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OPINION | REX NELSON: North to Dardanelle

by Rex Nelson | June 22, 2022 at 3:34 a.m.

I cross the Petit Jean River just north of Ola as I make my way up Arkansas 7. Several creeks come together in Scott County to form the river, which empties into the Arkansas River 115 miles east of where it starts.

"The Petit Jean River never developed into a major transportation corridor, though the steamship Danville did progress up it in 1840, lending its name to the city of Danville, which was laid out the following year," writes Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster. "Danville remains the largest community established along the river. In 1879, a 100-foot bridge over the Petit Jean was constructed there.

"During the 1890s, the Choctaw Railroad constructed a line linking Little Rock with the town of Howe in Indian Territory. This line crossed the Petit Jean at Danville. The development of the railroad led to the growth of the timber industry."

I'm downstream from Danville on this day. Upstream from Danville, work began in 1940 on a dam constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"Work halted in 1942 as World War II drew government resources away from civilian projects," Lancaster writes. "Work picked up again after the war, and the dam was completed in June 1947. The resulting reservoir is known as Blue Mountain Lake."

I've left the Ouachita Mountains on my trip up Arkansas 7 and entered the Arkansas River Valley, one of the state's six natural divisions.

"The broad bottomlands along the Arkansas River, sometimes more than 10 miles wide, add to its distinctiveness," Thomas Foti writes for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. "The streams that flow through these plains reflect their character. They flow gently, are bordered by bottomlands, and are often muddy. The Petit Jean River is the largest river to flow entirely within the valley from its head to its mouth at the base of Petit Jean Mountain.

"People found the valley to be a practical travel route and a hospitable environment to live in from the time it was populated by Native Americans, who had villages in areas such as Carden Bottom along the lower Petit Jean River in Yell County. ... Thomas Nuttall traveled by boat up and then back down the Arkansas River in 1819, soon after the creation of Arkansas Territory, and kept a journal that described the region. He provided vivid descriptions of prairies and wooded ridges."

The Arkansas River Valley is filled these days with cattle pastures and chicken houses. I proceed north to Dardanelle, one of Arkansas' oldest towns. It was platted in 1847 and incorporated in 1855 during its days as a busy port on the Arkansas River.

"The origin of the town's name is open to conjecture," Mildred Diane Gleason writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Perhaps the 300-foot-high rock face at the river's edge reminded early explorers of the Dardanelles in Turkey, or perhaps the French holder of a 600-acre Spanish land grant in the area, Jean Baptiste Dardenne, is the source of the town's name.

"Dardanelle became an important river town and emerging trade center during the antebellum era, receiving weekly steamboat visits from New Orleans, Memphis and Little Rock. Dardanelle's boomtown reputation was aided by its trade in rum, gin and cotton. By 1860, the town had three taverns, several mercantile businesses and cotton gins, three churches (Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian), a weekly newspaper, a doctor, a school, several attorneys and a Masonic lodge."

Dardanelle was connected by telegraph to Little Rock and Fort Smith at the start of the Civil War. Union troops had taken over the town by the fall of 1862 and skirmishes in the years that followed left part of the community destroyed. As Reconstruction wound down, Dardanelle grew again. The courthouse for the northern district of Yell County was built in 1878, and the state's first ice plant opened in 1888.

"Dardanelle experienced immigration as numerous Slovak, Moravian, Bohemian and Czech families arrived," Gleason writes. "Mainly farmers and coal miners, these immigrants expanded ethnic diversity into the town's Scotch-Irish and English residents, introducing new languages and religions.

"In October 1890, a pontoon bridge, the longest in the world at the time, opened. The floating bridge was financed by tolls of 5 cents per foot passenger round trip and 25 cents per loaded wagon round trip."

Diversity these days is supplied by Hispanic families. The Hispanic population soared to more than 35 percent as workers showed up for abundant jobs in the poultry industry.

"By the 1960s, a fundamental agricultural transition was under way involving a decline in row-crop production (especially cotton) and a shift to livestock production," Gleason writes. "The poultry industry soon became the primary agricultural activity and employment source."

Dardanelle Lock and Dam remains a key part of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. At the time it opened, the system was the largest civil works project ever undertaken by the Corps of Engineers. The project provided a minimum 9-foot-deep channel from the mouth of the river to Catoosa, Okla., near Tulsa. President Richard Nixon was the keynote speaker when dedication ceremonies took place at Catoosa in June 1971.

Construction began in the Dardanelle area in 1958. Navigation was opened to Little Rock in October 1968 and a postage stamp was issued with the words "Arkansas River Navigation" to mark the occasion. The system, covering 443 miles and consisting of 17 locks and dams, was ready for full use on Dec. 30, 1970.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

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