I’ve traveled a lot of Arkansas roads through the decades, but a recent trip into northeast Arkansas took me onto roads I’ve never traversed.
The day trip (albeit a long day) was the idea of Mark Christ, perhaps the foremost expert on the Civil War in Arkansas, and Paul Austin, who heads the Arkansas Humanities Council. Two other men with deep knowledge of our state — Center Ridge native and UCA professor Ken Barnes and community development expert Freeman McKindra — joined a trip that would take us to the most northeast spot on an Arkansas map, the Clay County community of St. Francis.
During the day, we drove the back roads of Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties with Paul, an Imboden native, at the wheel. Lunch was on the front porch of a Mennonite store at Dalton, just south of the Missouri border in Randolph County. Supper (a reward for the hundreds of miles covered) was in Bald Knob at Who Dat’s, a longtime favorite. We saw the big raven at Ravenden, walked down to the spring at Ravenden Springs and even passed the road to Success (Success being a community in Clay County).
The first stop of the day was at Jacksonport in Jackson County on the White River. By late afternoon, we were walking through the thick Crowley’s Ridge hardwoods to Chalk Bluff on the St. Francis River. A town developed here in the 1820s with the name derived from a white clay bluff that’s still visible. Abraham Seitz operated a ferry crossing and general store from the 1830s until the Civil War. In May 1863, this was the site of the Battle of Chalk Bluff as Union Gen. William Vandever failed in his efforts to prevent troops commanded by Confederate Gen. John Marmaduke from crossing the St. Francis River.
Marmaduke, after suffering heavy casualties, had abandoned a second expedition into the Missouri Bootheel and was trying to get back to Arkansas.
Marmaduke, accompanied by 5,000 men, headed for the Bootheel in the spring of 1863. He was defeated at Cape Girardeau and began withdrawing toward Arkansas with the crossing of the St. Francis River planned for Chalk Bluff. Fighting began there on May 1 and lasted until the next day. Marmaduke’s rear guard was able to hold off the Union forces long enough for his engineers to complete a bridge across the river.
Minor skirmishes would occur at Chalk Bluff on and off for the remainder of the war.
I noted that we began our day on the banks of the White River and found ourselves by late afternoon on the banks of the St. Francis River. So while this day was supposed to be about the Civil War, it was really about rivers — the rivers that have so shaped the eastern half of our state through the decades.
The St. Francis River originates in Missouri. It’s a mountain stream until it slows down near Poplar Bluff. It forms the boundary between the Missouri Bootheel and Arkansas before continuing its path in east Arkansas between Crowley’s Ridge and the Mississippi River. The St. Francis flows into the Mississippi north of Helena in the St. Francis National Forest.
During the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, parts of northeast Arkansas dropped by six to eight feet, leading to a huge swampy area that slowed development for decades. That area is now known as the St. Francis Sunken Lands, and much of it is managed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission as a wildlife management area.
“The St. Francis River was not navigable in its natural state, having numerous snags and rafts,” Jodi Morris writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1836-37, W. Bowling Buion surveyed the river under the auspices of the federal government with an eye toward improving navigation, but nothing came of it. Only after the Civil War did Congress begin funding the clearing of the river. Numerous clearing and dredging operations made the St. Francis navigable from its mouth up to Wappapello, Mo. Because the swampy Sunken Lands impeded progress on railroad construction until the land began to be drained in the late 1890s and early 1900s, steamboats continued to operate on the river until well into the early 20th century.
“The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893 and began constructing levees and drainage canals to control flooding. These measures were strengthened and increased after the catastrophic flood of 1927 and the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928. This greatly affected the natural course of the river and included a number of diversion ditches that run somewhat parallel to the river along its course from southeastern Craighead County down through Lee County, thus providing an outlet for excess water.”
The law establishing the St. Francis Levee District was Act 19 of the Arkansas General Assembly of 1893. It was the first improvement district in Arkansas. It addressed flood control in Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Lee, Mississippi, Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis counties. Gov. W.N. Fishback made the first appointments to the levee board with three representatives from each county.
Previous efforts at flood control through the federal Swamp Land Grant of 1850 and state organizations had been ineffective. The levee district initially was funded by an appropriation from the Mississippi River Commission and a tax levy on the increased land values that were anticipated.
The St. Francis Levee District ended up draining a large portion of east Arkansas with hardwood forests replaced by row crops.
Take the Little River of northeast Arkansas (not to be confused with the Little River of southwest Arkansas) as an example of what the levee district did. The Little River starts west of Cape Girardeau and flows into northeast Arkansas, where it enters what’s now the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the state’s Big Lake Wildlife Management Area near Manila in Mississippi County. It joins the St. Francis River at Marked Tree. Before the New Madrid earthquakes, the Little River was a clear, swift stream. It’s now described by the state encyclopedia as “not much more than a series of stagnant mud holes due to channeling and ditching.”
After leaving the Big Lake area, the Little River is part of a floodway that’s about a mile wide and enclosed by levees. The floodway includes Ditch No. 1, Ditch No. 9, Left Hand Chute of the Little River, Right Hand Chute of the Little River and the Little River itself.
“These waterways run together, separate and join again,” Norman Vickers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The dominant channel is the Right Hand Chute of the Little River. Near the southern end of the St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management area, the floodway enters the St. Francis River.”
The L’Anguille River, another tributary of the St. Francis River, begins west of Harrisburg and flows down the west side of Crowley’s Ridge before crossing the ridge near Marianna and flowing into the St. Francis. The L’Anguille River and the Cache River to its west were major obstacles to the construction of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad. The east Arkansas gap in the line existed until 1871.
The Cache begins near the Arkansas-Missouri border and flows south until emptying into the White River near Clarendon. Flood-control efforts during the 1920s and 1930s split the river into two ditches between Bono and Egypt in Craighead County. The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was designed to dredge 140 miles of the river upstream from Clarendon while also dredging 77 miles of the Bayou DeView. Initial funds for the project weren’t approved until 1969.
Congressman Bill Alexander, a Mississippi County native who owed allegiance to the big planters, was a strong supporter of the dredging but was opposed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and others entities across the state. Federal Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 1972, but a federal appeals court sent the case back to Henley, saying the Corps had not properly prepared its environmental impact statement. That statement wasn’t approved until 1977. By then, support in Congress had waned. The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established from Grubbs to Clarendon in 1986 to protect the stream.
The St. Francis, Little, Cache and L’Anguille rivers are lowland streams. A bit to the west — but still in northeast Arkansas — are the many streams of the Ozark foothills. The flat Delta quickly gives way to the rolling foothills after you cross the Black River at Black Rock. Most of these streams are fed by springs in Missouri before flowing south into Arkansas.
There’s the Eleven Point River, which flows into the Spring River.
To the west, Myatt Creek and the South Fork also empty into the Spring.
The Spring River, which flows through Arkansas for almost 75 miles, then empties into the Black River near Black Rock.
The Little Black River comes out of Missouri and flows into the Current River just northwest of Datto.
The Current River then merges with the Black River near Pocahontas.
The Fourche River (not to be confused with the Fourche La Fave River in west-central Arkansas) comes out of Missouri and flows through Randolph County for about 20 miles before emptying into the Black River.
The Strawberry River flows for 90 miles to the southeast before emptying into the Black River in Independence County.
The eastern half of the state truly is a land of rivers, both swift and slow.
Three rivers come together in southeast Missouri to form the Black River. The Black crosses the Arkansas border northeast of Corning and then passes the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, Pocahontas, Davidsonville Historic State Park, Black Rock and Powhatan.
From there, the river flows through the Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake Wildlife Management Area before turning toward the southeast and entering the White River at Jacksonport. The sharp bends in the Black River have colorful names such as Deadman, Hole in the Wall, Box Factory, Battle Axe and Dead Mule. The first steamboat to go up the Black River to Pocahontas was the Laurel in 1829.
Jacksonport, Powhatan, Davidsonville and Pocahontas all prospered as steamboat ports. More than 40 steamboats were traveling the Black River in 1900. The first train had reached Pocahontas in 1896, however, and river traffic declined.
Jacksonport, where we started our day, thrived until the railroad bypassed the town in 1872, leading to the rise of Newport. For decades prior to that, boats bound for Memphis, New Orleans and St. Louis had offloaded goods at Jacksonport. Confident that river traffic would reign supreme, Jacksonport officials voted against giving the Iron Mountain, St. Louis & Southern Railroad the land grant and $25,000 that railroad officials had requested to pass through the city. It was a big mistake. Newport grew after completion of the railroad and was incorporated in 1875.
“Businesses and residents began drifting away from Jacksonport for the upstart Newport,” Adam Miller writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Newport marginally edged out Jacksonport in population by 1880, but the growth momentum was thereafter permanently in Newport’s favor. In 1882, construction of a narrow-gauge railway began in an effort to stem the loss of business. The railway ran from Jacksonport to Brinkley via Newport and was utilized by lumber businesses for a few decades. In February 1882, a devastating flood and fire that consumed most of the town — both within the span of a week — further accelerated the depopulation of Jacksonport. Hotly contested elections to move the county government to Newport first arose when Jacksonport was surpassed in population in the 1880s. Jacksonport rallied and won the first two elections, managing to postpone removal of the county seat until 1891, when Newport won a third election.
“By 1900, the population of Jacksonport had dwindled to 265, and the schools at Jacksonport were consolidated with Newport in 1944. Apart from a levee built in 1909, there were few infrastructure improvements at Jacksonport until the old courthouse was saved from demolition in 1962 by the Jackson County Historical Society, which purchased the derelict building and adjacent lands. The old courthouse was renovated to its former grandeur and became part of Jacksonport State Park in 1965.”
It was quiet at Jacksonport near the banks of the White River on a Thursday morning, just as it would be quiet more than eight hours later at Chalk Bluff on the banks of the St. Francis River in the northeast corner of the state. In both places, though, you could almost feel the rich history. Like so much of Arkansas, these places were shaped by rivers.