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Old Red River and New Cane River of Natchitoches

Updated: Aug 19, 2023

A some-what coherent guide to what happens after a Great Raft is removed

River with large channel above a narrower channel next to a city
This satellite image (thanks, Google!) of Natchitoches, Louisiana shows how the Red River "straightened" itself when the Great Raft was removed along Bayou Pierre (upper left corner). See Bethel Baptist Church? That's where the old Red River channel was dammed to make Cane River.

A reader asked the question, "Was Cane River in Natchitoches really once the Red River?" and after I answered the reader personally, I thought I'd share the description here!

In the 1830s, the Great Raft (a massive log jam) was removed by Captain Henry Shreve and the US Army Corps of Engineers just above Natchitoches along Bayou Pierre, which drained several lakes north of the bayou. These former lakes can be "seen" from the ground along LA 1 from Shreveport to Natchitoches - very flat and when it rains, lots of boggy places. The Red River then, eventually, straightened itself out around the high bluff, called the Grand Ecore by the French, behind which the Natchitoches village stood.

The old Natchitoches village was located on several peninsulas that jutted into the Red River south of the Grand Ecore. Much of the water in the Red River at this point was "controlled" by the log jam upstream, making the Red River here a series of streams rather than one wide channel. When Shreve and his crew removed the log jam, the Red River above Natchitoches changed course around the Grand Ecore, and in doing so, the waterways around Natchitoches became shallower, including the Red River that ran beside the village. The Red River diverted itself about a mile to the town's east.

During the summer, fall, and winter, the old channel of the river, which was known by locals as Cane River, would go dry. The whole town was often fronted by a muddy morass. During the Spring, rainfall that fed the creeks west of Natchitoches re-filled the Cane River so it was navigable again. Its relief also stopped the river from inundating towns to the south. However, the town of Natchitoches wanted the waterfront year-round, so around 1916-ish, they placed dams on both ends of the old channel. This allowed whatever water flowed from the west into the old channel to remain, and now Cane River has consistent water levels. And, therefore, Cane River is actually a lake.

The diversion of the Red River and the creation of Cane River is visible from satellite. Look where Bethel Baptist Church is in the image. That is where the Red River once made the bend into the Natchitoches village. When the raft was removed around Bayou Pierre (upper left corner of the image), this bend gradually straightened into a new, main channel. The dam for Cane River is just below the church.

Damming the Cane River was not an all-around popular move. Downstream, residents protested that without the Cane River as an outlet during the Spring floods, they would be flooded out of their homes and businesses. Locals lamented that since the dams would provide no access to the Red River anymore, the town would essentially become a tourist destination. Prescient people!

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