SIXTH IN A SERIES
We cross the St. Francis River as we head west out of Parkin on U.S. Highway 64.
The river begins in Missouri and is a mountain stream for its first 25 miles before reaching the Mississippi Alluvial Plain (commonly called the Delta) just north of Poplar Bluff. The St. Francis turns south and travels more than 200 miles. It forms the boundary between the Missouri Bootheel and Arkansas before moving slowly along the east side of Crowley’s Ridge through east Arkansas.
The river empties into the Mighty Mississippi in the St. Francis National Forest north of Helena.
“Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet explored part of the lower St. Francis River and likely gave the river its name, though it’s uncertain which saint served as the namesake — perhaps either St. Francis of Assisi or St. Francois Xavier,” Jodi Morris writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “From the 1780s to the 1820s, the St. Francis River basin was again the site of Native American settlement as members of the Cherokee tribe moved to the area and established homes.
“Part of the river between Lake City in Craighead County and Marked Tree in Poinsett County is known as the Sunken Lands. Here, the river dropped six to eight feet during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, causing the river to form a large, swampy overflow area. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission now conserves more than 27,000 acres of this overflow area as the St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area.”
The St. Francis wasn’t one of Arkansas’ early navigable streams since it was filled with log rafts and snags.
“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,” Morris writes. “Only after the Civil War did Congress begin funding the clearing of the river. Numerous cleaning 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 land began to be drained in the late 1890s and early 1900s, steamboats continued to operate on the river.”
The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893. Congressional passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928 provided new funds for flood-control measures along the river.
“These measures have greatly affected the natural course of the river and have included a number of diversion ditches that run somewhat parallel to the river along its course from southeastern Craighead County down through Lee County,” Morris writes. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed the world’s largest siphons on the St. Francis at Marked Tree in 1939 to help with flood control. The Marked Tree Siphons are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The Corps built the W.G. Huxtable Pumping Plant southeast of Marianna in 1977 to prevent Mississippi River floodwater from moving into the St. Francis. It also removes water held back by the St. Francis River levee system. It’s considered the world’s largest pumping plant of its kind.”
As the virgin hardwood forests were cleared and the swamps were drained after the Civil War, the cotton plantations became larger and larger.
“David C. Cross, a planter and slave owner, owned thousands of acres in the area of Poinsett and St. Francis counties in 1860,” Richard Hartness writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “When the Civil War began, he organized a company of soldiers, paid for their uniforms and was elected their colonel. This was the Fifth Arkansas Infantry Regiment, part of the Confederate Army. Cross purportedly became ill with pneumonia, left the regiment and returned in February 1862 to his home in what’s now northern Cross County.
“On Nov. 15, 1862, the Legislature created Cross County as the state’s 53rd county with a temporary county seat at Wittsburg. Because of Union activity in the Wittsburg area, county business was conducted secretly in Pineville. After the war ended, the county seat was officially moved to Cleburne, named for Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne. The county seat remained there until 1868. In 1903, Wynne became the county seat.”
Because Wittsburg was on the river, large cotton warehouses were built there. It served as county seat from 1862-65 and 1868-84.
“Rebounding after the Civil War and surviving a major fire in 1874, Wittsburg grew due to the trade in cotton and dry goods,” writes Arkansas historian Derek Clements. “Wittsburg began to fade after being bypassed by railroad lines in 1882 and 1887. That drew trade to the west side of Crowley’s Ridge and Wynne.”
Wittsburg had developed near the intersection of Crowley’s Ridge, the Military Road and the St. Francis River.
“The geographic location of Wittsburg made it thrive,” Clements writes. “Due to population growth, a second incorporation was required in 1859 to increase the amount of land in the town. By 1860, Wittsburg had grown to 100 people. There was a dock, cotton warehouses, a post office, a newspaper called the Wittsburg Messenger, a gristmill and a school. … At the end of the Civil War, Wittsburg was one of two major sites for Confederate surrender in northeast Arkansas. The other was Jacksonport. About 2,100 men were paroled in Wittsburg.
“For Wittsburg, the Reconstruction era was a mixture of confusion, lawlessness and economic renewal. Politically, Wittsburg lost the position of county seat to Cleburne from July 3, 1865, to Aug. 2, 1868. Due to an April 1869 requirement passed by the Legislature, all municipalities in Arkansas had to reincorporate. Wittsburg reincorporated for the third time on May 13, 1869. The town seemed to weather Reconstruction fairly well. By 1866, there were more than 10 taxable businesses in Wittsburg as well as a post office and church. Efforts to improve the road to Memphis were coupled with a return to steamboat contact, thus improving trade. By 1874, the town had a population of 300.”
A huge fire occurred Nov. 6, 1874, but Wittsburg bounced back for a time.
“The trade in timber and furs, as well as the movement of some 30,000 bales of cotton annually, provided the economic stimulus to rebuild damaged parts of town,” Clements writes. “The 1880s began a period of decline for Wittsburg. The census revealed that the town had slipped to 209 people by 1880. The north-south route of the Helena & Iron Mountain Railroad (later the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern), completed in 1882, passed to the west side of Crowley’s Ridge.
“In 1885, the town’s last newspaper, the Wittsburg Chronicle, which had begun in 1878, moved to Vanndale as the Cross County Chronicle. The east-west line of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern from Memphis to Bald Knob ran north of Wittsburg, drawing trade to the other side of Crowley’s Ridge where both tracks crossed at Wynne. As Wynne grew, Wittsburg dissolved. By 1900, the Wittsburg post office had closed.”
The railroad went north of Wittsburg to take advantage of a natural gap in Crowley’s Ridge.
“The growth of Vanndale and Wynne along the railroad balanced the decline of river cities such as Wittsburg,” Hartness writes. “This transfer of population was increased by flooding when the St. Francis River broke through levees in 1912 and 1913, and especially during the Great Flood of 1927. The American Red Cross tended to many refugees on the higher ground of Wynne during that flood, and railroads were used to evacuate flood victims from the county.”
Following World War II, hundreds of workers left Cross County for industrial jobs. That mirrored what was happening in other Arkansas counties. Arkansas lost a larger percentage of its population than any other state from 1940-60.
“Soybeans and rice began to displace cotton as the chief crops in Cross County, but farms became mechanized, reducing jobs in the county,” Hartness writes. “A men’s clothing factory, Rainfair, opened in 1954, followed by Addison Shoe Co. in 1960 and Halstead Industries (a manufacturer of copper tubing and fabricator of air cooling units) in 1963.
“Desegregation of Cross County schools began in 1967. At the same time, many smaller school districts were being consolidated. Parkin schools were consolidated into the Wynne School District in 2005. Most other schools became part of the Cross County system.”
Continuing west on U.S. 64, we climb out of the Delta and up Crowley’s Ridge, which runs from southern Missouri to Helena. It’s from one to 12 miles in width with Delta farmland on either side.
“It’s made up of a continuous series of rolling hills except for a slight break at Marianna,” Hurbert Stroud writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “This break or gap was created by the L’Anguille as it flowed across the ridge. The ridge received its name from Benjamin Crowley, the first white settler to reach the area near present-day Paragould, sometime around 1820. Crowley’s Ridge is an unusual geological formation that rises above the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. The ridge contrasts sharply with the surrounding flat land of the Delta.
“In terms of formation, the ridge is generally thought to have once been an island between the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. It became a long and narrow hilly ridge after the rivers changed course millions of years ago. Prior to the change in course, the Mississippi River flowed along the west side of what’s now Crowley’s Ridge with the Ohio River meandering along the east side. The work of these major rivers and their subsequent shifting in course resulted in the formation of an erosional remnant that’s now Crowley’s Ridge.”
It’s easy to spot the ridge from miles away as one drives across the Delta.
“The ridge is capped by a deep layer of wind-deposited soils created millions of years ago as glaciers moved across the continent,” Stroud writes. “Extensive areas, including the Mississippi Alluvial Plain and Crowley’s Ridge, were covered by windblown soil. Rivers and streams that continued to meander across the plain washed away the loessial material. On Crowley’s Ridge, however, the loess continued to collect, up to 50 feet in depth in some locations. Since loess is easily eroded, steep slopes and deep valleys characterize much of Crowley’s Ridge.
“One of the unique features of the ridge is its natural vegetation. Many of the trees that make up the forest on Crowley’s Ridge are similar to those found in the west Appalachian Mountains. The ridge is covered with a lush mixed forest that includes oak, hickory and uncommon hardwood trees such as American beech, sugar maple and yellow poplar. Crowley’s Ridge also has extensive areas of pasture. Although the soil is relatively fertile, row crops such as soybeans and wheat are limited almost entirely to small floodplains along and near streams that flow out of the region. This is due to the highly erosive nature of the wind-blown soil. These soils need a protective vegetative cover of some type (such as pasture grasses or forests) to combat severe erosion.”
This area of Crowley’s Ridge received a huge boost when Village Creek State Park was created. In 1967, the Legislature authorized a study to determine the need for a major state park in east Arkansas. Thomas Seay of Forrest City was the driving force in the park being located about six miles south of Wynne.
Land acquisition took place from 1972-78, resulting in the purchase of more than 6,900 acres by the state. Dedication ceremonies for the park were held in June 1976 with Charlie Rich, a native of nearby Colt, performing. An estimated 20,000 people attended the event.
Two lakes were created in the park. Lake Dunn is named after Poindexter Dunn, who served this area in Congress from 1879-89. Lake Austell is named for Samuel Austell, the first county judge of Cross County.
According to the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism: “While Village Creek State Park is named for a stream that flows through the area, it also preserves part of the rich history of the region. Early settlers named the area Old Cherokee Village, though there’s little evidence of Cherokee occupation outside scattered camp remnants. A section of the Military Road that once linked Memphis to Little Rock is still visible. It became a major route of Indian removal for Creek, Chickasaw and Cherokee tribe members from 1832-39.
“The park also contains part of William Strong’s Spanish land grants. He built his 20-room mansion within view of Crowley’s Ridge, near the Military Road on land just east of the park boundary. Strong became one of the largest landowners and leading politicians in the region between 1820 and 1840. He was the first postmaster along the Military Road and served as county sheriff. He also was a delegate to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention of 1836. Strong was instrumental in bringing the Military Road to the area, thus ensuring its population would grow.”
We enter Wynne, which started off as a railroad town and has grown from a population of 4,142 in the 1950 census to 8,314 in the 2020 census. At a time when most other towns in this part of the state are losing population, Wynne has been a shining star.