As I near the end of a trip on U.S. 412 that has taken me from Siloam Springs on the Oklahoma border to the Missouri Bootheel, I cross two rivers that have had a major impact on east Arkansas through the decades. I cross the upper Cache River, which forms the border between Lawrence and Greene counties. It's little more than a drainage ditch at this point. I next cross the St. Francis River, which forms the border between Arkansas and Missouri.
The Cache has its headwaters near the Arkansas-Missouri border to the north of me and flows through northeast Arkansas until it empties into the White River near Clarendon. The St. Francis, meanwhile, starts in the hills of Missouri and is a mountain stream for its first 25 miles. It reaches the Delta just east of Poplar Bluff, Mo. The river then turns south and covers 207 miles before emptying into the Mississippi River in the St. Francis National Forest north of Helena.
"With the arrival of American settlers, steamboats began plying the waters of the Cache River, and towns were established in its vicinity," writes Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster. "The town of Maberry in Woodruff County, founded in 1842, was a notable shipping point for cotton and locally harvested timber. So was Patterson in Woodruff County. However, the towns established along the White River, which runs nearly parallel to the Cache from Newport south, grew larger given the White River's greater reach and use as a transportation corridor."
The lowlands between the Cache and L'Anguille rivers served as a huge obstacle to the completion of the Little Rock & Memphis Railroad. The line linking the two cities wasn't completed until 1871.
"Though the Cache River area was an important source of timber, the region wasn't as extensively cleared as were other parts of eastern Arkansas due to the river's reputation for flooding," Lancaster writes. "Large stands of native hardwood survived. Because the Cache moves at a slow speed due to its low amount of fall per mile--and the fact that the contour of the land surrounding it does not lend itself to levee construction--the Cache River can overflow its banks after only a few inches of rainfall.
"Work on the river in northeast Arkansas in the 1920s and 1930s straightened the channel, even splitting the river into two separate ditches between Bono and Egypt in Craighead County. That helped speed the flow of the river, but farming along it was still a risky endeavor. During the flood of 1937, the Cache River was one of a number of east Arkansas rivers that spilled across agricultural land. Planters and businessmen advocated for some form of flood control along the Cache, which had no well-developed system of levees."
The federal Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project to be carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That plan called for 140 miles of the Cache upstream from Clarendon to be dredged, cleared and realigned. The project also included 15 miles of upper tributaries and 77 miles of Bayou DeView. Initial funds for the project, projected to cost $60 million, weren't approved until 1969.
A lengthy environmental battle ensued. Indebted to east Arkansas planters for their political support, U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander pushed hard for the project. It was opposed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and dozens of other organizations. A federal lawsuit was filed to stop the initiative.
U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the Corps in May 1972. His verdict was appealed. In July 1972, the Corps began dredging in the Clarendon area. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to Henley in December 1972, noting that the Corps hadn't met requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. In March 1972, the court ordered that work be halted.
The Corps' environmental impact statement was approved three years later, but by then Congress had backed off funding such a controversial project. In 1986, the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established, stretching south from Grubbs in Jackson County to Clarendon. It incorporated part of Bayou DeView.
As for the St. Francis, the portion of the river between Lake City in Craighead County and Marked Tree in Poinsett County is known as the Sunken Lands. Land dropped several feet in this area during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, forming a swamp. More than 27,000 acres are now part of the Game and Fish Commission's St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area. The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893 and began constructing levees and drainage canals to control flooding.
According to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "These measures were strengthened and increased after the catastrophic Great Flood of 1927 and passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928. The levees and canals have greatly affected the natural course of the river and have included diversion ditches that run somewhat parallel to the river along its course from southeastern Craighead County down through Lee County, thus providing an outlet for excess water."
The world's biggest siphons were placed on the St. Francis at Marked Tree by the Corps in 1939 to help control flooding. In 1977, the Corps built the W.G. Huxtable pumping plant southeast of Marianna to prevent the Mississippi River from backing up into the St. Francis. It's one of the largest pumping plants of its kind in the world.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.