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Arkansas River

History of the Arkansas River
(1541 to 2000)

Arkansas River near Leadville, CO
Arkansas River Near Leadville, CO

Prior to human intervention, the Arkansas River was one of the most meandering waterways in the United States. Its waters flowed from a mere trickle at its source to rushing whitewater in its upper valleys. Run-off from the spring thaw and seasonal rains caused problems for those living along the river. Flooding on the river was frequent and costly, but today due to the work of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the river has become one of the country's greatest assets.

The Arkansas River, at 1450 miles, is the fourth longest river in the United States. It is one of the longest tributaries in the Mississippi-Missouri system. Beginning near Leadville, Colorado, the river grows gradually as it makes its way through Salida, Colorado and Canon City, Colorado. It picks up speed as it travels through Royal Gorge then flows through Pueblo before being joined by the St. Charles River. The Arkansas River continues past Las Animas, Colorado and Pikes Peak. Rolling into Kansas, the river flows past Cimarron, Dodge City and Wichita before entering Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, the river passes through Tulsa, Ft. Gibson and Muskogee, crossing into Arkansas near Fort Smith. It crosses the state of Arkansas and empties into the Mississippi River about 600 miles North of New Orleans.

Arkansas River Near Leadville, CO
Arkansas River Near Leadville, CO

The Arkansas River drops almost 10,000 feet on a trip from Leadville, Colorado to Pueblo, Colorado. At Mt. Democrat, the elevation is 14,145 feet. When it reaches Pueblo, Colorado the elevation is 4,600 feet.

In 1541, Spanish explorers discovered the Arkansas River before they found the Mississippi.  Francisco Vasquez de Coronado forded the river near present day Dodge City, Kansas. A short time later, Hernado de Soto was exploring the lower part of the Arkansas River. His explorations resulted in his discovery of the Mississippi River. He traveled down the Mississippi to the Arkansas River near the latter day Arkansas Post.  Arkansas Post, originally Poste Aux Arcansas, was the first known white settlement in the Louisiana Territory. The settlement was established by Henri de Tonti in 1686.

In 1783, the Colbert Incident, the only Revolutionary War skirmish west of the Mississippi, was fought at Arkansas Post.

Part of the Ordinance of 1787 states that "the navigable waters leading into the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence . . . shall be common highways and forever free, as well to the inhabitants of said territory as to the citizens of the United States . . . without any tax, impost, or duty . . ."

This ordinance was the basis for the free waterways policy of the United States during the past two hundred years.

In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory, including the Arkansas River Basin. The acquisition doubled the size of the country.

Merriwether Lewis and William Clark were commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to explore the Missouri River and its tributaries. The president also asked William Dunbar, a Mississippi planter/scientist/surveyor and George Hunter, a Philadelphia chemist/apothecary to lead an expedition on the Red, Black and Ouachita Rivers up to "the hot springs." The two men and their crew mapped, described flora and fauna, tested the waters of the Hot Springs area and sent Thomas Jefferson the first report on the huge territory that had just been purchased from France.

The War of 1812 brought increased international tensions that resulted in decreased legislative support for the improvement of inland waterways. The war heightened the need for a more reliable internal transportation system.

Fort Smith was established near where the Arkansas River enters the state of Arkansas in 1817.

In 1824, Congress authorized federal public works in the first river improvement bill and the first harbor improvement bill. The General Survey Act authorized the President to use Army Engineers to survey road and canal routes "of national importance, in a commercial or military point of view."

From 1837 to 1839, the Chickasaw and Cherokee came up the Arkansas River on flatboats as had the Creeks before them.

From 1880 to 1905, twelve irrigation canals were constructed to divert water from the Arkansas River between the Colorado state line and Great Bend. The canals were meant to irrigate between 5,000 and 100,000 acres. By 1890, 20,818 acres of land in Kansas were irrigated by the Arkansas River.

The rapid expansion of irrigation in Colorado from 1900 to 1910 caused the flow of the Arkansas River to cease during July and August.

The 1920s saw the beginning of advocacy for river development. The strongest supporters of the idea were Newt Graham of Tulsa and Clarence Byrns from Fort Smith.

For the next fifty years representatives from Oklahoma and Arkansas would fight for the completion of a navigable Arkansas River in both states.

The flood of 1927, the greatest ever known,  struck the Arkansas River valley when an eight to ten foot wall of water--with flow rates registered at 750,000 cubic feet per second--rushed through the valley and emptied into the Mississippi. The flood destroyed nearly every levee along the river downstream from Fort Smith. The flood led to the development of the Arkansas River Flood Control Association.

In July of 1935, the Army Corps of Engineers reported to Congress that navigation of the Arkansas River was technically feasible, but not economically practical.

On July 24, 1946 Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Act which authorized the building of the McClellan-Kerr River Navigation System. The plan provided for hydropower, flood control, recreation, and navigation from Catoosa, Oklahoma to the Mississippi River.

In 1954, Arkansas River navigation is "deferred for further study" until a major engineering problem could be solved. The millions of tons of silt flowing down the river annually prevented the navigation of the river. A way had to be found whereby the river could clean itself and reduce the sedimentary flow. Professor Hans Albert Einstein, son of the famous scientist, proposed that the river be deepened, straightened, and narrowed. This would let the faster water flush out sediment, solving the problem. A model was built at the Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Mississippi to test the plan. It proved successful, and construction of the system proceeded.

In 1956, Oklahoma Congressman Page Belcher persuaded President Eisenhower to put the funding for the Arkansas River Navigation project back into the White House budget after he refused to spend money that had already been allocated because he felt it would be a commitment to complete funding for the entire navigation system.

In 1957, construction and completion of locks and dams on the river began.

On January 1, 1963, Senator Robert S. Kerr of Oklahoma, one of the major proponents of the navigation system died. Senator John L. McClellan of Arkansas took up the fight for funds to complete the Arkansas River Navigation project.

In April of 1965, the first Dardanelle Lock and Dam No. 10 power generating unit went online.

In June of 1967, Norrell Lock and Dam No. 1 was put into operation.

On October 4, 1968 navigation on the Arkansas River opened to Little Rock.

On January 4, 1969, the first commercial barges docked at the Port of Little Rock, and by the end of 1969 the river was navigable to Fort Smith.

On December 30, 1970, the Arkansas River was navigable for 450 miles from the Mississippi River to Catoosa, near Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Arkansas River had been tamed to make the port of Catoosa the world's most inland port.

Arkansas River Sign

 1990Flood 1990 Flood 1990 Flood


Facts About the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System


445 miles from northeastern Oklahoma to the Mississippi River

Elevation Change
420 feet over the entire length of the system

Major Rivers in the System
Verdigris, Arkansas, White, Mississippi

Channel Width
300 feet on the White, 250 to 300 feet on the Arkansas, 150 feet on the Verdigris

Channel Depth
9 feet minimum, although some sections are regularly dredged to a deeper depth

Number of Locks
Seventeen (some with dams), 12 are located in Arkansas, 5 in Oklahoma.  An eighteenth lock is currently under construction at Montgomery Point in Desha County, Arkansas.

Cost of Construction
$1.2 billion when completed in 1971
Lock Size/Capacity
110 feet wide, 600 feet long/one towboat with an 8-barge tow

In 1996, a 25th Anniversary celebration was held,  with 50 vessels launched down the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System in a re-dedication of the waterway.  This was a wonderful occasion for all parties involved in the construction of the system.  Individuals representing all regions of the United States were proud of the accomplishment.

Arkansas River

All photos on this page ©2003 by Jimmie Roark

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