very bad during the [Civil] War. It is not much better now". The building of the Dennison Dam in the 1940's brought an end to the logjams on the lower Red River.

Contributed by Dennis Muncrief - January 8, 2005.