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The Great Raft of the Red River

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Dead trees.
A passenger on his way to Preston, Texas in the 1840s remarked during his journey through the Great Raft that the "ghosts of dead cypress trees... marked the way through the raft." In this 1874 photograph of the raft clearing, the ghosts are slated to be removed.

The Great Raft of the Red River: A Massive Log Jam with its own Eco System Not-so-natural Disasters

Two of the greatest man-made natural disasters occurred along the Red River Valley. One was Dallas' decision to practice flood control on the Trinity River. In the 1930s, the city straightened out the stream, built earthen levies (many of which are not so stable now), and moved the entire river a few hundred yards to the east. Today, the re-engineered Trinity has shrunk to the size of a creek. So, when you drive on Interstate 35 through downtown Dallas, you're actually driving on the old Trinity River bed, and you'll notice that the courthouse actually sits on a natural bluff of where the river once flowed. That's really bad, especially because over the years, many pundits have pondered why Dallas grew so large, since it didn't have any discernible "natural advantages." Whatever... It goes to show that there aren't many people willing to understand a place's history and geography before they go about disparaging it. That's what happened in the second example of man-made disaster: the removal of the Great Raft along the Red River just north of present-day Shreveport. Not that that's how you'd hear history books tell it. According to school textbooks, this 40-year project, spear-headed by the Corps of Engineers, helped to open up trade in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas. And that may be true enough. What isn't said, however, is that removing the natural dam that had existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years, ruined Caddoan culture and the natural geology of Louisiana. Red River Exploration After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Thomas Jefferson ordered the exploration of the Red River north of Natchitoches, in the hopes that the river would lead to Santa Fe. The men tasked with this undertaking, Peter Custis and Thomas Freeman, had to first slough through a "log jam" that they described as at least 100 miles wide and maybe 130 miles long. Spanish troops ended their expedition at Spanish Bluff before the river could be fully explored. But the impressions that Custis and Freeman brought back with them - of the flora and fauna, and of the immense wooden dam along the river - assisted with establishing settlements in western Louisiana and eastern Texas. The "log jam" was indeed immense. Every Spring, flash floods would dislodge cottonwoods, post oaks, pines, and other trees along the sandy, silty banks of the river. Huge trees sunk to the bottom of the shallow river along bayous, creating a natural dam as more and more of them toppled onto each other. The jam allowed water to back up into large, deep lakes, but was porous enough to create a constant and consistent river south of the dam. The Caddos, who lived along the Red River, used this natural phenomena as a way to record time. During the spring floods, they could hear the immense cracking of new trees being swept into the dam. The newly cleared land created by the floods marked the places where they could plant their crops. To them, the river's natural propensity assisted their way of life. Early European settlers saw the Great Raft, as they called it, as simply a part of a natural cycle, too. The French planters who settled around Natchitoches built their plantations along the river to send their cotton down to New Orleans.

Make Way for... Everyone But there was rumbling. The Red River flowed quite freely through eastern Texas/Indian Territory and Arkansas, but without a way to connect to the lower portion of the river, the settlements in those regions simply could not grow as large as they hoped. In 1824, Fort Towson, founded along the river in Indian Territory (in today's Choctaw County) to protect the newly-arrived Choctaws and Chickasaws from hostile Amerindian and Americans, could not receive much-needed supplies due to the unmanageable river downstream. Thus, the federal government ordered the Army Corps of Engineers (founded by Jefferson) with removing the Great Raft, who in turn hired Captain Henry Shreve to carry this out. Henry Shreve (1739-1851) began his career as a river boat captain. He was instrumental in stopping steamship monopolies, and his refusal to honor the monopolies of Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston on the Mississippi River brought the Supreme Court decision to allow unimpeded interstate water navigation in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824). Shreve helped to develop steam ships by inventing new devices and improving designs. One of his inventions was the "snag boat," which he used to first clear the Mississippi, then the Red River. The Heliopolis was built specifically for the removal of the Great River Raft from 1833 until 1838. The work was done by free men, as Shreve did not lease from slave or convict labor. Some Problems With the removal of the raft, new towns prospered and old ones found themselves shut out. Natchitoches, for example, which was already on the Cane River, now was at least a mile further removed from the main channel of the Red River. Plantations had to use land transport to get their cotton and indigo to market. The raft removal was not done very precisely, either. The logs and debris proved to be too much for Shreve's snagboats to handle. Much of deadfall was simply placed along smaller channels, such as Bayou Pierre. This created clogging and backwater problems for planters located along these waterways. Enslaved workers on some plantations dug new channels so that the planters could charge toll for passage; others destroyed or removed the debris pile, allowing some of the plantations to become dry-docked. The parishes requested state assistance to fix these infrastructure problems, but while promised, real monies never materialized. On the other hand, Shreveport (named in honor of Captain Shreve, who also was an investor in the town charter) was founded at Bennet's Trading Post along the newly cleared river in 1839 and soon became a large trading center. Jefferson's (Marion County, Texas) location on the Big Cypress Bayou, a deep water lake carved from the raft and now navigable after the raft's removal, allowed the hamlet to become one of Texas' most important port cities.

More Removals, more Problems The Great Raft, however, was not completely cleared, and the natural cycle of floods and debris build-up soon repeated itself. In 1873, the Corps of Engineers under Lt. Woodruff began in earnest to open up the Red River once again, this time using nitroglycerin. With the river finally opened, steamships and paddlewheelers could navigate north into Arkansas and as far west as Jonesboro and Fort Towson. The second federally-funded removal left many lakes and bayous drained. The most notable one was Big Cypress Bayou, home to Jefferson. By the turn of the century, its deep-water port was gone and the Great Raft's lake had shrunk into Caddo Lake. The other problem was Yellow Fever. Confederate-leaning newspapers in the area criticized the raft removal for having caused the 1873 Yellow Fever epidemic. Lastly, the raft removal allowed the river to shorten its path to the Mississippi. To stop the destabilization of the land surrounding the river, the Corps of Engineers had to implement billions of dollars in lock and dam improvements to keep the river navigable. And all for naught By the late 1870s river navigation had begun to trickle downward. Railroads, and the resulting boom towns, left the Red River increasingly silent. The "heads of navigation," which at one point reached all the way to Gainesville (Cooke County, Texas) eventually dwindled eastward until by the 1940s, only local rock barges traversed the Red River. The state of Louisiana did not want to lose its connection to the river. Beginning in 1968 and completed in 1994, the Army Corps of Engineers built several locks and dams to accommodate the state's and cities' investments in river ports. Today, the Red River at and below Shreveport is once again humming with shipping traffic. It is still vital, however, for the Corps to continue to clear the waterway lest it dam up again.

Note on the photographs: The photographs stem from my visit to the Library of Congress in May of 2022, where I was able to view and photograph the pictorial compilation published for the congressional report in 1875. These photos were hand-tinted. A copy of this book sold at auction for $96,000!!! The LOC has REALLY bad overhead lighting, so that's why there is a sheen on the photos.

The U.S. steam boat, "Aid," slides through the Red River during the 1874 clearing of the Great Raft conducted by Lt. Eugene Woodruff.
Boat from back
A hauntingly beautiful photograph of the US Aid on the Red River.
Boat to clear waterway
Men removing logs from the river to clear the waterway.
Logs everywhere
A massive log jam made up "the Great Raft."
A look at the Red River waterway after a clearing.
Paddle wheeler
The R.T. Bryarly as it made its way through the raft in Louisiana, now almost cleared, in 1874.
An up-close look at the crane boat, which lifted trees out of the water.
Nitrogycerin tent
The dynamite manufactured inside this tent was the reason Jefferson, Texas, ultimately lost its port.
The album sitting on the table at the Library of Congress for my (and your!) viewing pleasure.

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