In Wednesday's column, I wrote about Arkansas Power & Light Co. founder Harvey Couch's efforts to build dams along the upper Ouachita River for hydroelectric power. Remmel Dam, which created Lake Catherine, was completed in 1924. Carpenter Dam, which created Lake Hamilton, was completed in 1931.
What those two dams didn't do was provide much help in the area of flood control. That job fell to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Rather than coming under the jurisdiction of the Corps' Little Rock District, the Ouachita and its tributaries in south Arkansas are the responsibility of the famed Vicksburg District. That Corps district traces its history to 1873 when Capt. William Henry Harrison Benyaurd opened an office at Monroe, La. His main job was to clear wrecks and other navigational hazards from the Ouachita in north Louisiana and the Yazoo River in Mississippi.
On June 28, 1879, Congress created the Mississippi River Commission (MRC) to direct work on the Mississippi River. The act called on various Corps districts to do the work.
Capt. Eric Bergland established a permanent office at Vicksburg in August 1884. In 1929, the Corps' Western Division was reorganized into the Upper and Lower Mississippi Valley divisions. The Lower Mississippi Valley Division was headquartered at Vicksburg to supervise the work of the Memphis, New Orleans and Vicksburg districts.
According to the official history of the Vicksburg District, the district "has been responsible for a wide range of activities, including shortening the Mississippi River by more than 100 miles, building seven flood-control structures, returning navigation to the Red and Ouachita rivers, standardization of 1,758 miles of levees, and returning navigation to the port city that serves as its headquarters. In the early days of flood control, Corps levee construction was limited to areas where it improved navigation. It was because of this requirement that the Vicksburg District was able to aid local levee boards in the Mississippi Delta in the early 1900s.
"With the Ransdell-Humphreys Flood Control Act of 1917, the federal government committed itself to flood prevention and control. The act appropriated $45 million to the MRC, to be spent $10 million a year, and required local interests to pay at least half the cost of flood protection works and provide all levee rights of way."
The Vicksburg District was responsible for a system of six locks and dams that made the Ouachita navigable as far north as Camden. The work was completed in 1924 at a cost of $4.5 million.
After Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928, the district became involved in a comprehensive flood-control program. That program included construction of three dams in Arkansas.
Narrows Dam on the Little Missouri River, a tributary of the Ouachita, was completed in 1950. The dam, which is six miles north of Murfreesboro in Pike County, had been authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1941. It's the only concrete dam constructed by the Vicksburg District. The dam impounds Lake Greeson. The Little Missouri tailwaters below the dam are stocked with trout during certain parts of the year.
Plans for a dam on the Ouachita in the Blakely Mountain area had been announced in 1938. AP&L would provide $6 million and the federal government would kick in $2 million for the joint project. AP&L later sought permission to delay construction. The Federal Power Commission terminated its agreement with the company and decided that the government would proceed alone.
According to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "Preliminary core drilling was soon carried out. However, not until 1946 did Congress appropriate any funds, $1 million, for construction. Residents of the area that was slated to be inundated had been leaving since the 1930s, and the exodus accelerated as work began. The town of Buckville (Garland County) was relocated to high ground, though little remains of it today. The relocation of graves was completed in 1952, and the clearing of the area for the reservoir took place in 1951-52.
"By 1952, the dam portion of the project was complete and already serving flood-control purposes, and construction of an electric power plant began. The power plant went online, generating its first power on July 17, 1955. In April of the following year, power was sold under contract to AP&L. The official dedication of Blakely Mountain Dam took place July 4, 1956."
Lake Ouachita covers more than 40,000 acres. It's the largest lake entirely in Arkansas (Bull Shoals is larger but is partially in Missouri).
DeGray Dam on the Caddo River, another Ouachita tributary, was the next Arkansas project completed by the Vicksburg District. AP&L's Couch had looked at this area in the early 1900s as the possible site for a hydroelectric project. The federal government did geological studies in the 1930s.
The project finally was authorized in the 1950 Rivers and Harbors Act, but funding was slow in coming. DeGray Dam was included in the 1959 Water Supply Act, but again there was no money. The first appropriations came in 1961.
Engineers with the Vicksburg District decided on a 3,400-foot earthen dam rising 243 feet above the river along with a three-mile earthen dike. Construction began in 1964 and created 13,800-acre DeGray Lake. The gate was closed at the dam in August 1969, and the dam was dedicated in May 1972. The project cost $64 million with more than 7 million cubic yards of compacted earthen fill used during construction.
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.