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A river rams through it

2/21/2009

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BOSSIER CITY, La. — Rain falls in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, trickling into creeks that become the Red River. The bulging Red cascades into Louisiana and quickly overruns its slender channel, flooding banks, scraping away alluvial soil, soaking the countryside.

Spring turns to summer. The water winds its way down the Red to the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico. The channel shrinks; the banks dry. But the running, flooding, scraping water has taken with it the soil that holds the trees along the river. The once-saturated banks sag. Trees swoon.

Fall comes, and the rain once again floods the banks. This time, the trees do not hold. The flood topples the trees, blasts their roots free of the loose dirt and hurtles them downstream by the thousands.

This was the scene in northwest Louisiana for ages, until the Army Corps of Engineers undertook what is by now a 176-year project to stabilize the Red. It's odd to think, in fact, that as the 51 anglers in the Bassmaster Classic zip around the Red River this week, they'll be jetting through waters that were, until relatively recently, virtually impassable.

"When the water falls out, the bank has all this water it's soaked up — it becomes heavy and it sloughs," said Ken Guidry, executive director of the Red River Waterway Commission, the local body that manages the river. "When that happens, along with the erosion of the high flows boiling and roiling along, the combination of those two things is what created the raft."

Yes — the raft. Over time, those logs piled up and up and up — enough, in fact, that they grew into a series of desultory natural dams known in the mid-19th century as the Great Raft.

So great was the Great Raft — about 60 miles long, from Natchitoches to Shreveport, 25 feet deep at its foot and so tightly packed that you could walk across it — that the city of Shreveport is named for the guy who rolled in with the Corps and began dismantling the thing.

Captain Henry Miller Shreve was charged with ripping out the raft starting in 1833. According to the Corps, Shreve required six years and a crew of as many as 300 men with keelboats and machine boats to clear the Raft from the river around Shreveport, enough for steamboats to reach the then-frontier town that eventually came to serve as the South's gateway to Texas and the West.

Shreve didn't make many friends along the way, according to Gary Joiner, an assistant professor of history and director of the Red River Regional Study Center, both at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.

"Nobody liked him," Joiner said. "He didn't get along with God." But he did develop 22 patents along the way and was pioneered the Corps' now institutionalized practice of straightening rivers.

Still the Red was far from tamed. The logjams persisted well into the 1800s, recurring when Congress stopped funding their removal. Meanwhile, Shreveport became Louisiana's capital in the Confederacy and was the last such capital to fall to the Union, which at one point sent 104 boats up the Red to take Shreveport, only to be turned back.

When the raft recurred in 1870, it was Lt. Eugene Woodruff who removed it permanently. "These guys had something that Shreve did not," Joiner said. "In the 1860s, nitroglycerin is available. And they blew the hell out of it."

Afterward logjams were less an issue. But running the Red was still a sight shy of smooth sailing.

Low water for much of the year made commercial runs up the Red a risky proposition. Newspapers of the day routinely carried notice of steamboats that had run aground on sandbars, and were stranded until the water rose again.

Also, massive hunks of Wilcox sandstone turned low water into a booby trap until the boulders were removed. Joiner has tallied 14 sunken boats around the city of Shreveport alone, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 to 300 for the length of the river.

"It has never been a kind stream," Joiner said. "Between the snags and the boulders, and mechanical problems like boilers blowing up, it's a graveyard."

The Corps' projects since the 1960s have cured that, and they're still ongoing. The natural tendency of the river is to weave in and out of the channel over years, cutting new paths, depositing ponds and oxbows, creating islands. When those curves become to acute to navigate is where the Corps steps in.

The last lock and dam to open the river as far north as Shreveport opened only in 1995. North of that, the river becomes officially unnavigable for commercial vessels, though the Corps has long-term plans to extend the project into Arkansas and Oklahoma.

"Without the locks and dams in it, the river goes down in some places where you could walk across it," Guidry said. "Before the project, any number of people will tell you that the actual channel of the river was only 20 feet wide.

"Historically the bank of the river was a dumping ground, because it was basically a wasteland."

Though commercial traffic was the driving concern of the Corps' project on the Red, recreation also benefits. The water levels are predictable, and the water itself is cleaner, confined as it now is to a smaller channel. Not only can anglers travel the waterways, the fishery is healthier.

Not that the Red always holds its banks. In any case, anglers might prefer that it remain a tad wild.

"A lot of what fishermen like is there because the river meanders," Joiner said. "It almost has a mind of its own."

2009 Classic archive | Photo galleries | Classic blog | Live coverage