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Crossing the Red River


We cross the Red River as we continue west on U.S. Highway 82 and enter the community of Garland, which often is referred to by people in this area as Garland City.

I consider this the Fried Catfish Capital of Southwest Arkansas due to the presence of two restaurants — Doc’s and Westshore — that attract catfish eaters from all over this part of the state.

“The first and most famous resident of the area was William Wynn, who arrived at the banks of the Red River and established a farm around 1835,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “At that time, confusion about the border between Arkansas and Texas and uncertainty about the size of Miller County resulted in many records placing Wynn’s land in Lafayette County. Wynn bought many acres of land, on which he grew cotton and other crops. By 1850, according to census records, he owned 96 slaves.

“Early in the 1850s, surveyors for the Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River Railroad planned a crossing of the Red River at Wynn’s plantation. Tracks had not yet been completed that far west when Wynn died in 1857. The Civil War then delayed construction of the railroad. Finally, by 1881, the St. Louis & Southwestern Railway (often called the Cotton Belt) built the proposed track, including a bridge across the Red River. A post office was established at the depot next to the bridge in 1883. It’s not known why the name Garland was designated.”

Farm and railroad workers made Garland home in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The town grew from 277 residents in the 1910 census to 425 by 1930. The city of Garland was incorporated in 1904.

“In the 1920s, the state of Arkansas began to plan highways for motor traffic to link the various parts of the state,” Teske writes. “Arkansas Highway 2 was developed to run parallel to the border of Arkansas and Louisiana, connecting Texarkana with Lake Village. A bridge across the Red River was built in Garland a short distance north of the railroad bridge. Originally a gravel road, Highway 2 was paved by 1932. The next year, it was re-designated U.S. Highway 82.

“Garland was guided through the Great Depression in part by local businesswoman Charline Person, who had managed a nearby 5,000-acre plantation since her husband’s death in 1911. In 1926, she was featured at the Women’s National Exposition in St. Louis. During the economic collapse, she took charge of soliciting and distributing goods as needed, as well as helping to raise funds to build the Garland Community Church.”

She was born Charline Woodford Beasley in December 1876 at Lewisville. She was almost 17 years old when she married Levin King Person Jr., who was 14 years older, in 1893. The couple had three children. Levin Person died following a stroke in January 1911.

“By 1914, Charline Person was heavily in debt, the property was run down and her workers were going hungry,” Colin Edward Woodward writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Miss Charline, as she was known, had no business experience. It was said that she had never even signed a check before having to take over the plantation. However, with prices rising during World War I, Person began making money in the cotton trade. By the mid-1920s, she had more than 100 families working for her, including white, African-American and Mexican laborers. In December 1925, a representative of the Cotton Belt wrote to her, saying that she was the most successful woman he knew of on the Cotton Belt system.

“In February 1926, Person was featured at the Women’s National Exposition. In honor of Person’s accomplishments, the railway constructed an exhibit showing a miniature field of cotton with several bales in the background. Person attended the exhibit as the Cotton Belt’s representative (the only woman from Arkansas so chosen). In a circular issued by the Cotton Belt concerning the St. Louis exposition, it was reported that Person was doing half a million dollars in business every year. She was called a woman of ‘dynamic and wide influence’ and the ‘most prominent woman cotton planter in Arkansas.'”

In addition to running the plantation, Person operated a general store in Garland.

“She also did her own housekeeping, raised chickens and tended a garden,” Woodward writes. “She rode on horseback with the overseers who handled the details of plantation management. By the mid-1920s, she was making her rounds in an automobile. In addition to her cotton land, she also had property devoted to timber and pecan trees. … Person ran a ferry across the Red River from Garland, was president of the Garland Levee District, served as secretary of Drainage District No. 2, was a majority stockholder of a cotton gin and directed the Bank of Garland. She assisted Henderson-Brown College at Arkadelphia when it almost closed due to lack of funds and was also active in the Red Cross.”

Person died at Texarkana in March 1951. She is buried at Lewisville next to her husband.

“After World War II, improvements to the highway resulted in new stretches of pavement for Highway 82, although the same bridge crossing was used,” Teske writes. “A portion of the older highway, three-quarters of a mile in length, has been preserved near Garland and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The population of Garland has fluctuated, growing during the Great Depression, then slowly declining, surging to more than 600 in 1980 before dropping back below 300 by 2010. The latter figure includes 67 white citizens and 174 African-American citizens.”

When Americans think of the Red River, many of them think about the border between Oklahoma and Texas. But the river has had a big influence on southwest Arkansas through the decades. The Red begins in the Texas Panhandle and flows east for almost 1,290 miles.

“In southwestern Arkansas near Fulton in Hempstead County, the Red River takes a decidedly southern turn before entering Louisiana, where it flows southeasterly before emptying into the Atchafalaya River,” writes Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster. “Although only about 180 miles of the Red River touches upon or passes through Arkansas, it has had a major impact upon the people of southwestern Arkansas. … Until the late 19th century, the Red River’s utility as a transportation corridor between the Mississippi River and points west of present-day Shreveport was impeded by the Great Raft, an enormous logjam that clogged the lower part of the river, extending to more than 130 miles at one point.

“The raft likely existed for hundreds of years. It was so old that, according to some sources, it actually became a part of Caddo mythology. In 1828, Congress set aside $25,000 for the raft’s removal, and Capt. Henry Miller Shreve, then serving as the superintendent of Western River Improvements, was assigned the task of clearing the raft. In 1838, he completed the task, though it re-formed farther up the river soon thereafter and eventually extended to the Arkansas border. Congress hesitated in setting aside more money for the clearance project, with many members feeling it to be a lost cause.”

Shreve, a steamboat captain and inventor, also used his snagboat to clear obstructions on the Arkansas River between Pine Bluff and Little Rock.

Shreve was born in New Jersey in October 1785. He spent much of his youth on rivers after his father moved the family to western Pennsylvania. He bought his first keelboat in 1807 and began hauling furs from St. Louis to Pittsburgh.

“In 1810, he set out for the lead mines run by the Sauk and Fox Indians on the Galena River,” Janet Brantley writes in “Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives.” “The first American to pilot a keelboat so far up the Mississippi system, Shreve struck a deal with the Indians and carried lead from the mines to New Orleans. Shreve married Mary Blair in 1811, and they had three children. The young husband was also married to the waters, and Mary spent a great deal of time raising their children alone.

“Shreve watched with interest as the Fulton-Livingston group inaugurated steamboat trade on the Mississippi. He soon became convinced that the design of Robert Fulton’s boat would not work well since the Mississippi and other rivers in the area were much shallower than those in the eastern part of the United States. Fulton’s design simply sat too deep in these shallow waters, and his boats frequently ran aground, with sometimes tragic results.”

Shreve invested in a steamboat with a flatter bottom and wider girth. His first boat of this style was the Enterprise, which left for New Orleans in 1814.

“His success encouraged him to design a steamboat even better adapted to the Mississippi,” Brantley writes. “The Washington had an even lower, shallower hull, two decks and twin smokestacks, a design that became the standard on inland waters. Perhaps the success of Shreve’s design, when compared to the problems of Fulton’s steamboats outside Eastern rivers, contributed to Shreve’s success when he mounted a legal challenge to the Fulton-Livingston monopoly on government contracts for shipping on the lower Mississippi in Louisiana.”

Shreve was named superintendent of Western River Improvements in January 1827. By 1829, he was clearing obstructions on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. By the early 1830s, he was at work on the Arkansas River.

“Like other inland rivers, the Arkansas was subject to cave-ins, as the natives called these periodic events,” Brantley writes. “During spring rains, runoff from fields into the rivers caused large chunks of soil along the riverbanks to fall into the streams, carrying saplings and even large trees along. Over time, this resulted in logjams that made navigation difficult, if not impossible. A congressional act in 1832 designated $15,000 for work on the Arkansas, noting that snagboats would be necessary to clear out the debris.

“Shreve supplied two snagboats, three machine boats and a steamboat. He made it from Pine Bluff to Little Rock by Feb. 22, 1834, and then did additional clearing above the capital city. In all, workers cleared 4,907 obstructions from the Arkansas. By some accounts, this averaged one snag every 88 yards. His work on the Arkansas River contributed to the success of steamboat travel and trade in Arkansas as the Arkansas River became effectively tied to the country’s main transportation artery, the mighty Mississippi.”

Clearing the Great Raft on the Red River, though, will always be the work Shreve is best known for. He worked to clear almost 200 miles of obstructions.

“The work was difficult, and the raft was so solid in places that new trees grew from the driftwood that accumulated in the middle of the riverbed,” Brantley writes. “A congressional report later described this work: ‘One snag raised by the Heliopolis contained 1,600 cubic feet of timber and could not have weighed less than 60 tons.’ Shreve was working on the raft in northern Louisiana in 1836 when local entrepreneurs incorporated a new town on the banks of the now free-flowing Red. They named the town Shreveport in gratitude for his efforts in clearing the raft.

“Shreve remained superintendent until 1841, when he was relieved of his appointed office by the new Whig administration. At the end of his term, he was in charge of five snagboats, the last of which was named the Henry M. Shreve. Shreve moved to St. Louis, where he farmed and repeatedly, if futilely, petitioned the federal government for compensation for his invention of the snagboat. Despite the findings of various committees that his work had saved the government hundreds of thousands of dollars, Congress never appropriated adequate compensation for Shreve, and he died without having reached agreement with the government.”

Shreve died in March 1851 and is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, which overlooks the Mississippi River at St. Louis.

In 1873, the second Red River raft was removed under the direction of Lt. Eugene Woodruff.

“Dams were placed along bayous emptying into the river to prevent any raft from re-forming,” Lancaster writes. “Despite the eventual clearing of the river, however, no major towns in Arkansas were established upon the Red, though Texarkana, Hope and Lewisville all lie at a few miles’ remove. Until 1900, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened the channel of the river, with the result that steamboat traffic increased as boats were able to transport goods from the mouth of the Mississippi River through Arkansas and into Texas and Oklahoma and back again. For the whole of the year, the river was navigable to Garland, where the Cotton Belt crossed the river. This railroad — as well as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway, which crossed the Red River at Fulton — provided stiff competition for steamboats, soon replacing them entirely.”

The federal Flood Control Act of 1938 authorized the Corps of Engineers to construct a dam on the Red River near Denison, Texas.

“After the Flood Control Act of 1946, the Corps of Engineers began a fairly constant spate of work on the river, including a variety of canals and locks and dams,” Lancaster writes. “In 1978, representatives of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana signed the Red River Compact, which provides an apportionment of the waters of the river to the four signatories as well as a means for conserving and protecting it.”

As we entered Garland, we also entered historic Miller County. Beverly Rowe describes it this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Miller County’s location in southwest Arkansas made it the Gateway to the Southwestern United States through its rivers, stagecoach roads and Native American trails. It is an area of flat plains and gentle hills with an abundance of pine and hardwood forests. The northern and eastern border is marked by the meandering Red River. The rich soil grows cotton, sorghum, rice, corn and other crops.”

The Arkansas Territorial Legislature established the first Miller County in April 1820. It also included parts of what are now Bowie, Cass, Delta, Fannin, Franklin, Hopkins, Hunt, Lamar, Morris, Red River and Titus counties in Texas.

“Miller County was part of the disputed Horse’s Head area of northeast Texas and southwest Arkansas, too far north for Mexico to control well and too far west for the United States to control well,” Rowe writes. “While it was technically under Mexican jurisdiction, it truly was not under any country’s control. The county was named for territorial Gov. James Miller, a native of New Hampshire. The first county seat was in the John Hall house in the Gilliland settlement. The county’s establishment was problematic because Mexico claimed much of east Texas.

“Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, and the first Miller County was abolished two years later. Gov. James Conway said the easiest solution would be to abolish the county and remove its record to a ‘more patriotic’ area — that is, in the United States. Until 1874, area settlers found themselves included in Lafayette County. The first Miller County had five post offices by 1835. There were at Jonesborough, McKinneyville, Mill Creek, Spanish Bluffs and Sulphur Fork. The southeastern United States provided the largest number of settlers to the area during this time as disheartened citizens of the old Confederacy moved west after the Civil War. One of the county’s earliest towns, Rondo, east of Texarkana, was founded before the war by Dr. L.C. Cully on land originally owned by James Sanders Trigg, who had been educated in France. Trigg named the town after the French game of chance known as rondeau.”

We’re in the cleared bottomlands of the Red River now, an area of row-crop agriculture that looks much like the Arkansas Delta far to the east. It’s time to get to Texarkana and end this trip across south Arkansas on U.S. Highway 82.

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