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Steam Boats through the
Red River Valley


The Bryarly was the first steam boat to ply the Red River after the 2nd federal raft removal

At the turn of the 19th century, the steam engine became the dream machine of many man of means (intentional rhyme and alliteration!): its potential was revolutionary. One of the biggest obstacles to trade has always been sending one's wares upriver, as it involved pulling or pushing cargo-laden boats over waters or ferrying freight with cumbersome wagons, often over dangerous roads. Robert Fulton, who brought the steam engine technology to the United States, found the solution by attaching a small engine to a raft. While not elegant, the idea sealed the near future of inland waterways. If rivers were made navigable, the country would open up to more trade and more population centers. And nowhere was this potential recognized better than along the Red River.

With the founding of the Natchitoches trading post in 1714 by Luis Juchereau St. Denis, the Red River was the first inland waterway west of the Mississippi River to be colonized. Trade in tobacco, indigo, and sugar cane was good. After the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, the hope was that trade would increase significantly by connecting Santa Fe to New Orleans via the Red River. To do this, the U.S. government would "only" need to clear the river of its immense log jam, called the Great Red River Raft, and perhaps build a few canals, locks, and dams. By the mid-1820s, steam boats had begun to proliferate the eastern rivers, and  Congress, spurred on by the military that needed to access to Fort Towson in the Indian Territory, the government Louisiana, and many planters, committed itself to making the Red River the first western interstate stream opened to steamer traffic.

After the first removal of the Great Red River Raft in the 1830s by Captain Henry Shreve, steam boat traffic truly commenced. The raft removal created a deep water port all the way to Jefferson in the Republic of Texas, and regular packets to Fort Towson became a common sight. River port towns, like Laynesport in Arkansas, enticed settlement. People who lived along the river and its tributaries started to build their own boats to haul freight and passengers. Due to Texas being a Spanish colony, a Mexican state and then a Republic, the hoped-for navigational infrastructure that would link New Orleans to Santa Fe never materialized, but the lower and mid Red River became well-traveled. The "west" seemed to be open for business.

But clouds appeared on the horizon. Where the Great Red River Raft re-formed (and it did, quite quickly, especially as Congress significantly decreased funding for internal improvements), land owners forced enslaved people to dig channels in order to charge passage through the jams, creating mini-wars among land owners and steamboat proprietors. Droughts and floods competed with each other to stop upstream traffic, and the many snags in the river, byproducts of the raft, made traversing the Red River an expensive activity. Additionally, relying on stolen labor to build a country's infrastructure and wealth became not just an economic, but a moral emergency. Upon the Civil War's outbreak in 1861, most commercial traffic halted and the Red River reverted into a semi-lawless region.

After the Confederacy's defeat in 1865, the U.S. government renewed its interest in the Red River during the Reconstruction period; however, much of the purpose of reconstruction was lost on the unrepentant southern elite, who sabotaged several small-scale efforts to bring the Red River up to navigational standards. But then, the federal government committed a major faux-pas. In 1873, Congress authorized a final federal raft removal. Supervised by Lt. Eugene Woodruff, the Army Corps of Engineers dynamited a large portion of the raft above Shreveport. The clearing was finally successful, but it also drained Jefferson, Texas of its deep water port.

The 1870s dealt one final blow to steamboat navigation on the Red River. The railroads, financed by the wealthy elite from across the U.S., built its network of tracks all across the region. Subsidized by Congress, state governments, and local jurisdictions, the railroads became bastions of "capitalist socialism" that forced navigation improvements to cease and farmers and traders to submit to their schedules and rates. By the 1880s, steamboats on the Red River became mere tourist curiosities, and the steam era on the Red River became a complete relic by the 1890s. Shipping on the Red River has not gone away, though. The state of Louisiana has made a commitment to barge traffic from Shreveport to New Orleans and vice-versa.

Ambitions shifted, but the Red River is still open for business.

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