SECOND IN A SERIES
The North Fork River begins near the town of Mountain Grove in southern Missouri. It flows south for almost 110 miles before entering the White River in Arkansas.
The first of the big U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams in the White River basin of Arkansas — Norfork Dam — was built on the North Fork during World War II. It forever changed this part of the Arkansas Ozarks.
“Names for the river have included Big or Great North Fork of White River, North Fork White River and North Fork of White River,” Scott Branyan writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Below Norfork Dam, the remaining 4.8-mile stretch of river is referred to as the Norfork tailwater. There is an upstream tributary of the White River farther west called the Little North Fork of the White River, but the lower third of it is now encompassed by Bull Shoals Lake in Marion County.”
Explorers Henry Schoolcraft and Levi Pettibone followed the North Fork in 1818 as they explored this area.
“Schoolcraft describes the limestone and dolomite geology, springs, clear water and abundant game he saw along the river,” Branyan writes. “At times, they had to travel parallel to the river at some distance from it because of the steepness of the terrain and the thickness of the vegetation. The Missouri section of the river has an average gradient of 12.8 feet per mile. Jacob Wolf’s house at the confluence of the North Fork and the White established an early trading influence. However, actual settlements on the North Fork were relatively few. In Arkansas, a notable one was Henderson in what’s now Baxter County. The large tributaries of Big Creek and Bennett’s Bayou also saw some settlement.
“By the end of the 1800s, small subsistence farms grew cotton, corn, wheat and livestock throughout the river valley, but periodic floods made life hard for these settlers and their families. Economic prosperity came to the area only after lake impoundments, road improvements and rural electricity created tourism and real estate activity.”
The federal Flood Control Act of 1938 authorized a dam on the North Fork. Construction began in 1941. Lake Norfork now covers parts of Baxter and Fulton counties in Arkansas and Ozark County in Missouri.
“The Corps noted the North Fork River was a primary contributor to flooding in the White River because of its steep banks and big feeder streams, which frequently swelled during periods of runoff,” Branyan writes. “For a number of years, the Corps and private entities had studied the site for potential hydropower use as well.”
Congressman Claude Fuller of Arkansas was a leading advocate for a system of dams on the White River and its tributaries to control flooding. Fuller served in Congress from 1929-39. In 1938, Clyde Ellis defeated Fuller by 109 votes in the Democratic primary. Ellis immediately took up the fight for the construction of Norfork Dam.
“Securing funding for Depression-era projects at a time of impending war was difficult,” Branyan writes. “Ellis argued that a dam with a power plant was immediately needed for possible wartime production demands. He succeeded in obtaining funding and additional authorization for hydropower in the Flood Control Act of 1941, and the Little Rock District of the Corps of Engineers awarded the construction contract to the Utah Construction Co. and Morrison-Knudsen Co.
“The length of the dam is 2,624 feet. … Initial plans called for two generators, although the project included four 18-foot-diameter penstock tubes (conduits that carry water to the turbines), which would allow the installation of up to four generators at a later date. The World War II-era War Production Board cut this to one generator in the summer of 1942. The dam and powerhouse were operational by 1944. A second generator was installed and in use by February 1950. Two extra penstocks remain plugged with concrete.”
The dam was built entirely of concrete after a location less than five miles upstream from the confluence with the White River was chosen. A spur railroad line was built from Norfork to move equipment and materials. A total of almost 27,000 railroad cars moved along the spur during construction.
“When completed, Norfork Dam reduced 18 of the highest flood crests from February 1945 until April 1947 by an average of 3.31 feet on the White River at Calico Rock,” Branyan writes. “Several hundred small farms had been abandoned in Baxter County and left in foreclosure. Construction of a dam in the area meant prospects for work during the Depression. As soon as word of the approval of Norfork Dam appeared in the newspaper, locals began contacting Ellis to inquire about jobs. During the four-year course of the project, the average number of workers employed on the dam and powerhouse was 815.”
As the water began to rise, about 400 landowners in the Henderson area had to relocate. Twenty-six cemeteries were moved. The lake began to fill on Feb. 1, 1943.
The cold water released from the dam killed native fish populations downstream. In 1955, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service approved construction of the Norfork National Fish Hatchery so trout could be stocked in the North Fork and White rivers. A 43.9-acre site just below Norfork Dam was chosen for the hatchery.
Hatchery employees began stocking trout in 1957. The hatchery was doubled in size in 1964. It became the largest trout hatchery in the country. Fish are raised to a length of nine inches before being released. Rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout are raised there.
The nearby town of Norfork is among the oldest settlements in the state.
“Before permanent Anglo-American settlement occurred, the juncture of the White and North Fork rivers was the site of early fur-trading activities,” Joan Gould writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “From 1819-28, numerous Native American villages were located nearby. … Izard County was created in 1825. New counties had been created out of Izard County by 1835.”
Wolf was the leading citizen in the area.
“Wolf was one of the earliest homeowners in what would become Norfork,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He is sometimes identified as an Indian agent, although no record exists of his appointment or activity in this vocation. Some local historians have claimed that Wolf arrived in Arkansas as early as 1811, but his presence isn’t mentioned in official records until the mid-1820s. In 1825, Wolf entered a claim to 76 acres on high ground near the confluence of the White and North Fork rivers.
“Wolf had a log house built by slaves and Native American workers. There he raised a large family (he was married three times and fathered 16 children, as well as raising several stepchildren) and served as a major in the territorial militia. His home became the center of county government when Izard County was created in 1825. The next year, a post office was established in his home. Known as Izard Court House until 1844, the post office then changed its name to North Fork. The trading community that arose around the Wolf House was called Liberty by residents and visitors. Liberty was a flourishing settlement with stores, houses and farmland. It was also the jumping-off point for many travelers heading into the western wilderness. With the creation of new counties from parts of Izard County, the Izard County seat was moved from the Wolf House to the community of Athens. Steamboats continued to land at Liberty, and it remained a prominent settlement well into the 19th century.”
The post office at Norfork closed after the Civil War, but a ferry across the White River continued to operate there.
“The community sprang to life again in the first years of the 20th century with the arrival of the Missouri Pacific Railroad,” Teske writes. “A line built to connect Newport to Joplin, Mo., crossed the North Fork River with a new bridge at Liberty. Many of the construction workers temporarily made their homes in the community. It was renamed Devero, apparently after a railroad engineer named Devereaux. The named changed again a few years later to Norfork, a blending of the North Fork name. One source claimed that the name change resulted from Devereaux leaving the area with company funds.
“A post office was re-established in 1902 with the renaming of Devero to Norfork made official in 1906. The city was incorporated in 1910. Norfork was a center for the timber industry, which supplied the railroad with wooden ties. By 1910, Norfork had a hotel, a blacksmith, a gristmill, a barber, a butcher, a bank and several stores. Many sawmills operated in Norfork until the 1920s. As trees were harvested and not replaced, the timber industry declined. But the button blank industry grew as freshwater mussels were harvested from the riverbeds. A movie, ‘Souls Aflame,’ was filmed in Norfork in 1927, using many residents as extras and as minor characters in the Civil War drama.”
Norfork’s population was 224 in the 1920 census. In the most recent census in 2010, it had a population of 511 residents.
During the Great Depression, National Youth Administration and Works Progress Administration workers built four school buildings, which were used until the 1980s. A new bridge was constructed over the North Fork River in 1937.
Through it all, the Jacob Wolf House continued to stand. The house came under public ownership in the late 1930s, and local residents kept in up.
In the 1960s, Gerald L.K. Smith’s Elna M. Smith Foundation in Eureka Springs restored the house. Former Congressman Fuller spoke at the dedication ceremony on May 8, 1966.
Further restoration took place after the state awarded a courthouse restoration grant to the property in 1999. That restoration effort was completed in 2002.
On Oct. 4, 2016, the Baxter County Quorum Court transferred the property to the Department of Arkansas Heritage. It’s now operated as a state historic site.
It’s time to continue our trip south on Highway 5. Izard County and the historic White River community of Calico Rock beckon.