OPINION | REX NELSON: Harnessing the Arkansas

Twice each year, Metroplan (an association of local governments in central Arkansas) publishes an economic review titled Metro Trends. In the most recent issue, it touts the growth of the logistics industry in the region.

It notes: "Two sectors, wholesale trade and especially transportation and warehousing, have seen major changes in the past two years. It began in late 2020 when Amazon announced plans to build major warehouses at the Port of Little Rock and in eastern North Little Rock. In late summer of 2021, these new facilities began jump-starting the regional jobs picture.

"In statistical terms, most of the new jobs fell within the transportation and warehousing sector. This sector climbed from about 16,000 jobs in early 2021 to more than 20,000 by November 2021. The region's wholesale trade sector also started seeing gains, rising from around 15,000 after the covid slump to 17,500 by July 2022."

Amazon's increased presence in Arkansas sent a message to other companies.

"Coming in the middle of a pandemic, and shrouded in secrecy, the corporate behemoth's investment pointed the way for a growing trend in logistics, warehousing and transportation in the region," Metro Trends notes. "Today firms like Dollar General and Lowe's are building sizable warehouses in central Arkansas.

"What's behind this trend? The Little Rock region is central within the country. Nearby large metro areas like Dallas, Memphis and St. Louis are maxed out in terms of real estate costs and traffic congestion. The Little Rock region also benefits from having two major rail lines, good water transportation and a well-located airport with plenty of spare capacity."

The transportation part of the equation--the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System--has been the subject of a series of columns. Arkansas historian Charles Bolton wrote a history of the system for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I read the 104-page history in one sitting and was struck by how long it took to finally tame the Arkansas.

"Using the Heliopolis and another snag boat called Archimedes, Henry Shreve pulled more than 1,500 snags from the Arkansas River below Little Rock in 1834 and removed twice as many logs and stumps from its exposed sandbars," Bolton wrote. "Steamboats continued to ply the Arkansas during the antebellum period, and a number of light-draft models were built for that purpose.

"Tom Barrett of Little Rock built three vessels that the Arkansas Gazette bragged could travel 'wherever the sand is moist.' Actually, unladen, they needed about of foot of water and two feet when filled with cargo. During the Civil War, the Union used light-draft steamboats, now armed, armored and sometimes ironclad. Some of them did service on the lower Arkansas and played a role in the January 1863 capture of Fort Hindman, the Confederate installation at Arkansas Post."

The Corps' efforts to keep the river navigable resumed after the war with snag removal and dredging. Dredging was done using draglines and steam-powered devices known as dipper dredges that removed sand to deepen the channel. Stone and brush dikes supported by wooden pilings extended into the river. Willow saplings were woven together in an effort to stop banks from caving in.

"One project was a 1,700-foot dike constructed at Fort Smith in 1878 that forced the river to wash away a sandbar that had plagued the city," Bolton wrote. "Still larger was the effort authorized by Congress in 1879 to prevent the Arkansas River from eroding the high bank at Pine Bluff. After much planning and effort, a series of jetties was constructed along the shore, which led to the creation of a protective sandbar that pushed the current away from the city. After 1881, all these efforts were coordinated from a Little Rock office of the Corps, which eventually grew into the Little Rock District."

An 1870 Corps survey showed that there were 20 steamboats with an average load of 300 tons using the river. Almost 80,000 bales of cotton were shipped annually.

"Even as that optimistic account was being written, a railroad track was inching from Memphis to Little Rock, and the days of the steamboat were coming to a close," Bolton wrote. "By 1900 almost all freight on the Arkansas River consisted of forest products, and all the traffic was below Pine Bluff. Commerce continued to grow in river towns, but it was not connected with navigation."

The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1909 directed the Corps to consider non-navigation elements when planning projects. The Corps was told to use anticipated benefits from such activities to offset costs. Flood control would become a key concern.

With little river traffic, the Little Rock District office was shut down in 1921 with responsibility for the Arkansas and White River basins given to the Memphis District. The Great Flood of 1927 changed that.

"The Arkansas River tore away the Baring Cross railroad bridge at Little Rock and broke through the levee just below Pine Bluff, flooding rural areas, making the city a watery island and leaving 2,000 people without homes," Bolton wrote. "Farther down the river, water poured through a crevasse in the levee at Pendleton near Arkansas Post, flooding much of southeastern Arkansas and northeastern Louisiana. The disaster put 140,000 Arkansans under the temporary care of the Red Cross.

"Congress responded with the Flood Control Act of 1928, which defined flooding on the Mississippi and its tributaries, including the Arkansas, as a national problem and authorized a comprehensive program of flood works that would be paid for entirely by the federal government."

In 1924, Congress called on the Corps and the Federal Power Commission to develop a list of rivers on which navigation and hydroelectric power could be developed. What was known as House Document 308 was published in 1926.

Another big flood in 1935 led to formation of the Arkansas Basin Association to lobby Congress. Early leaders were Emmett Sanders of Pine Bluff, Jack Murray of Little Rock, Arthur Ormond of Morrilton, Reece Caudle of Russellville and Clarence Byrns of Fort Smith.

Sanders provided supplies to farmers each spring with payments made in the fall after cotton was ginned. The 1927 flood destroyed Arkansas' cotton crop.

"Many of the commissaries and small businesses which we supplied disappeared," Sanders said. "They were simply washed away. I felt there must be a way to prevent this from ever happening again."

The Flood Control Act of 1936 recognized flood control as a federal responsibility. The Little Rock District was reactivated in 1937 and made part of the Southwestern Division of the Corps. Two tributaries of the Arkansas River received dams: Nimrod Dam on the Fourche La Fave River and Blue Mountain Dam on the Petit Jean River. Nimrod was completed in 1942, and Blue Mountain was finished five years later.

The Flood Control Act of 1944 allowed the Corps to sell electricity generated at hydroelectric plants and allowed recreational facilities to be a part of flood-control projects. The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1946 authorized navigation work on the Arkansas River, though little money was appropriated.

"There was considerable difference between authorized and appropriated," Sanders later said. It would be more than a decade before there was money for actual construction.

"In 1948, Robert S. Kerr, a former governor of Oklahoma, was elected to the Senate," Bolton wrote. "Believing that the river basins required more and broader planning, Kerr introduced a bill in 1949 to create a study commission for the Red, White and Arkansas rivers that would be made up of a number of federal agencies and representatives from the states involved."

Kerr's plan was defeated in the Senate, but it influenced President Harry Truman to create the Arkansas-White-Red Basins Interagency Committee.

Finally, in June 1957, construction began on Dardanelle Lock and Dam. President Richard M. Nixon dedicated the entire system in June 1971.

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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