The Sunken Lands

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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