Archive for the ‘Floods’ Category

The Sunken Lands

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

One of the great feats in Arkansas history was the decades-long effort to drain the swamps in the northeast part of the state so row-crop agriculture (cotton in those days; mostly soybeans and rice now) could flourish.

I began thinking about that effort earlier this month when I noticed on the newspaper obituary page that Wayne Hinds of Trumann had died. Hinds was the longtime general manager and executive secretary of what’s known as Drainage District No. 7. He also was a member of the Lower Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association. Hinds probably knew more than anyone about the Marked Tree Siphons, which were considered to be among the nation’s outstanding engineering feats when they were dedicated in 1939. Hinds worked for the drainage district for almost 48 years.

The drainage district was established by the Arkansas Legislature in 1917 to help reclaim the Sunken Lands, the area created by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12. The drainage district oversees 310 miles of ditches and 62 miles of levees that initially were constructed from 1917-26. At the point where a major levee crosses the St. Francis River just north of Marked Tree, the Memphis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a sluiceway, lock and floodway to allow river traffic to continue. Work on that project was completed in 1926.

The levee was destroyed by the Great Flood of 1927. It was repaired, but a 1933 flood caused the sluiceway to break and a portion of the levee to collapse. Temporary repairs were made, but a 1938 flood created a 90-foot gap in the levee and destroyed the sluiceway. Engineers determined that the fine sands in the area became quicksand when saturated.

To get around that problem, the Corps of Engineers designed what became known as the Marked Tree Siphons. The district engineer at Memphis had seen a siphon in New Orleans that give him the idea. The three Marked Tree Siphons are each nine feet across and more than 200 feet long. The siphons lift the water of the river over the levee instead of under or through it. The cost of constructing the siphons was $215,0000. At the dedication ceremony in June 1939, people from all over northeast Arkansas showed up in their finest clothes. It was a big day.

The district engineer for the Corps called the siphons “unique in the annals of engineering.” The story about this marvel of modern engineering ran in newspapers across the country. In 1988, the Marked Tree Siphons and the old lock on the St. Francis River, which is no longer used, were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the 1990s, the siphons were improved so that they will continue to function through the 21st century. Hinds told the Poinsett County Democrat Tribune last year: “The whole system is in the best shape it has ever been, even better than when it was first built.”

Northeast Arkansas was slow to be settled because it was covered with swamps and almost impenetrable bottomland hardwood forests. Donna Brewer Jackson wrote in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Without drainage, the land was useless for farming. Early residents realized that once the land was cleared of the timber and drained, the rich alluvial soil would be productive for a variety of crops, especially cotton. Initially, early settlers had attempted to build makeshift barriers to halt the powerful floodwaters, but these attempts were ultimately useless. Although the line of levees along the Mississippi River expanded during the 19th century, the water always found a weak spot and inundated the region.

“In 1879, Congress created the Mississippi River Commission to establish a unified flood-control plan. In cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the commission’s goal was to build higher levees based on previous flood heights and improve their quality. Between 1905 and 1915, the Arkansas General Assembly passed laws to create a program of flood control. … Organization of drainage districts required landowners to petition the county courts to place a lien on the lands through a court order. The court order ensured that improvement taxes would be paid. Money collected from the taxes paid the principle; it and interest on bonds issued by the drainage districts, along with proceeds from the bond sales, were used to build the levees and drainage canals. The drainage districts also had the power to hire deputies to patrol levees to keep sabotage and vandalism at a minimum. Often, the drainage districts received matching funds from the federal government.”

Jackson pointed out that there was frequent opposition to the work of the levee and drainage districts in the eastern part of the state.

“Some people believed that building levees interfered with the natural development of the land,” she wrote. “Hunters, in particular, resented being told to vacate land they had hunted and fished for years and feared that drainage canals would destroy the habitat for animals and fish. Those who lived or ran livestock on the islands in the Mississippi River feared that levees would raise the level of the river and flood them out. There were attempts in some areas to cut the levees and sabotage the plans of the drainage districts. However, the majority of the people of the state benefited from the levee-building efforts. … After the lands were drained, that swampland was turned into tillable soil, and instances of malaria dropped dramatically.”

The Sunken Lands consist of the parts of Poinsett, Mississippi and Craighead counties that sank during the New Madrid earthquakes, which began in December 1811 and caused large tracts of land to sink as much as 50 feet. The earthquakes continued through March 1812.

“Those surveying the damage in canoes recorded their shock at seeing forests of tall trees submerged in the murky water with only the tallest branches visible,” wrote Nancy Hendricks of Arkansas State University. “Lakes replaced hills, and huge fissures filled with stagnant pools. For miles, the quakes caused land to sink beneath the level of the surrounding countryside. The once-bountiful northeast Arkansas — filled with verdant forests, abundant game and fertile ground — became a swamp. The remoteness of the region, scarcity of settlers and lack of communication made accurate damage reports impossible for years. Survivors of the quakes took stock of what remained and often abandoned what was left of their homes. Meanwhile, the U.S. government was enticing soldiers into service during the War of 1812 with promises of land grants in the areas west of the Mississippi, including northeastern Arkansas. … Many arrived after surviving the journey and found that their land grant was under water, habitable only by the snakes and mosquitoes that were rampant.”

Most of those settlers moved on to Crowley’s Ridge.

Later innovations such as the Marked Tree Siphons allowed towns in the Sunken Lands such as Marked Tree, Trumann, Tyronza, Lepanto, Turrell and Lake City to grow.

Magdalena Teske explained the name of Marked Tree in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The town was named for an oak tree marked with a foot-high M that used to be on the bank of the Little River. There are two possible explanations as to who marked it. One is that it was marked in the 1830s by a member of John Murrell’s band of outlaws from the area of Jackson, Tenn. They stole horses and sometimes even slaves from Kentucky and Tennessee and brought them through Arkansas to Oklahoma and Texas. A less likely theory is that Indians marked the tree. Osages, who lived farther north in Missouri, hunted the Marked Tree area for many generations. Delaware and Shawnee also had communities in northeast Arkansas briefly during territorial times. Although the marked tree for which the town was named fell into the river during a flood in 1890, a tree was found in the river in 1971 that is believed to be the same tree.”

It was Ernest Ritter who headed the movement in 1887 to incorporate Marked Tree as a town. Ritter had come to town in 1886 to work at his uncle’s lumber mill. He was an entrepreneur who by 1906 had started a telephone company, a power company and a water and sewer company. He also owned many of the buildings in Marked Tree and even built a commercial ice plant so fish caught from the St. Francis River by commercial fishermen could be iced and shipped downstream. I just happened to be at a meeting atop Petit Jean Mountain last week with Ritter Arnold, who now runs the agricultural side of E. Ritter & Co. He’s the great-great-grandson of Ernest Ritter. His mother, Mary Ann Ritter Arnold, became the mayor of Marked Tree.

In 1947, E. Ritter & Co. acquired a substantial portion of what had been the operations of Chapman & Dewey, which had begun as a lumber company and had gone on to own car dealerships, a bulk fuel operation, a farm equipment company and thousands of acres of farmland. Chapman & Dewey had bought its first sawmill in the area in 1890 from an Iowa investor. By 1893, the company had purchased more than 100,000 acres in Arkansas, with at least 30,000 of those in Poinsett County.

“At the turn of the century, they were the chief employers in Marked Tree,” Teske wrote. “Although a privately owned electricity plant had been built in 1898, the Chapman & Dewey Lumber Co. installed the first electric plant for the general public in Marked Tree. … The company was hurt by a major fire in 1902. The fire began during the midnight meal break of the night workers, the day after a strike had been settled. The company had agreed to the workers’ terms, but only for white workers. Some people believed that the fire was deliberately set by angry black workers, but there is no evidence to support that theory. The company had employed about 300 men, but due to the losses, it had to fire about half of them.”

Ernest Ritter and W.B. Miller were instrumental in getting drainage districts established in the county. These days, E. Ritter & Co. has an agricultural division and a communications division, which evolved out of its telephone company. It became an Internet service provider in the 1990s and moved into the cable television business in 2005. There are several hundred employees, and the company has revenues of more than $200 million a year.

Mary Ann Ritter Arnold was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame in 1998. She received her college degree from the University of Missouri in home economics and went on to serve on the boards of the Agriculture Council of Arkansas, the Arkansas Rice Council, the U.S. Rice Council and the National Cotton Council. She also served as state chairman of the Farm Services Agency Committee, on the board of the Arkansas State University Foundation and on the board of the St. Francis Levee District. In addition to having been president and chairman of E. Ritter & Co., she was a director for the Marked Tree Bank. Her husband, Dr. Sidney William Arnold, died in 2004 at age 78.

“The business has always been run as a business,” Ritter Arnold once said. “We’ve always been flexible. If it looked like a business needed to be exited, we would do that. One ingredient to a successful business today is to realize that you can’t do it all yourself. If you’re going to be a success, you’ve got to have a lot of other very good people working with you.”

In the Sunken Lands, the company founded well over a century ago by Ernest Ritter plugs on. And the Marked Tree Siphons still lift the water of the St. Francis River over the levee.

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JFK and the Greers Ferry water garden

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Raised by his grandparents, Jerry Holmes grew up in rural Cleburne County, just north of Quitman.

It’s a scenic part of our state, and quite a draw for visitors from Memphis and Little Rock since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam on the Little Red River and created Greers Ferry Lake.

Discussions in Washington about building a series of dams along the White River and Little Red River for flood-control purposes began after the Great Flood of 1927. A year after another huge flood in 1937, Congress passed the Flood Control Act and began to move forward with plans for dams along tributaries of the Mississippi River.

American involvement in World War II delayed work on those dams.

In 1960 — following nine years of extensive planning — the first concrete was poured for Greers Ferry Dam on the Little Red River near Heber Springs. The dam contains 856,000 cubic yards of concrete and weighs 3.4668 billion pounds.

Two men lost their lives working on the project. Ed Phillips died on April 4, 1960, and Bill Killian was killed on March 10, 1961.

On Oct. 3, 1963, President John F. Kennedy came to Cleburne County for the dedication of Greers Ferry Dam.

Holmes was a young boy then and was probably not thinking much about the impact the project would have on the area where he lived.

Consider these facts: Cleburne County saw its population increase from 9,059 in 1960 to 10,349 in 1970; 16,909 in 1980; 19,411 in 1990; 24,046 in 2000 and 25,970 in 2010.

Heber Springs, the county seat, saw its population increase from 2,265 in 1960 to 7,165 in 2010.

Holmes, who owns a cattle ranch and a cattle auction operation, has started six businesses through the years. He realizes the importance of tourism to the Cleburne County economy. He was the county sheriff from 1985-91 and is in his first term as county judge.

Several months ago, Holmes put together a working group to discuss how to increase tourism in the region. Though Greers Ferry remains popular, Holmes says the summer weekend crowds aren’t as big as they once were. Greers Ferry, it seems, has lost a bit of its cachet among the Memphis crowd.

It was during one of the working group sessions that Billy Lindsey mentioned to Holmes that there had once been a plan for an ornate water garden on federal land just below Greers Ferry Dam.

In fact, Lindsey had color drawings from the 1960s of the proposed water garden. They had been under the front seat of his truck for years. He gave them to Holmes.

Lindsey, as you might know, is a legend in the world of Arkansas tourism. In the spring of 1965, Lindsey moved with his parents from Orange, Texas, to Heber Springs. His parents knew there were plans to stock trout in the cold water below Greers Ferry Dam, and they decided to build a trout fishing resort. Their initial land purchase was just more than eight acres. The resort now encompasses 62 acres.

“My dad had a vision,” Billy Lindsey told the Three Rivers edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2010. “He could stand on that hill and see what’s here today. Mom was questioning his sanity. We had a trout dock and a couple of cabins. We went two years with a trout-fishing business with no trout.

“Dad and Jim Collins, a trout biologist for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, went to the Spring River to harvest moss. They brought it home in a flatbed truck and sprigged it up and down the river like sprig grass in a yard.”

The needed aquatic vegetation took hold, and the river was fully stocked with trout in 1967. A state record rainbow trout was caught the next year, and business began to take off.

That bit of history takes us to the man whose idea it was to build a water garden, the late Herbert L. Thomas Sr. I’ve written about Thomas on this blog before. He was among the top Arkansas business leaders of the 20th century.

Born in rural Ashley County in 1899, Thomas had started an insurance company by the age of 24. Within a year, there were more than 10,000 policyholders, many of whom lived in rural Arkansas.

Thomas later incorporated the First Pyramid Life Insurance Co. of America and set up shop in 1937 in the Southern Trust Building in downtown Little Rock. He renamed it the Pyramid Life Building. The building is now known as Pyramid Place.

Thomas and his wife Ruby loved to travel to Europe and had become entranced by the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, Italy. The elaborate water gardens there had been built by monks in the 1500s. In addition to loving Europe, Herbert and Ruby Thomas loved the Ozark foothills near Heber Springs.

With plans for Greers Ferry moving forward, Thomas decided to build a resort and a housing development unlike anything Arkansas had seen before.

The resort would become the Red Apple Inn.

The housing development would become Eden Isle.

In 1961, two years before the dam was dedicated, Thomas purchased 500 acres. No one was supposed to know exactly what the water level of the lake would be. That would prevent profiteering by those buying up lakefront property. Thomas, a close friend of Sen. J. William Fulbright (he was also friendly with Sen. John L. McClellan and Congressman Wilbur D. Mills), had inside connections. He was able to find out what the level would be long before the water started to rise.

With that piece of information in hand, Thomas bought an area known as Estes Hill. He knew that islands in Corps of Engineers’ lakes cannot be privately owned. So, before the lake filled, he built a causeway that would be above the water level. What would become Eden Isle no longer could be called an island.

Once the lake filled, 400 of Thomas’ 500 acres were above water. The lodge and restaurant opened for business in 1963, burned in 1964 following a kitchen fire and reopened in 1965.

While developing Eden Isle, Thomas began trying to convince the federal government to build the water garden just below Greers Ferry dam. He figured such an attraction would draw tens of thousands of additional visitors to Cleburne County each year.

Thomas arranged for a group of architecture students at the University of Arkansas to come up with plans. When the drawings were complete, Thomas sent them to Fulbright and urged the senator to make the project happen.

Jerol Garrison picked up the story from there in a 1964 article in the Arkansas Gazette: “Last fall, when President Kennedy accepted an invitation to speak at the dedication of Greers Ferry Dam on Oct. 3, Fulbright decided it would be a good time to broach the subject of the water garden to him.

“The two men sat together in the president’s airplane on the trip to Arkansas, and Fulbright showed Mr. Kennedy the drawings the UA students had made. The president expressed an interest and suggested that Fulbright talk to the Army Engineers about it.

“Fulbright replied that he had and that the Engineers had turned him down on the ground that a water garden was outside the scope of their authority.

“At that point a general in the Army Engineers who was participating in the conversation told Fulbright, ‘You are now talking to the man (the president) that could reopen it.’

“Mr. Kennedy then told the general to have the Army Engineers prepare a preliminary plan and cost estimate.

“After speaking at the dedication of the dam, Mr. Kennedy and his party left in a fleet of five helicopters for Little Rock. As his helicopter took off, the president arranged for it to separate from the others and fly over the site of the proposed water garden so he could get a better look at it.”

In a letter sent 11 days after the Greers Ferry dedication to Kenneth O’Donnell, a key White House aide, Fulbright wrote: “I am sure I need not tell you that matters of aesthetics, especially a new idea in this field, rather startle the Engineers, and they will probably have to be reminded from time to time in order to get this project under way. The more I think of it, the more exciting I believe this project is, as it could have application in many places in the country if we could prove its value by a pilot project.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the trip to Arkansas. I have heard many favorable reports from many constituents, and I feel the president should consider the energy and time spent as thoroughly justified by the results.”

Then came the fateful November trip to Texas.

Despite Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas the following month, neither Thomas nor Fulbright gave up.

In a Dec. 26, 1963, letter to McClellan, Thomas wrote: “I have recently seen the Engineers’ rendering of this proposed project. It was excellent, and I found their attitude entirely changed. They are now strongly for it. It is now back in the Engineers’ Washington office, and I am confident Bill Fulbright will be working with President Johnson on it, as Bill agrees with me that it is not only a cultural spectacular but an economic one.

“It would bring to Heber Springs many people other than just fishermen and sightseers. It would raise the economic level of the visitors to the community. Both Bill and I have visited the Gardens of Tivoli out of Rome, which are on the same order, and we personally know that they draw visitors from all over the world. Personally, I would consider this more valuable to the town and to Eden Isle, as well as to the property all around Heber Springs, than any other one accomplishment that has been mentioned since the construction of the dam.

“If you would get with Bill, and then bring Wilbur Mills in on it, I haven’t the least doubt but that you could get it done. Ed Stone’s firm in New York has offered to work on it with us without compensation. He likewise has seen the Gardens of Tivoli and knows their value, and said if he could see this accomplished in his own state of Arkansas he would consider that ample compensation for whatever he was called upon to do. This and good roads around the lake are all we need to make it one of the most talked-about places in America. I hope by now you have absorbed some of my enthusiasm for it.”

The Ed Stone mentioned is, of course, Edward Durell Stone, one of the most famous architects of the 20th century. Stone was born in Fayetteville in 1902 and attended the University of Arkansas from 1920-23 before moving to Boston, where his brother was an architect.

Stone was later a visiting professor at the UA’s architecture school. He helped the school obtain accreditation and employed a number of UA students in his New York office.

After Stone agreed to work on the water garden project, Fulbright wrote to him: “I am delighted about your reaction as this is a pet project of mine. I have been kicking it around for nearly a year with Herbert and others.”

In 1965, the project was assigned by the Johnson administration to the National Park Service. True to the promise he had made to Fulbright and Thomas, Stone submitted plans for the Greers Ferry water garden to the Park Service on June 13, 1966.

In 1972, the Park Service declared that the project was outside its jurisdiction. That likely would have been the end of the story had Billy Lindsey not said something to Jerry Holmes four decades later.

The new Cleburne County judge took on the project as a personal mission, contacting the governor and members of the Arkansas congressional delegation.

Chris Caldwell, a talented and enthusiastic aide to Sen. John Boozman, went to work on Holmes’ behalf and somehow found the Stone plans. For decades, they had been gathering dust at a Park Service storage facility in Colorado.

Those plans now sit on Holmes’ desk in downtown Heber Springs. They’re titled “Greers Ferry National Garden Park.”

Holmes is convinced that had Kennedy lived, the project would have been completed and been a “Crystal Bridges-type attraction” for Arkansas long before Crystal Bridges.

He says, “You could find the money in the Interior Department budget to do this if we could get the right people pushing for it in Washington.”

Holmes wants to name the water garden the President John F. Kennedy Memorial Water Garden.

In a letter to the late president’s daughter, Caroline, the county judge wrote: “I am determined, 50 years later, to see this project through and let the people of Arkansas and the United States have a moment to relive a part of a president’s dream.”

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Along the Cache River

Monday, February 20th, 2012

It begins along the Arkansas-Missouri border and meanders through east Arkansas until emptying into the White River near Clarendon.

The Cache River.

This Delta stream played the lead role in one of the great environmental battles in American history.

“Though the Cache River area was an important source of timber, the area was not as extensively cleared as were other parts of eastern Arkansas due to the river’s reputation for flooding, and major stands of native hardwood survived,” Guy Lancaster writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Because the Cache moves at a slow speed due to its low amount of fall per mile … the Cache River can overflow its banks after only a few inches of rainfall.

“Work on the river in northeast Arkansas in the 1920s and 1930s straightened the channel, even splitting the river into two separate ditches between Bono and Egypt. … During the flood of 1937, the Cache River was one of a number of eastern Arkansas rivers that spilled across agricultural land. Planters, landowners and businessmen long advocated for some form of flood control along the Cache, which had no well-developed system of levees.

“The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was a plan to dredge, clear and realign 140 miles of the Cache upstream from Clarendon, 15 miles of the upper tributaries and 77 miles of Bayou DeView, the river’s main tributary. However, initial funds for the project, projected to cost $60 million, were not approved until 1969.”

Bill Alexander, the Democratic congressman from the 1st District, fought hard for the project. His opponents included the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and conservationists statewide who realized that a large percentage of the remaining bottomland hardwoods in east Arkansas were along the Cache.

Leading that band of conservationists was Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart, a dentist and avid duck hunter.

“Conservation needs more than lip service, more than professionals,” said Hancock, whose organization was known as the Citizens Committee to Save the Cache River Basin. “It needs ordinary people with extraordinary desire.”

Hancock was born in July 1923 in Laddonia, Mo., a small town northwest of St. Louis. His father was a dentist. Hancock served in the Navy during World War II and graduated from Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., in 1947. He then went to dental school in Kansas City.

The thing that led him to Arkansas was his love of hunting. He first practiced at Huntsville and then moved to Stuttgart in 1951.

A lawsuit was filed to stop the Cache River project, but U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on May 5, 1972.

The Corps wasted no time. Clearing and dredging in the Clarendon area began in July 1972 even though Henley’s ruling had been appealed.

On Dec. 15, 1972, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to Henley, ruling that the Corps had not met the requirements of the Enviromental Policy Act in preparing its environmental impact statement. The court ordered construction stopped in 1973.

The environmental impact statement was approved in 1976, but funding was stalled in Congress. In addition to blocking funding, opponents of the project worked feverishly to establish a national wildlife refuge along the lower Cache.

Congress reauthorized funding in 1977, and three more miles of the river were ditched. A year later, a government task force concluded that ditching the river would be the single most damaging project to waterfowl and floodplain forest in the nation.

Funding ended, leaving a seven-mile scar along the lower Cache.

The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1986, covers almost 60,000 acres and is now considered to be among the nation’s most vital wintering areas for migratory waterfowl. It’s also among the country’s last remaining tracts of contiguous bottomland hardwood forests.

These east Arkansas wetlands were recognized in 1990 by the 61 nations of the United Nations Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for wetlands preservation, as Wetlands of International Importance.

The Cache River ranks right up there with the Everglades, the Okefenokee Swamp and the Chesapeake Bay as far as environmental importance.

Last fall, the Nature Conservancy held what it billed as the Save the Cache Bash at the home of Hanke and Cathy Browne in DeValls Bluff to draw attention to its efforts to restore 4.6 miles of the river that were channelized upstream from Clarendon before the courts could step in.

Working with the Corps, the city of Clarendon, the Game & Fish Commisson, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy hopes to make this a model for river restoration nationwide.

Mike Wilson of Jacksonville, who chaired the Nature Conservancy’s board in Arkansas, wrote in the organization’s 2011 year-end report: “We are opening a new and exciting chapter for the Cache River. The story of conservation in the lower Cache River and surrounding Big Woods of east Arkansas is one of ecological setbacks, protection victories and painstaking restoration.

“Many of you might remember the efforts in the early 1970s to prevent the channelization of the Cache River. We cheered when, after much hard work and a halt to the channelization that had already begun, the river was left to run its natural course. … It is up to us to carry on the extraordinary desire of so many conservationists who came before and to restore this iconic river.”

If you want to see what the Cache would have looked like if Alexander and the Corps had had their way, go north of Grubbs. It’s basically a drainage ditch.

In addition to its work to establish the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, the conservation coalition was instrumental in the addition of 41,000 acres of Potlatch Corp. lands to the adjacent White River National Wildlife Refuge.

There has been steady progress since then.

“Through the Wetlands Reserve Program, tens of thousands of acres were reforested,” the Nature Conservancy writes in its year-end report. “All told, the Conservancy and partners have reforested more than 50,000 acres and safeguarded more than 130,000 acres in the Big Woods.

“While conservation strides have been significant, the work on the channelized stretch of the lower Cache remains incomplete. Now we have an opportunity to begin restoring natural meanders of the channelized river, helping to fulfill the vision of those who originally worked to protect the river. If successful, this stretch of the Cache will once again enjoy thriving fish populations and flourishing habitat that supports waterfowl and hundreds of other resident and migratory bird species.”

The Nature Conservancy correctly notes that the Cache “pays homage to and helps sustain the deeply rooted Delta river culture so cherished throughout Arkansas.”

On Aug. 17, the city of Clarendon entered into a project partnership agreement with the Corps to move forward with the restoration project. The Nature Conservancy is working with the city to raise the funds needed to complete the effort.

The cost of the project is $7.3 million. The Corps is contributing $5 million. The Nature Conservancy must raise $2.3 million.

The Conservancy notes: “Timing is crucial. … While design work on the project has been completed, the Conservancy must be certain that we can deliver our share of the funding before we begin construction. After coming so close to losing the entire river, we now have a chance to put the Cache back on course for future generations.”

Why is restoration so important?

The Nature Conservancy responds: “With channelization, the Cache basin’s productive aquatic habitats and richly diverse bottomland forests have declined. This harms millions of wintering waterfowl that flock to this area, black bears that roam freely in surrounding woods and prized sport fish that define the Cache’s waters.

“Returning the lower Cache to its natural meandering condition will slow the river’s velocity and reduce the delivery of sediment that damages not only the Cache but also downstream rivers and habitats.”

Back to Rex Hancock: Later in life, he was instrumental in documenting the presence of dioxin — a toxin known to cause cancer and birth defects — in the Bayou Meto.

The Arkansas Wildlife Federation named him its Conservationist of the Year in 1968. In 1981, the Game & Fish Commission renamed the Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area in Woodruff County in his honor. His ashes were buried there following his death in July 1986.

In 1993, Hancock was inducted posthumously into the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame.

He no doubt would be pleased with the current efforts to restore the lower part of his beloved Cache River.

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The rampage of the mighty Mississippi

Monday, May 9th, 2011

The Delta Council in Mississippi is a venerable (and powerful) institution.

Wealthy Delta planters organized the group in 1935 with a focus on three areas — agriculture, flood control and transportation.

During the years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, I attended the annual meeting of the Delta Council each spring on the campus of Delta State University at Cleveland, Miss.

If you want to see a lot of people wearing seersucker suits, I direct you to two places — the downstairs dining room of Galatoire’s in New Orleans on a summer Friday and the annual Delta Council meeting in Cleveland.

Jim Barksdale, the Mississippi-born businessman who rose to the top of Netscape prior to its merger with AOL, was scheduled to speak Friday at the Delta Council annual meeting.

At the 1947 Delta Council meeting, Dean Acheson unveiled the outline for the Marshall Plan.

In 1952, William Faulkner spoke.

Other speakers through the years have included David Rockefeller, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Werner von Braun.

Changing the speaker for the annual meeting at the last minute isn’t something the tradition-bound Delta Council does lightly.

But that’s just what happened last week for the 76th annual meeting. The day still ended, as it always does, with a catfish fry outside, but Barksdale was asked to come back another year. That’s so a flood update could be given by officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The rare change in plans is a testament to the historic nature of the Great Flood of 2011.

The Delta Council president, Cass Pennington, said: “At a time when so many of our citizens and businesses are facing the greatest flood threat of their lifetime and their property and safety are compromised, it is imperative that we allow all members of the public to hear a thorough briefing from the Corps of Engineers and the emergency management agencies.”

Do you need another example of just how massive this flood is?

Consider this fact: Later this week, the Corps likely will open the Morganza Spillway in Louisiana for the first time since 1973, diverting huge amounts of water from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya Basin.

The Morganza Spillway is north of Baton Rouge.

Today, the Corps began opening the Bonnet Carre Spillway just north of New Orleans for the first time in three years.

Louisiana officials are even planning to move inmates from the famous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Here’s how Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal put it today: “If you got wet in 1973, you’ll get wet this time. If you nearly got wet in 1973, you’ll probably get wet this time.”

The governor has declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard to assist people from Vidalia south to the mouth of the Atchafalaya near Morgan City.

Once the floodway is opened, large parts of Pointe Coupee, St. Landry, St. Martin, Iberia, Iberville, St. Mary and Terrebonne parishes will be covered with water. Five to even 25 feet of water will rush into some areas.

This flood leaves the Corps with little choice. If the spillway isn’t opened, the river could top the floodwalls that protect New Orleans and immense pressure could cause levees to break, resulting in a repeat of the floods we saw following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

I spent part of the weekend reading a lengthy (almost 50,000 words) piece that Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McPhee wrote for The New Yorker back in February 1987.

That story — which led to a 1989 McPhee book titled “The Control of Nature” — chronicled the Corps’ efforts to keep the Atchafalaya from capturing the flow of the Mississippi.

“By the 1950s, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it,” McPhee wrote. “By the route of the Atchafalaya, the distance across the delta plain was 145 miles — well under half the length of the route of the master stream.

“For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississsippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah.”

The Corps’ efforts to prevent this from happening are centered at Old River near Simmesport. The Corps dammed Old River back in 1963 to limit the flow of water from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya.

“The Corps would have to build something that could give the Atchafalaya a portion of the Mississippi and at the same time prevent it from taking all,” McPhee wrote. “In effect, the Corps would have to build a Fort Laramie: a place where the natives could buy flour and firearms but where the gates could be closed if they attacked.”

The Atchafalaya had already captured the Red River, which had once flowed into the Mississippi, in the 1940s.

Would the Big Muddy be next?

There remain those who believe the day will come when despite all of the federal government’s efforts, the Mississippi will have its way during a flood such as this one and change course.

Bonnet Carre (pronounced Bonny Carey in south Louisiana) was the first of the major spillways constructed after the Great Flood of 1927. It was completed in 1931 and designed to divert water into Lake Pontchartrain.

What’s known as the Old River Control Structure upstream is constantly in operation to allow 30 percent of the Mississippi’s flow into the Atchafalaya.

The Morganza Spillway, completed in 1954, extends for 20 miles  and is designed to be used far less frequently than the Bonnet Carre. The Morganza is for extreme emergencies. And this appears to be an extreme emergency.

Here’s how the news release put out by the Corps on Friday night stated it: “As floodwaters progress through the Morganza Floodway to the Gulf of Mexico, the height of the water could reach between 5 and upwards of 25 feet above ground elevation, causing widespread flooding and inundation.”

The head of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said residents should expect to see bears, deer, wild hogs and other wildlife fleeing the dense Atchafalaya swamps.

“It’s like hurricane season,” Jindal said. “You hope for the best, prepare for the worst. We haven’t seen flooding like this in quite awhile. The water will be higher and the duration will be longer.”

John Barry, the author of “Rising Tide,” an account of the Great Flood of 1927, is now the vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority.

In a piece last month for The Wall Street Journal, Barry wrote: “If recent events in Japan were not enough, the news of the past week has reminded us that nature can make our efforts to control it seem like nothing more than hubris. A historic swath of tornadoes has ripped across the South, and now a potentially major Mississippi River flood is gathering. The tornadoes have done their damage already. The rising waters of the Mississippi are about to test human judgment and engineering anew.”

Barry wrote his essay just before the Corps chose to blow up a levee at Birds Point, Mo., and flood much of the Bootheel in order to protect residents on the other side of the river at Cairo, Ill.

Barry called plans to dynamite the levee “one small piece of a carefully thought-out and engineered plan to control the immense forces of the Mississippi. The river drains 31 states and stretches from Olean, N.Y., to the Rockies, from North Carolina to Taos, N.M.”

This water from much of the nation eventually finds its way to Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

“A great flood can easily fill the entire 35,000-square-mile area with water,” Barry wrote. “The last time the Mississippi did so was in 1927. … The problem of protecting against river floods is complex. It requires a broad view of the river system as a whole, a narrow focus on local protection and constant maintenance and monitoring down to almost infinitesimal detail.

“Nature is perfect; engineers are not. As recent experience in Japan demonstrates, if humans make a mistake against nature, nature will find and exploit it.”

It’s evident that the Mississippi desperately wants a shorter route to the Gulf of Mexico — the Atchafalaya.

Will the works of man keep the Old River Control Structure in place and thus keep the river flowing past Baton Rouge and New Orleans?

A major test lies ahead.

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The Great Flood of 2011

Friday, May 6th, 2011

My grandfather, W.J. Caskey of Des Arc, often would talk about the Great Flood of 1927.

He also would talk about the 1937 flood, another memorable event of a life spent in east Arkansas.

When I was young, I sometimes thought to myself, “Pam-Pa is rambling again.”

He died in the hot summer of 1980 at age 96. How I wish I had recorded some of his stories. In retrospect, I realize he was a walking history book.

He founded the Caskey Hardware Store and Caskey Funeral Home. The building he built early in the 20th century still houses those businesses, now known as Garth Funeral Home and Garth True Value Hardware.

I’ve thought about him a lot these past few days with Des Arc in the news.

I thought about him this morning when I looked at the color photo atop page 6A of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It showed the brown water of the White River almost reaching the back door of the Prairie County Courthouse. The courthouse is just across Main Street from his businesses, and he spent time there as the county assessor from 1913-17, the county clerk from 1917-21 and the county judge from 1937-41.

I loved it when people would still refer to him as Judge Caskey, though it had been decades since he served in public office.

I thought of him again this afternoon when the U.S. Geological Survey reported that the White River at Des Arc has passed the previous high-water mark set in 1927. And the river is not even expected to crest there until tomorrow.

Even my mother, at age 85, was too young to remember the Great Flood of 1927.

For almost all of us who are alive in Arkansas today, this Great Flood of 2011 will be for us what the Great Flood of 1927 was for our parents and grandparents.

Sure, the system of levees along the Mississippi River and its tributuries will ensure that the damage is far less than it was 84 years ago. But this is a historic natural disaster. You’ll tell your children and grandchildren about the year when busy Interstate 40 was flooded for days.

One of the best works of nonfiction I’ve ever read is “Rising Tide,” John Barry’s account of the 1927 flood.

At the start of Chapter 12, Barry describes the rain-swollen Mississippi River this way: “There is no sight like the rising Mississippi. One cannot look at it without awe, or watch it rise and press against the levees without fear. It grows darker, angrier, dirtier; eddies and whirlpools erupt on its surface; it thickens with trees, rooftops, the occasional body of a mule. Its currents roil more, flow swifter, pummel its banks harder. When a section of riverbank caves into the river, acres of land at a time collapse, snapping trees with the great cracking sounds of heavy artillery. On the water the sound carries for miles.

“Unlike a human enemy, the river has no weakness, makes no mistakes, is perfect; unlike a human enemy, it will find and exploit any weakness. To repel it requires an intense, nearly perfect and sustained effort. Major John Lee, in the 1920s the Army district engineer at Vicksburg who would in 1944 make the cover of Time as an important World War II general, observed, ‘In physical and mental strain, a prolonged high-water fight on threatened levees can only be compared with real war.”

It’s what we now face: A prolonged high-water fight on threatened levees up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries.

There’s flooding on the Arkansas, the White, the Black, the Cache, the St. Francis, the Ouachita.

I attended the annual Little Rock meeting of the Delta Grassroots Caucus today at the Clinton Presidential Center and, as one might expect, the talk was all about the floods.

Gov. Mike Beebe stopped by on his way to check out the levees at West Memphis.

House Speaker Robert Moore, that proud son of Arkansas City, was in attendance to introduce the governor.

The 1927 flood, of course, had forever changed the fortunes of Arkansas City. More than 2,000 people had to be rescued in the area. Thousands of people camped for weeks in tents on the levee there.

Paula Reeves describes it this way for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture ( “The floodwaters were up to the second floor of some homes, and the citizens of the area camped in tents on top of the levee. When the floodwaters receded, the river channel, which was just across the levee, had moved about a mile to the east. This brought an end to the port at Arkansas City and made the railroads useless. The town never fully recovered from this tragedy.

“Arkansas City became a quiet little town in the years following the flood. There have been attempts to have the county seat moved to one of the larger cities in the county, but these attempts have been unsuccessful.”

Moore, a preservationist at heart, had been scheduled to make remarks during a Thursday luncheon that celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas.

The luncheon was held in the majestic 1924 Albert Pike Memorial Scottish Rite Temple in downtown Little Rock. The master of ceremonies, former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, noted that Moore was instead in a helicopter viewing the floods with officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Pryor then mentioned the famous incident in which Moore’s mother, Dorothy, received her high school diploma from the second-floor window of the Arkansas City school while seated in a boat in 1927.

The House speaker said Friday that now he will simply wait — it could be as late as May 16 before the Mississippi River crests at Arkansas City — while hoping the levees hold.

On Good Friday in April 1927, The New York Times reported: “From Cairo to the sea, the most menancing flood in years was sweeping down the Mississippi River and its tributaries tonight. High stages from Evansville, Ind., to Cairo, Ill., increased volume from smaller streams above Cairo, and the unloading of heavy surplus of the Arkansas and White rivers presaged a stage that may equal or surpass the records in 1922. … The guardians reported the great dikes in fine condition, but they placed men and machines at strategic points to reinforce any weakness which may develop under the immeasurable weight.”

The Commercial Appeal at Memphis reported that same day in 1927: “The roaring Mississippi River, bank and levee full from St. Louis to New Orleans, is believed to be on its mightiest rampage.”

This morning, the lead story in The Commercial Appeal began this way: “Defying all efforts to hold it back, the Mississippi River burst through a temporary levee and submerged a downtown-area airport Thursday before spilling onto Memphis’ doorstep at Riverside and Beale.

“All across the area, the river’s steady rise toward a historic crest prompted renewed preparation, with even venerable institutions such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital forced to take precautionary measures to protect their facilities from flooding.

“As of Thursday night, the Mississippi had swelled to 45.44 feet on the Memphis gauge, inches shy of the level of the 1927 flood and a little more than 3 feet below the record of 48.7 feet set in 1937. It is expected to crest at 48 feet on Wednesday, but forecasters suggested it could go slightly higher as a result of more rain upriver. … Some of the most telling evidence of the Mississippi’s rise could be found late Thursday at the foot of Beale, where water pooled beneath a trestle. Although the river was still a foot or so below the level of Riverside there, it was pushing water out of storm drains onto the pavement, forcing police to close portions of both streets.”

Late this morning, I received an email from the Riverfront Development Corp. at Memphis noting that Mud Island River Park had been closed.

“This is hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime event,” the email said. “Although people want to come down to witness it firsthand, they must be careful in where they drive. … The river is to be respected and safety must take priority.”

We’re witnessing a monumental event in the history of the Mid-South.

The Corps earlier this week blew a hole in the levee on the Missouri side of the river — flooding tens of thousands of acres in the Bootheel — in order to save Cairo.

Will major levees downstream hold?

It’s going to be an interesting weekend.

Please post your flood reports, memories and anecdotes in the comments section below as the Great Flood of 2011 plays out.

I’d love to hear from those of you who live between Memphis and Little Rock.

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