From Crossett to El Dorado

FIFTH IN A SERIES

In 1934, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service established the Crossett Experimental Forest.

“Large-scale lumbering in Ashley County followed the 1899 incorporation of the Crossett Lumber Co.,” Don Bragg and James Guldin write for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “By 1902, a growing CLC consumed incredible quantities of pine and hardwood. Lumbering continued unabated well into the 1920s when it became obvious that the virgin timber was running out. The CLC was facing the choice of either changing its practices and engaging in sustainable forestry or going out of business. Even with the help of Yale University professor Herman Haupt Chapman and the efforts of company foresters, too little was known about the silviculture of loblolly and shortleaf pine forests to manage the lands effectively.

“To address this lack of information, the CLC began working with the Southern Forest Experiment Station of the Forest Service. In July 1930, the experiment station hired Russell R. Reynolds, a recent University of Michigan forestry graduate, to conduct inventories and help landowners develop sustainable forestry plans. Two years later, Reynolds and the experiment station assisted the Ozark-Badger Lumber Co. of Wilmar, and Reynolds became familiar with the CLC. Around this time, Albert E. Wackerman, one of the first CLC foresters, came to work for the experiment station. Both the CLC and the experiment station recognized the opportunity for Reynolds and Wackerman to help manage the CLC’s timberland, including their last 25,000 acres of virgin pine.”

Reynolds moved to Crossett in August 1933 and enlisted the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps to inventory and market timber. He began studies on the use of trucks in logging and the partial harvests of Southern pines.

“As valuable as these initial studies were, an experimental forest was also needed for properly controlled long-term research,” Bragg and Guldin write. “In the fall of 1933, Reynolds and Wackerman searched for a suitable location on the CLC’s cutover land. About seven miles south of Crossett, the boundary of the new Crossett Experimental Forest was laid out in October 1933. This 1,680-acre parcel had been cut before 1920 by loggers from the Hickory Grove Camp of the CLC. The CLC agreed to a long-term arrangement with the experiment station that gave the Forest Service the land in exchange for the standing volume of the timber and a promise to conduct research continually on the site for the next 50 years. A warranty deed finally conveyed the property to the government on Aug. 2, 1934.

“Work on the CEF facilities began in late 1933 with help from civilian relief programs. A civilian work project to build roads on the CEF was granted by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration on Dec. 16, 1933, and construction started immediately. By September 1934, workers were building structures to lodge the CCC inventory crew, and sites for a house, filling station and garage were established. Construction of these buildings began in September 1935 under a new relief program, the Works Progress Administration. Along with other buildings, a log cabin-style home for Reynolds and his family was finished enough to permit occupancy on July 9, 1936. This remained their home for the next 33 years.”

The initial round of construction ended in 1936. Buildings were later added by the CCC in 1939-40. Three of them are on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The primary objective of Reynolds and his staff at the CEF was to develop silvicultural principles and practices to manage the cutover second-growth loblolly-shortleaf pine-hardwood stands typical of the area,” Bragg and Guldin write. “The challenge was whether it was possible to rehabilitate existing stands while simultaneously providing landowners with an acceptable return on their investment. If so, CEF research had considerable practical application not just for the CLC but also for other companies and landowners across the South.”

Arson had become a problem in the area, and fire prevention was an early goal. Reynolds divided the experimental forest into 24 blocks of 40 acres each. Firelines were built between blocks by WPA employees.

Reynolds worked at the experimental forest until 1969.

“Cuts in the Forest Service budget prompted the experiment station to close the CEF on Aug. 9, 1974, after serving Crossett and the nation for 40 years,” Bragg and Guldin write. “Shortly thereafter, it became clear that the CEF would revert back to the original landowner without an active research program. Even though the Forest Service had tried to close the CEF just a few years earlier, the imminent loss of the assets, including the historic buildings and the irreplaceable long-term demonstrations and studies, came to the attention of the Forest Service chief, John McGuire. He decided to re-establish the research unit. The newly rededicated CEF opened with considerable fanfare on Feb. 14, 1979.”

We leave the Forestry Capital of the South and head west on U.S. Highway 82. We soon find ourselves in the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge covers almost 65,000 acres in parts of Ashley, Union and Bradley counties. It was established in 1975 in a wild, remote part of the state where the Saline River meets the Ouachita River. There are oxbow lakes, bayous such as Caney Bayou and creeks such as Big Brushy Creek in the refuge. The Felsenthal Lock & Dam on the Ouachita River forms what’s known as Lake Jack Lee.

The refuge is a prime spot to see migrating waterfowl, eagles and even the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The waterways are filled with alligators. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service operates a visitors’ center right along U.S. 82.

Five years after Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge was established, the nearby Overflow National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect large tracts of bottomland hardwood in Ashley County. The refuge was designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy. In 1991, about 8,000 acres of farmland were added to the original 6,500 acres and planted in hardwoods. Overflow Creek, a tributary of the Bayou Bartholomew, runs through the wildlife refuge. Land on either side of the creek is covered with bottomland trees — cypress, water tupelo, willow oak and overcup oak.

We cross the Ouachita River as we continue west. This river begins in the Ouachita Mountains near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border not far from Mena and then flows almost 600 miles before joining the Black River in Louisiana. The river flows through 11 of Arkansas’ 75 counties and through five Louisiana parishes.

“The Ouachita is a river of diverse beauty,” Glenn Gore wrote for the Ouachita River Foundation. “It begins as a small mountain stream near Eagleton in Polk County and flows eastward about 120 miles. It winds through lush mountain valleys, steadily building as it flows between huge boulders beneath mountain bluffs. It flows onward on its 600-mile course amid banks of moss-covered oaks and cypress trees in the swampy bottoms of Louisiana.

“The Ouachita is noted for its great fishing, especially bass and bream. Wildlife is prolific along the banks of the river. Deer, turkeys and even an occasional bear can be seen in secluded areas. Alligators and bald eagles have also returned to the area after having been driven out in the early 1900s. The Ouachita is also a major flyway for ducks and geese feeding and resting in the river’s oak-laden backwater flats and cypress swamps, as well as in the rice and soybean fields along its banks.”

Towns like Arkadelphia and Camden owe their existence to the Ouachita River.

“The Ouachita played a great role in the establishment of the towns for it was the river that provided access to these areas for buyers from as far away as New Orleans who were purchasing cotton. … In 1819, the first steamboat came up the Ouachita, making such a strange sound and presenting such a monstrous sight that it was described as a ‘puffing dragon.’ After that frightful debut, steamboats began to play an integral part in the colorful history connected with the Ouachita. From 1819-1910, the Ouachita was the great highway of commerce and transportation for the entire river valley. Steamboats came from as far away as New Orleans, reaching even Camden and Arkadelphia during times of high water. Steamboats began to vanish in the early 1900s with the proliferation of the railroads.”

The famous novelist Charles Portis wrote a piece on the Ouachita River for the September 1991 issue of the Arkansas Times.

In a story titled “The Forgotten River,” Portis wrote: “I grew up in south Arkansas and thought of the Ouachita only in local terms, certainly not as an outlet to the sea. It was a place to swim and fish. I knew you could take a boat down it from the Highway 82 bridge near Crossett to Monroe because I had done it once with a friend, Johnny Titus. It was shady a good bit of the way and we had the river pretty much to ourselves. The keeper at the old Felsenthal lock was annoyed at having to get up from his dinner table to lock through two boys in a small outboard rig.

“But I knew no river lore … and it came as a great surprise to me lately when I learned that there was regular steamboat service on this modest green river, as late as the 1930s, and as far up as Camden. I am not speaking of modern replicas or party barges, rented out for brief excursions, but of genuine working steamboats, with big paddle wheels at the rear, carrying bales of cotton down to New Orleans and bringing bananas and sacks of sugar back upstream, along with paying passengers.

“There were two vessels, the Ouachita and the City of Camden, and they ran on about a two-week cycle — New Orleans-Camden-New Orleans, with stops along the way. The round-trip fare, including a bed and all meals, was $50. Traditional steamboat decorum was imposed, with the men required to wear coats in the dining room. At night, after supper was cleared, the waiters doubled as musicians for a dance.”

We cross the Ouachita on the U.S. 82 bridge and enter Union County, the state’s largest in terms of square miles. Ninety percent of the county is forested. The Arkansas Territorial Legislature formed Union County in November 1829 out of parts of Hempstead and Clark counties.

“The next spring, the county court convened at the former colonial trading post of Encore Fabre (now Camden in Ouachita County) on a bluff overlooking the Ouachita River,” writes noted Arkansas historian Ben Johnson of El Dorado. “In 1837, county officers anticipated that a pending division of the county would slice away the Encore Fabre region and approved the relocation of the county seat farther down the river to another port, Scarborough’s Landing (later renamed Champagnolle). Over the following two decades, three counties and parts of six others were carved from the original Union County.

“Reflecting a changing economy, many residents in 1843 signed a petition requesting that the county seat be moved inland from the river floodplain and closer to major cotton farms. Three commissioners asked Matthew Rainey to surrender 160 acres he had preempted on a ridge that was the county’s highest point, about 12 miles from the river. A surveyor platted the newly christened El Dorado, and officials approved $200 to build a courthouse on the town square.”

With the soil depleted where they lived, settlers from Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi moved into the area during the 1840s to raise cotton. There were 12,288 residents of the county in the 1860 census, and more than half of them were slaves.

“About five percent of the landholders were planters (holding 20 or more slaves), and a third of the county’s slaves labored on these larger farms,” Johnson writes. “Besides raising cotton and corn, Union County was second in the state in the production of peas, beans and sweet potatoes. By 1833, Methodist circuit riders conducted church services in cabins while a Primitive Baptist congregation met in the southeast part of the county. About 1843, immigrants from the Carolinas who clung to their Scottish ancestry organized the first Presbyterian church.”

No battles were fought in Union County during the Civil War.

“White landowners had enjoyed considerable wealth in antebellum Union County,” Johnson writes. “While the war led to widespread devastation, prewar plantation families retained their land and position. Falling cotton prices throughout the late 19th century pushed many farmers into tenancy, but this was less pronounced in Union County than in other old plantation districts. Immigrants in the 1870s spurred a rise in black residents that exceeded the increase in the county’s white population. The newcomers forged new lives in the midst of the faltering cotton economy. Black land ownership at the turn of the century exceeded state averages. In 1870, Rev. Joseph Henry became the first pastor of the El Dorado Baptist Church, which became the largest black congregation in the county.”

The first passenger train arrived in El Dorado from Camden on July 4, 1891.

“The railroads created the local timber industry,” Johnson writes. “In 1892, J.S. Cargile formed a partnership with some El Dorado businessmen to build a sawmill and a town for workers on Loutre Creek. The partners formed the Arkansas Southern rail company to extend the Iron Mountain line from El Dorado to the mill. This transit artery led to the founding of Smackover and Junction City as rail terminals. The Union Saw Mill Co. built a line in 1904 to the new mill site of Huttig, soon the county’s largest sawmill community. This north-south network supplanted the east-west system between the old river landings and the interior region.”

Oil leases were being bought in the county as early as 1914. The first test wells, however, were dry. But then came the 1920 arrival of Dr. Samuel Busey, a medical doctor and shrewd businessman who earlier had invested in oil leases in Bolivia. He arrived in El Dorado and bought not only an interest in an oil well but also a hotel since he was confident of a coming boom.

“On Jan. 10, 1921, his well erupted with a thick column of oil that soiled clothes on wash lines a mile away,” Johnson writes. “The rural market center was unprepared to become a boomtown. Hotels and rooming houses overflowed, and tent-covered cot spaces, restaurants and shops went up along South Washington Street. A newspaper reporter noted that a person walking along what became known as Hamburger Row could ‘purchase almost anything from a pair of shoes to an auto, an interest in a drilling tract or have your fortune told.’

“Smackover became the second oil boomtown when a discovery oil well confirmed in July 1922 what an earlier gas explosion at a well site had indicated: The Smackover field held tremendous reserves of crude. By 1925, nearly 3,500 wells were pumping 69 million barrels of oil, the greatest rate in the world. The influx of wildcatters and oil field workers overwhelmed local authorities.”

Johnson notes that the drillers didn’t worry about the environment. They also ignored basic recovery practices, leading to a drop in production by the early 1930s.

“The oil booms introduced a new industrial elite into a state where the alluvial cotton-growing region had been the traditional source of wealth,” he writes. “For the rest of the 20th century, Union County was at the top of per capita income for the state. The county also was among the first to suffer from industrial pollution. The saltwater that surfaced with oil was released to turn surrounding creeks into undrinkable bogs and forests into a scorched landscape.”

A visitor who arrived in Union County by train in 1937 said: “I wondered what I had come to. It looked like a moonscape.”

El Dorado had about 4,000 residents when the oil boom began. By 1923, there were 59 oil contracting companies, 13 oil distributors and refiners and another 22 oil production companies in the city. Some estimated that the city had 30,000 people by 1925. The population had dropped to 16,241 by the 1930 census.

A rebound occurred in 1937 when Lion Oil financed discovery wells in the Shuler Field. Col T.H. Barton had acquired Lion Oil and become one of the state’s top business leaders. He sold his company to the Monsanto Corp. in 1955. One company that didn’t sell was Murphy Oil Corp., which is still controlled by the Murphy family.

“With the onset of World War II, Union County’s industrial base attracted the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Johnson writes. “Entering a unique partnership with Lion Oil, the Corps supplied $28 million for construction of the Ozark Ordnance Plant to produce ammonium nitrate. The private company oversaw the operation of the plant and acquired it for a fraction of the construction costs at the end of the war. In 1983, the enterprise became El Dorado Chemical, which continued to make explosives as well as fertilizer.

“World War II encouraged dramatic growth in manufacturing, and state lawmakers authorized local communities to provide financial incentives to attract industry. Union County established one of the first industrial development organizations, enticing Jess Merkle to build a large-scale poultry processing plant that became the largest employer in El Dorado. Beginning in 1965, Great Lakes Corp. processed the underground brine into a variety of brominated products, including flame retardants.”

El Dorado’s population has since dropped from a high of 25,292 in the 1960 census to about 18,000 today. The Union County population hit a peak of 55,800 in the 1930 census and is less than 40,000 these days.

El Dorado once was known as the Queen City of South Arkansas. It later became known as Arkansas’ Original Boomtown and is now known for the Murphy Arts District (MAD for short) as the Murphy family spends more than $100 million to make the city a cultural attraction. The plan is not only to attract visitors but to make it easier for companies like Murphy Oil and Murphy USA to attract talented young employees to live in El Dorado.

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