To the Cossatot and back

SECOND IN A SERIES

There’s not much traffic on Arkansas Highway 84 as we head west through the northern part of Pike County, passing through the communities of Lodi and Langley.

At Langley, we head north up Arkansas Highway 369 to check out the Albert Pike Recreation Area on the Little Missouri River. During the night of June 10-11, 2010, a flash flood along the river killed 20 people. The river rose more than 20 feet in less than four hours. Dozens of other campers were rescued by emergency workers. I remember that I was getting out of the car in Memphis, where I had gone with friends to watch the St. Jude Classic professional golf tournament, when I heard the stunning news from back home on the radio.

“We started hearing children and women screaming and crying,” Crystel Hofer, who was asleep in her cabin, told reporters the next day. “So we went to the door and opened it, and they were trying to come up the hill to where our cabin was to escape the rising water. Within 10 minutes, the water rose and campers were floating down.”

The force of the water was so great that it overturned recreational vehicles and peeled asphalt off the roads. Most people were asleep when the flooding began.

The Little Missouri River in the area was at 3 feet that Thursday morning. After 7.6 inches of rain fell overnight, it was at 23.5 feet by Friday morning as National Guard helicopters flew over the area to survey the damage. A refrigerated truck was brought in to serve as a temporary morgue.

The U.S. Forest Service closed the campground and hasn’t allowed camping there since the flood. In May 2012, portions of the recreational site were reopened for day use. This stretch of the Little Missouri remains popular with hikers and those just wishing to picnic along the river, though it would be nice if the Forest Service did a bit more to clean up the grounds. I’ve been told that things are left in such disrepair in order to discourage people from trying to break the rules and camp out.

Starting here at Albert Pike, when the water is at the right level, canoeists can float 20 miles to the U.S. Highway 70 bridge near where the river runs into Lake Greeson.

The Little Missouri River begins in Polk County and flows to the southeast through Montgomery and Pike counties. The lower part of the river below Lake Greeson forms parts of the borders of Pike, Hempstead, Nevada, Clark and Ouachita counties before the river empties into the Ouachita River.

After walking around, we head back down Highway 369, take a right and continue west on Highway 84.

We’re soon in the northeast corner of Howard County. Like Pike County, Howard is a county with the Gulf Coastal Plain in the south and the Ouachita Mountains in the north. It was carved out of parts of Pike, Polk, Hempstead and Sevier counties in 1873.

The population of Howard County was 13,789 in the 2010 census, fewer people than had lived there a century before. The county had 16,898 residents in the 1910 census.

The highest population recorded was 18,565 people in the 1920 census. The county bottomed out in 1960 when there were 10,878 residents.

“This decline, combined with the hardships of the Great Depression, made life difficult for many residents,” Lauren White writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Peaches became a big export in the early 20th century. The enterprises started with small farm plots having a few acres of land and evolved into a big-time industry. In 1915, Ozark Fruit Growers Association shipped 700 carloads of peaches. The peach industry became less prominent in the 1950s, and orchards eventually were converted from commercial ventures to pick-your-own operations.”

The last bale of cotton ginned in Howard County was in 1971 at Mineral Springs as timber management, poultry production and cattle grazing took over.

Highway 84 runs into U.S. Highway 278 at Umpire. I head west on 278 so I can spend some time at the wonderful visitors’ center at Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area.

The Cossatot River begins southeast of Mena and flows south through Howard and Sevier counties before emptying into the Little River north of Ashdown. The upper part of the river is considered one of the top whitewater streams in this part of the country.

“The area along the Cossatot River, especially in the Ouachita Mountains, remained sparsely populated until the 20th century,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The hills weren’t amenable to large-scale agriculture, and only the southern portion of the river below an area dubbed Three Chutes proved useful for transportation, though the stream would on occasion dry up.”

Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area conserves a 12-mile section of the Ouachita Mountains along the river, which has been designated in its upper reaches as a National Wild and Scenic River. There are more than 30 rare plant and animal species in the park.

According to the state Department of Parks & Tourism: “The idea of establishing a natural area along the upper Cossatot surfaced in 1974, shortly after the Arkansas Environmental Preservation Commission was created. The panel later was renamed the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. In October 1975, its staff contacted the Weyerhaeuser Co., which owned the land, to discuss acquiring the Cossatot Falls area and other portions of the Cossatot’s corridor. In January 1976, the commission presented a written proposal to Weyerhaeuser. While generally positive, the company’s response was tempered by concerns about the commission’s ability to oversee such an intensively used public recreation area. It’s used by floaters, campers, hikers and swimmers. The Cossatot River is famous for its Class IV and V rapids.

“By 1984, the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism had joined the effort, and the two agencies prepared a joint proposal that addressed Weyerhaeuser’s concerns about the state’s ability to manage the property. Once a tentative sale agreement was reached, the Natural Heritage Commission asked the Arkansas field office of the Nature Conservancy to assist with negotiations and acquisition. The conservancy agreed to acquire and hold in trust the acreage identified for the proposed park/natural area until funding was available for state purchase of the land.”

On Nov. 19, 1987, the state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission held at joint meeting with the Natural Heritage Commission. At that meeting, Gov. Bill Clinton announced that the state would join with the Nature Conservancy to acquire land along the river.

The Nature Conservancy acquired title to 4,144 acres on Dec. 23, 1987. Management responsibility was transferred to the state in July 1988, and a cooperative management plan was developed between the Parks & Tourism Department and the Natural Heritage Commission.

In 1990, Arkla Gas Co. acquired 160 acres in the Brushy Creek area and donated it to the park to compensate for crossing the park with a 36-inch gas line. Additional land acquisitions have increased the size of the park to 5,300 acres.

Using money from Amendment 75 to the Arkansas Constitution, which was approved by voters in November 1996, the state constructed a 16,304-square-foot visitors’ center. The center was dedicated on Oct. 21, 2004. It has a gallery of interpretive exhibits, two classrooms, an elevated wildlife viewing area, a gift shop and administrative offices.

After spending some time at the visitors’ center, we double back to Glenwood.

From there, we take Arkansas Highway 8 to Caddo Gap and Norman.

We cross from Pike County into Montgomery County soon after leaving Glenwood.

Montgomery County had only 9,487 residents in the 2010 census, far below the 12,455 who lived there a century earlier. Still, that’s well above the 5,370 residents recorded in the 1960 census.

The Ouachita, Caddo and Little Missouri rivers all pass through this sparsely populated county, which has the most registered sites on the Arkansas Archeological Survey site database.

“Modern historians no longer believe that Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto fought the Tula Indians in Caddo Gap, but the inscription on a nine-foot Indian statue erected there in 1936 by the Arkansas History Commission holds to an earlier viewpoint,” Mary Lysobey writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

The first recorded non-Indian settlers came to the area in 1812 when Martin and Mary Belle Collier from Kentucky began clearing land near what’s now Caddo Gap.

“Granville Whittington arrived in 1835, chopping out a road along the ridges from Hot Springs to his farm home across the South Fork of the Ouachita River about a mile north of the community of Montgomery,” Lysobey writes. “In 1837, he opened a general store that drew customers from the surrounding wilderness. In June 1842, he opened the Mount Ida post office from his home. Farther west on the Ouachita River, the community of Oden had its beginnings in 1849 when a wagon train wintered there and decided to stay.

“Montgomery County, named for Gen. Richard Montgomery, who died during the Revolutionary War, was included in land claimed by Spain and then France before becoming American property in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. … Arkansas was designated a territory in 1819, and Hot Spring County was created out of Clark County in 1829. Montgomery County and its county seat, Montgomery, were organized on Dec. 9, 1842, out of Hot Spring County. The earliest surviving records of Montgomery County are dated July 1845.”

The name of Montgomery was changed to Salem in July 1850 and then changed to Mount Ida in October 1850 to match the name on Whittington’s post office.

“Mount Ida was incorporated in 1854,” Lysobey writes. “In 1889, more than two-thirds of the county was still public land. Political maneuvers in 1873 and 1917 gave the Bear, Cedar Glades, Hickory Station, Crystal Springs and Buckville communities to Garland County. Montgomery County’s current borders were finalized in 1925.”

Caddo Gap began to thrive with the coming of the railroad in 1905. The county’s population reached an all-time high in 1910 because of the many lumber camps in the area. Foresters cut the virgin timber and shipped it out on the railroad.

“In 1918, the Caddo River Lumber Co. had begun a survey for building a railroad out of Womble (now Norman), but it took four years for the 15-mile main line to be completed to the Mauldin logging camp, the county’s logging center. In 1936, a commissary and post office served Mauldin’s 300 people. In 1937, Mauldin was dismantled and carried off by rail. The lumber company, picking up its tracks as it left, had depleted the virgin timber. This, together with the Great Depression, had a devastating economic impact on the county.”

When President Theodore Rosevelt created the Arkansas National Forest in 1907 (later renamed the Ouachita National Forest), much of it was cutover land that hadn’t been replanted.

“Priorities included curbing timber theft and wildfires and setting up ranger outposts with telephones,” Lysobey writes. “Stands of trees were upgraded by enforcement of rules for selective cutting. Sixty-three percent of the county ultimately became national forest land as bankrupt farmers and lumber companies sold their land. The Little Fir and Big Fir communities died but have been resurrected as popular recreation areas on Lake Ouachita.”

At the time Roosevelt created the national forest through an executive order, Gifford Pinchot, the head of the Forest Service, noted that it was the only major shortleaf pine forest under the protection of the federal government. The 1911 Weeks Law, which authorized the federal purchase of forest lands in areas other than the American West, was used to add thousands of acres of cutover land to the national forest. Some of the largest increases occurred from 1933-41 as struggling Arkansas farmers moved out of the state.

The national forest now consists of almost 1.8 million acres in 12 Arkansas counties and two Oklahoma counties. It is the largest and oldest national forest in the South.

Workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration built a number of facilities in Montgomery County during the Great Depression. The timber began to grow back, and local farmers gave up on trying to grow cotton in these rocky hills. They instead turned to cattle and poultry to make a living.

“George A. Jackson Jr. had left Mount Ida with his parents during the Great Depression,” Lysobey writes. “He used the G.I. Bill to further his education. Returning to Mount Ida in 1954, he became one of the first poultry farmers and was instrumental in getting farmers throughout the county to irrigate and fertilize farmland to increase crop yield. By combining cattle and chickens, farmers were finally able to make a living off the land. By the 1960s, the county’s population had stopped its descent, aided by the influx of senior citizens retiring near Lake Ouachita.

“Most miners lost money speculating on silver, gold and copper, but the first quartz mining claim in 1904 was a portent. Mining increased during World War II because suitable quartz for oscillators for radio communication was found at Fisher Mountain. Exploration proved that crystal veins were present at any depth in the right rock type. Mount Ida, in the middle of one of the few areas on earth having quartz crystal worth mining, is touted as the Quartz Crystal Capital of the World. In 1987, about 44,000 pounds were produced. The current mining of 6,000 pounds a year is geared to tourists.”

I loved traveling with my father when I was a boy as he sold athletic supplies to school districts across the state. If it were a warm spring day, Caddo Gap was a favorite stop. He would let me wade in the Caddo River, and we would visit the Indian statue.

By the 1830s, Caddo Gap had a gristmill, several stores, a Methodist church and a toll bridge.

“In 1863, Confederate Gen. Albert Pike arrived and purchased a nearby tract of land,” Hattie Felton writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Local tradition states that Pike built a two-story house and lived in the quiet community, reading and writing for almost a year. He left suddenly in 1864, fleeing bushwhackers who destroyed his home. After the Civil War, the post office officially changed its name from Centreville to Caddo Gap. The population grew to several hundred when the railroad came to Montgomery County. The community added a newspaper, a bank, hotels, a cotton gin, blacksmith shops, a school and a sawmill.”

Only about 100 people now live in the unincorporated community.

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