The Great Red River Raft

Recently I was doing a bit of research into the early years of my hometown, which is situated along the Red River in Northwest Louisiana.  One of the things I stumbled on was an interesting tidbit of Red River History, namely The Great Red River Raft.

First off, the raft in question is not a floating platform of the kind Huck Finn poled down the Mississippi River.  This raft was a massive logjam, reputed to be the largest ever seen in the US.  It was comprised of a series of ‘rafts’ formed by fallen trees and debris that made the Red River virtually unnavigable for hundreds of years.  By the start of the nineteenth century, the lower end was about ten miles upstream from Natchitoches, LA and from there it extended northward nearly one hundred  and fifty miles to the point where the river crosses the Arkansas-Louisiana border.  In places it was up to twenty five feet deep and could be safely crossed by men on horseback. 

The origins of this logjam are not completely understood.  Some believe it began over a thousand years ago when the Red River changed course and moved its terminus from the Atchafalaya Basin to  the Mississippi River.  According to this theory the high flood stages of the Mississippi forced large amounts of  debris back into the Red during the heavy rains that fell every spring.  Once enough backed up to cause the first major logjam, the obstruction began to build upon itself, growing on the back end faster than the front end eroded.  Another theory is that the logjam was formed as the waters eroded the river banks, toppling huge trees at the river’s edge that submerged and began to trap other debris in a cumulative effect that resulted in the massive rafts.

Regardless of the cause, by the time Fort Towson was established in what is now Oklahoma, and Fort Jessup was established to protect western Louisiana, it became critical to open up the river to navigation as a means of getting supplies to these garrisons.  Several ideas were put forth, none of them practical.  Finally, in 1825, the Arkansas territorial legislature petitioned Congress to handle the situation.  As happens today, Congress decided to first study the matter, so it was 1832 before a solution was settled on and the funds were appropriated to actually begin the work.

Captain Henry Shreve, an army engineer who had served as the Superintendent of Western River Improvement since 1826, was tapped to lead the project.  Shreve had designed ‘snag boats’ capable of clearing raft-type logjams from other rivers.  These boats were actually constructed of twin 125 foot hulls connected by a series of massive beams, and were outfitted with various contraptions for either ramming through the debris or lifting logs directly from the river.  Shreve brought four ‘snag boats’ with him along with a crew of 159 men to handle the project.  The work crew started at the downstream end of the logjam, tearing out the massive logs and allowing them to float downstream.  It proved to be a challenging project – a congressional report would later state: “One snag raised by the Heliopolis… contained 1600 cubic feet of timber, and could not have weighed less than sixty tons.” 

The project was stopped several times as funds ran out and new monies had to be appropriated, but by March of 1838 Shreve had succeeded in clearing the channel.  So impressed were the locals with the work of Captain Shreve and his crew that when, in 1836, entrepreneurs incorporated a new town on the banks of the Red, they named it Shreveport in his honor.
Captain Shreve cautioned Congress that keeping the channel clear would be an ongoing effort.  Congress chose to ignore his warning, though, and by 1839 the raft had begun to reform.  During the next 32 years the government spent upwards of $630,000 funding various schemes to reclear and maintain the channel, most of which met little or no success.  Finally, in the spring of 1872, Lt. E. August Woodruff, head of the Army Corps of Engineers, began a major attack on the raft.  Combining Shreve’s snag boats with saw boats, crane boats and explosives, he had success within a year.  In May of 1873, the 150 foot steamer R. T. Bryarly, fully laden with cargo, arrived in Shreveport – it was the first such ship to do so in 29 years. 

This time, learning from prior mistakes, Congress appropriated the funds to allow for patroling the river with vessels that could keep the raft from reforming.  Finally, by 1900, the great Red River raft was permanently defeated and the Red River was open to navigation from Indian territory all the way to the Mississippi.

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
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22 thoughts on “The Great Red River Raft”

  1. This is an amazing story. I wouldn’t have thought about the raft reforming. Definitely a great man versus nature story.

    And I now know how Shreveport got its name.

    Now, Winnie, if it were me, I would have a tough time getting my research for my books done but I would constantly go off on tangents with stories like this one. I love these little tidbits!

    Peace, Julie

  2. My word, what a story, Winnie. I’d never heard of this. Can’t help wondering what they did with all that timber. The wood had to be good for something. Thanks for a very interesting blog.

  3. “In places it was up to twenty five feet deep and could be safely crossed by men on horseback.”
    Okay, that is mind-boggling to me. Thanks for an excellent blog, Winnie!

  4. Elizabeth – unfortunately I think a lot of the timber was either allowed to rot or was left to float downstream as it was forcefully dislodged from the raft

    Karen – you are most welcome – glad you enjoyed the post

  5. I’ve never heard of this before, Winnie. Wow, that’s a lot of money for clearing the river…for back then. Imagine how many millions of dollars that would amount to today with inflation.

  6. Interesting, Winnie! Thanks. Johnny says that while the river was dammed up, the steamboats went to Jefferson, Texas and Caddo Lake by way of Red Chute and Flat River and Loggy Bayou and Bayou Dorcheat, up through Lake Bistineau.

  7. Mary – LOL, yes it was a lot of money, but it generated so much commerce and aided significantly in the westward expansion for that region that they must have figured it would pay for itself

  8. Hi Patti. Yes, there were a lot of lakes and waterways formed by the logjam, some still exist today, some have long since dried up

    Tanya – you’re welcome! And yes, it’s one of those facts stranger than fiction things

    Tabitha – LOL, crazy is a good word for it

  9. Extremely interesting. I have never heard of this and I have visited Shreveport when we were stationed at Gulfport, MS.

  10. Winnie, that must’ve been some logjam. I can’t even imagine. But what benefitted some towns really hurt others. I seem to recall reading about how the river level severely dropped between Jefferson, TX and Shreveport after they got the logjam broken up. The steamboats were no longer able to get to Jefferson and the population plummeted. It’s all really interesting.

    Wonderful blog!

  11. Catslady – hi! it IS interesting – love when I stumble on these fun tidbits when I’m doing unrelated research…

    Linda – yes, I’m sure the whole ecology experienced a shift when the logjam was finally cleared – the effects would have been widespread and not all of them would be positive

  12. Winnie,
    Thanks for an interesting post. I had never heard of this particular situation. It is amazing how conditions can occur in nature that are similar in many ways to problems man creates. How short sited of them not to maintain the river after getting it cleared.

  13. Patricia and Karen – glad you enjoyed the post. And I agree, it’s always fascinating to learn more about our history – especially when it hits close to home like this did for me

  14. Hi Vickie. Actually according to my research, they did try dynamite and found it not very effective. The explosive that did make a dent was nitro. But it wasn’t practical to use it everywhere as it cleared some of the surface jams, but not the deep ones

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