Sunrise Over the Arkansas River
OKLAHOMA - ARKANSAS
Launch: At the Corps of Engineers ramp, in the Applegate Cove-- ----- Recreation Area, adjacent to Applegate Marina, Sallisaw, OK
------This is a brown river, with many locks, fascinating history, rock ledges and bird song. It is a cruising gem in the heartland of America.
THE ARKANSAS RIVER
THE FORGOTTEN RIVER
------Much of the history of early mid-America is recorded along the banks of the Arkansas River. From the earliest days of human occupancy by the Moundbuilders, to the stories drifting through time to us from the days of settlers and outlaws, and those remembered horrors whispered around the winter fires of forebears walking the Trail of Tears - there are tales and scattered remains that breathe a human pulse into this landscape. Our history books and classes, however, spend little time with the Mounds of the Mississippi, the Trail of Tears, or Ft. Gibson. The importance of the Arkansas River is largely unknown or forgotten by most, including boat cruisers. It has not always been so.
------The Arkansas has two names, one in Arkansas and one in Oklahoma. In Arkansas, it is, naturally, called the Ar-Kan-Saw. In Oklahoma, folks perversely call it Ar-Kan-Sas. One must mentally adjust at the border.
------This is the third longest river in the country, and the longest tributary of the Mississippi / Missouri System. This past summer we were beside a little bubbling, clear-water stream high in the Colorado Rockies - the Arkansas. Now we are cruising her brown waters in the South.
------Like many rivers, there is a human love-hate relationship. It served as a source of food, an avenue of transportation and trade, the lifeblood of human crops - but it is the second most destructive flood river in the country. The long course from the peaks of the Rockies, across the broad High Plains, and down to the Interior Lowlands exposes the river, and residents on its banks, to every major storm in the central US - from mountain snowmelt, to massive frontal systems on the plains, to tropical storms forcing inland from the Gulf. Human history along its banks is a litany of inundation.
------For every yin, there is a yang. The river bore settlers to the land. From the dawn of human history in the Americas, these muddy waters have been a riverine highway. The Moundbuilders, a fascinating people of tall stature, beautiful art, elaborate ceremonials, and massive earth structures, lived and traded along its shores. The remains of one of the largest mound cities of early North America, Spiro, lies a short distance south from the river, near present-day Lock 14.
Moundbuilders of Spiro Mounds
-----------French trappers and explorers moved on its waters, exploring Louisiana Territory. Poignant tales drift through the mists of time from those early days. A young adventurous French nobleman, Chavet, was promised in marriage to a beautiful young Parisian girl, Adrienne. The King promised Chavet that if he explored Louisiana Territory, and found land that appealed to him, it would be his. He set off for Louisiana without Adrienne, afraid of the hardship of exploration in the wilderness for her. He promised to return to marry, and live together in the new world. Adrienne was heartbroken but determined. She secretly dressed as a boy, called herself 'Jean,' and sailed as a cabin boy on the same ship with Chavet, who did not recognize her. They sailed up the Mississippi and up the Arkansas. At the base of a beautiful mountain, friendly Indians invited the crew to spend the summer. In the fall, Chavet prepared the vessel with provisions for the sail back to France for his beloved Adrienne. The night before departure, Petit Jean, the 'cabin boy,' became ill. In delirium and high fever she revealed her identity to her lover, but two days later she died. The Indians carried her to the mountain top and there, overlooking the beautiful Arkansas River Valley, she was buried. Years later, American settlers found a low mound of earth covered with rocks perfectly fitted, on the mountain crest. It is there today, atop the mountain named Petit Jean.
The Mountain Named Petit Jean
------Throughout human history the river was a highway. On its waters floated the native's canoes, trapper's pirogues, flatboats of the homesteaders, keelboats of traders, steamboats of Nineteenth Century commerce and travel, and tows of today. But it was an unruly devil river, with droughts and floods, falls and sand bars.
------Finally, the Great Flood of 1943 demanded and received the US Government's attention. Two powerful US Senators, Arkansas Senator John McLelland and Oklahoma's Robert S. Kerr, joined interests in gaining an appropriation from Congress to control the river and make it a reliable navigable route of commerce from the Gulf to Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was the last major waterway to be developed in the continental US. The McKARNS system was completed in 1971 at a cost of $1.2 billion - a massive government public works project.
------The system stretches from the Port of Catoosa, near Tulsa, across the entire state of Arkansas, to the Mississippi River - a distance of 445 miles. It drops almost one foot per mile, 420 feet, over its length and requires 17 locks and dams to render the river navigable. The Corps dredges and builds wing dams to maintain navigation depth.
Commercial Dredge Sand Hog, and a Wing Dam (Built to Force the River Flow into its Channel)
------Hydropower is generated at four dams. There are five public ports and about sixty private ports. It has affected the lives of millions of people in its valley - protecting them from floods, providing recreational opportunities, generating electricity, moving goods with less cost and environmental damage per ton - but it is also much discussed as a prime example of "pork barrel" politics. There are those who would withdraw funding for the many locks, the dredging of the channel, and maintenance of the wing dams. They argue that the Waterway is not economic. We stay out of those discussions, since we can't easily separate fact and fiction. We, however are thankful for such delightful cruising water through a fascinating American region.
------This is not our first attempt to cruise the Arkansas River. In late November, 2002, we were at the end of a month-long cruise down the Ohio River. What next? Just across the Mississippi, and southwest, was the Arkansas River and there was plenty of time to cruise the river before the onset of winter. We joined with our Paducah C-Dory cruising friends, Marge and Tom, and planned the trip down the Arkansas while munching mile-high pies at Patti's Restaurant near Green Turtle Marina. Our day of departure arrived, and we were at the launch ramp early to put Halcyon on the trailer and head to Applegate Marina in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. While centering the boat on the trailer for the ride, El slipped on the green, greasy ramp - broken leg. Instead of floating down the Arkansas, we spent much of the winter in a condo at Green Turtle recovering from the fall. Now, two years later, we slipped Halcyon down a well-corrugated ramp at Applegate Cove. John, an interesting and excited boater from Wichita who had joined us for the weekend launch and a cruise on the lake, helped with the lines and we were on the fabled Arkansas at last.
El and Halcyon on the Arkansas
A RIVER WATERED BY TEARS
------There were few resident natives in this part of Oklahoma, after the decline of the Moundbuilders in the mid-1400's. To the east, the Cherokee Nation occupied the area of Tennessee, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. They were a powerful Nation and drove back other Native groups from their lands. But, with the arrival of the British, and their more powerful weapons, they were forced through treaties to cede much of their land to the new European settlers. As the early Colonial settlements and trading posts slowly grew into towns and cities after the American Revolution, pressure to acquire Indian land became intense. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Pres. Thomas Jefferson initiated treaties with eastern tribes to cede their lands and relocate from the eastern states to the newly acquired western lands.
------By the early 1800's, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole (the Five Civilized Tribes), who occupied all the southeastern states, had their own governments, laws, communities, businesses and farms. But the pressure by Europeans for their land, created a continuing conflict. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced Natives to leave their homes east of the Mississippi River.
------The Choctaw were agricultural people living on the rich land of the lower Mississippi. After sixteen treaties ceding land to the US Government, they were the first Indian Nation removed to Oklahoma. From 1830 to 1834, their entire Nation was forced to move. Most traveled by foot, in groups of 500 to 1,000, during fall and winter seasons. Some were herded onto boats at Arkansas Post, near the mouth of the Arkansas River, and carried up the river. They were packed aboard when cholera broke out. They left the boats and struggled for seven days through knee and waist deep water, while hundreds died. Bystanders watched the horror, but refused aid for fear of exposure.
------The Choctaw sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Following the war, a treaty with the US promised an Indian state, called Oklahoma, "red people" in Choctaw. It never happened.
------The Cherokee originally occupied an area from Kentucky to Georgia. Treaties with the British forced the ceding of much of their land. Dragging Canoe, who opposed white settlement on Indian lands, led a large band of warriors and their families (known as the Chickamauga), to the region near today's Chattanooga. Under increasing pressure from settlers, Tahlonteeskee led the Chickamauga to Arkansas and, eventually, Oklahoma. Another leader, The Bowl, moved a group of Cherokees to eastern Arkansas. They were also forced to move to northeast Oklahoma.
------ In 1838, the US military surprised and rounded up about 13,000 Cherokees and forced them into stockades. They were divided into groups of about 1,000, and marched westward. Four thousand died, trudging through swamplands, enduring extremes of weather, and dying en route before the survivors reached their treaty lands in 1839. Many a wilderness path in Indian Territory became part of The Trail of Tears.
------After the removals, the Choctaw Nation occupied lands south of the Arkansas River, and the Cherokee to the north. The Creek were granted lands to the west. The Chickasaw purchased the right to live amongst the Choctaw. The Seminole settled among the Creek. There were military forts scattered throughout the area, to force the relocation of the Indians from the east and to prevent warfare between the tribes who were often enemies. Later, these forts attempted to protect white settlers from both outlaws and renegade Indians.
------The Cherokee and Choctaw, with great fortitude, soon recreated a semblance of the civilization they had left behind. Within two years, they had established governments, laws, and a civilized pattern. Tahlequah was the Cherokee Nation's capitol and this Nation had built eighteen public schools within two years of resettlement. They had, by 1844, established Oklahoma's first newspaper and in seven more years had two seminaries for higher education. They sent their most promising students to eastern schools to be trained as professionals. Just when their lives were returning to a semblance of what they once knew, it was all lost again.
------The Civil War divided the Cherokee, and like many other Americans, many died - often in fights pitting Union-favoring Cherokee against the Confederate Choctaw and Cherokee. Chaos reigned. After the ravage of war, all were again engulfed by an expanding frontier of European settlement. New treaties allowed a transcontinental railroad across their lands and permitted other tribes to settle within the sovereign land of the Nations. Government Acts purchased Indian land and later abolished all Indian title to the land. By the 1920's, less than 10% of the original allotments were still owned by Indians.
------Robert S. Kerr was born in a cabin in Indian Territory in 1896. As a lawyer and drilling contractor, he became involved in Oklahoma's early oil boom. His business grew into Kerr-McGee Oil Company. He was first a Governor and then US Senator. He was always a big supporter of navigation on the Arkansas River. The reservoir named for him is a big one.
------ After a great dinner at Shad's Catfish Hole, we watched the sunset over Kerr Reservoir. Many a fabled tale is hidden beneath its waters.
Sunset Over Kerr
------ We launched in the morning at Applegate Cove on Kerr. We headed up river, into history. We passed the channel to Keota Landing, where an entire clan of 175 Choctaw died of pneumonia shortly after arriving in Oklahoma - Keota means "fire gone out" in Choctaw. The town of Blaine, in the early 1900's, the largest community in the area, now lay under the water of the reservoir. It was destroyed by a flood in 1927 - everything was washed away from the town except three cans of chewing tobacco on a shelf in the ruined store.
------At the junction of the Verdigris, Grand, and Arkansas we met SeeSaw, piloted by Bruce and Larry, friends who were schoolmates in Tulsa. We anchored up the Grand, had dinner together, and planned our cruise.
Halcyon Coming into the Grand River Anchorage in the Rain and Larry and Bruce on See Saw
------The next morning, we headed down river. The gray sky merged with the gray-brown water. Low hills rose from the shores, hazy with moisture from the recent rain. The wind was light and everything seemed soft - the hills, the trees, the water, even the air. This gentle scene belied its human history.
"THE COUNTRY THAT GOD FORGOT"
Brushy Mountain - Bootlegger's and Outlaw's Hangout
------This was outlaw country. The Indians were granted the right to govern themselves, and had Lighthorse Regiments that swiftly upheld tribal law. However, they had no jurisdiction over whites. Consequently, Indian Territory within two decades of the the Civil War, became a haven for the lawless. Bootleggers were everywhere - booze bottles were hidden in suitcases, under false bottoms of trunks, in the rolled curtains of stagecoaches. Murderers, horse thieves, and bandits were immune to justice. The closest law was in Ft. Smith, hundreds of rough and dangerous miles from the bandits. Deputy US marshals made forays and captured criminals, many of whom were later executed, but many marshals lie in unmarked graves in these hills. Frank and Jesse James, the Daltons, the Youngers, and Tom Starr hid out here. Tom was so dangerous that the only treaty between the Cherokee Nation and an individual was signed with him in an attempt to control his ravages.
------His daughter-in-law, Belle Starr, is a famed outlaw in these parts. The tale of her end is told countless times around the stove on dark and stormy evenings in these Oklahoma hills. Belle had been visiting friends in Keota and was riding to Ft. Smith when her horse went lame. Returning toward her farm, she forded the Canadian River and arrived at a crossroads. She paused for a moment to pull up the collar of her coat against the winter wind. Suddenly the silence was ripped by the explosion of a shotgun blast. She fell to the ground, hit in the back with turkey shot. As she hit the dirt, she reached for her holster but her revolver lodged. Her ambusher stepped into the open and shot her at point-blank range. She died in the cold mud, with a half-hostered pistol, on February 3, 1889 - her forty-third birthday.
The Canadian River Shores
------For many years the head of navigation was Ft. Smith. Supplies for upstream forts and villages were brought there by keelboat, hand-hauled or poled upstream. On a good day, the boat could make fifteen miles. At Ft. Smith, the gear was off-loaded onto wagons for the rest of the journey westerly.
------The first steamboat on the Arkansas is thought to have been the Comet in 1820. It carried supplies to Arkansas Post, near the mouth of the river. In 1822, the Eagle was the first steamer to venture upriver and carried supplies as far upriver as Mile 209. By the late 1820's, steamboats routinely carried passengers and supplies to Ft. Smith.
------In March 1827 the steamboats Velocipede and Scioto left New Orleans for Ft. Gibson, located near Three Forks, a hundred river miles above Ft. Smith. They established a new head of navigation.
------Capt. Pennywitt, a Virginian, was an early steamboater on the Arkansas. He was a keelboater on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers before commanding the Facility from New Orleans up the Arkansas to Ft. Gibson in 1828. On his first trip upriver, he towed two keelboats to the fort, before returning to New Orleans. On his second trip up river that year, he had to off-load his cargo at Sallisaw Creek due to low water. In 1829, on the new steamboat Waverly, water was so low that the head of navigation was Dardanelle. It was said that steamboats on the Arkansas could navigate on damp ground, and it is true that some only drew twelve inches. But in 1830, at least six steamboats found high water on the river and they carried many emigrating Cherokees to Ft. Gibson.
Van Buren Museum
------In 1832, the Corps of Engineers was authorized to maintain a channel from the Grand River to the Mississippi, but lack of funds often prevented their work. In 1836, the Arkansas set a record of six and a half days between new Orleans and Little Rock. By 1837, there were more than a hundred arrivals and departures at Little Rock in the month of June alone. Most of the plantation owners had their own steamboat landings, and some even had their own boats.
Mural in Van Buren
------Travel was not without hazard. One hundred fifty-two steamboats sank, over ninety percent from hitting snags and ten from boiler explosions. Twenty-three were burned during the Civil War.
------The Civil War totally disrupted commercial steamboating on the Arkansas. Union forces captured Ft. Smith and Little Rock, and only US troops moved on the river.
------The decade immediately following the War brought steamboating to its nadir. By the 1880's, railroads replaced steamboats. Increased upstream diversion of water from the Arkansas for irrigation reduced water flow so significantly that commercial boat traffic on the river became difficult or impossible. The last scheduled steamboat, bound for Memphis, left Little Rock in 1910 and an era drew to an end.
The Slot Cut in the Rock is for a Steamboat Landing. Imagine the Activity 125 Years Ago
The John Matthews
------The largest steamboat ever on the river above Little Rock, brand new and on her second trip, the John Matthews, was returning to Van Buren heavily loaded with a cargo of sacked grain. She also was pushing a barge loaded high with sacks of shelled corn. It was a fine June evening, and Capt. Hattaway had his three young children, 12, 10 and 8 years old, aboard for a summer vacation cruise with father. The river was high and full of driftwood, on a rise with late Spring runoff . Well up-river, Capt. Hattaway whistled to the Van Buren railroad drawbridge for an opening. Seeing no movement, he frantically signaled again as the fast current pulled the steamboat to the closed span. It took three men to open the draw, and only one answered the whistle. Realizing the danger, the Capt. turned upstream and tried to pull his heavily loaded boat and barge to the bank, but driftwood prevented them tying for a landing. He tried to fight the river upstream away from the closed draw, but the current overwhelmed the John Matthews, and it was swept sideways down against the bridge. The Capt. got his children, and three or four others of the twenty-seven aboard, into a lifeboat, but the ropes were cut while lowering. The lifeboat capsized dumping all into the swirling river. The river was so high it almost met the deck of the railroad bridge. The Capt. managed to pull himself and his daughter from the swollen river onto the bridge deck. The steamer broke in two against the middle pier, as she rolled over under the bridge. Only shattered pieces rose beyond the bridge. The night engineer and cook grabbed hold of the other two children, and saved their lives. Five crew members perished. Some of the bodies were never found.
Today's Railroad Bridge at the Site of the Disaster, Timbers in the River, and an Upstream Towboat
The Town of Van Buren
------We tied off at Goose Harbor Marina, under the highway bridge into Van Buren. It was a bit noisy overnight, but the visit into Van Buren was well worth it.
El, SeeSaw and Halcyon Under the Bridge, and In Front of the Mural with C-Dorians Larry and Bruce
------This is a quaint and beautiful little town, on the north bank across the river from Ft. Smith. The town preserves the flavor of a late Nineteenth Century river town.
'Frisco Station, Old Days, Today
Jenny Lind and William Jennings Bryan Performed Here
(The Ghost of a Traveling Actor, Shot by his Girlfriend's Father, Still Visits the Stage on Dark and Stormy Nights)
------Three or four tows per day traverse the locks in the Mid-Arkansas Waterway.
'Push Boat' Underway, Port of Muskogee (Foreign Trade Zone), Light Boat
A B-i-g 'Ol Towboat, the Command Center, and Coming into Lock 2 on the Arkansas Post Canal
LOCKS AND DAMS
------There are seventeen locks on the Arkansas Waterway. They are well-managed and the lockmasters courteous and interesting. The locks were easy to manage since we had only light wind on our cruise.
See Saw; a Home Made 'Arm Extender;' and El, on Halcyon, in the Locks;
Toad Suck Ferry Lock and Dam #8
------A tavern, popular with travelers, roustabouts, and steamboat passengers, operated on this site in the mid-1800's. Sam Houston, Zachary Taylor, Jefferson Davis and Washington Irving all crossed on the ferry here. One traveler commented, after observing the denizens of the bar, "Those fellows suck at a bottle 'till they swell up like toads!" So was created the name Toad Suck, used for the ferry, the tavern, a community and now the lock and dam.
------Arkansas was deeply divided and terribly impacted by the War Between the States. The cotton farmers of the plantations of eastern Arkansas strongly favored the Confederacy, but small farmers and a large immigrant population of the western area favored the North. The state joined the Confederacy. In April 1861, southern sympathizers in Pine Bluff, fired shots across the bow of the steamboat, Silver Wave, and off-loaded munitions and supplies bound for the US military at Ft. Gibson. The government goods were sent to Confederate troops in Missouri. Since this was before the firing on Ft. Sumpter, these are considered the first unofficial shots of the Civil War.
------The region was destroyed by war. Armies devoured crops and stock, and then burned homes and barns. Plantations were ruined and many of the western farmers either moved north or south to avoid armies, neighbors or starvation. those who returned after the war, found their homes, farms, and hard work destroyed.
Murals, Statues, and Signs Tell of the War in Van Buren
Daa, Dit, Daa; Fall Color; "Squaaaack"
Illiterate Gulls, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, ... Not Yet ...
Great Catfish Dinner and Good Folks at Spadra Waterfront Marina, Mile 229.2 in Clarksville
State House, Lighthouse, and Radar Time on the River
Sunset Over the Arkansas River
-A CRUISE THROUGH TIME
------A cruise down the Arkansas River is a cruise through a microcosm of mid-American geology. You can read about it at Ark Rock.
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