The Saline River is known throughout the South for its scenic beauty and its unique characteristic of being a mountain stream at its origin in the Ouachita Mountains and a Delta-type bayou near its mouth at Felsenthal, where the stream converges with the Ouachita River. It is the last free-flowing river in the Ouachita Basin.
The river derived its name from a salty marsh located near its mouth, called by the French the "Marias Saline," though some historians claim that a salt works started near Benton as early as 1827 gave the river its name. At one time, these salt works supplied the bulk of salt used in the territory as well as surrounding states. Although the northern section of the river was popular for its salt works, the southern section was known for its large fields of lignite.
The Saline rises north of Benton in the Ouachita Mountains and is formed by four forks that converge near Riverside in Saline County. The South Fork is 38 miles long and is the only one not wholly formed in Saline County. The Middle Fork is 37 miles long, and its banks are a paradise of wildflowers. Alum Fork is 61 miles long and is a dramatic stream, flowing at the base of towering cliffs. North Fork is the shortest at 29 miles. The Saline meanders through Saline, Grant, Dallas, Cleveland, Bradley, Drew and Ashley counties before it empties into the Ouachita River. Among the communities located near the river are Haskell, Traskwood, Prattsville, Farindale, Staves, Rison, Warren and Longview. The watershed consists of about 3,350 square miles. Its bottom is gravel with an abundance of aquatic insects and other organisms. It includes a series of pools and fast-running shoals that contain many species of fish.
Although earlier historical tradition stated that the upper region of the Saline was closely associated with Quapaw Indians, excavated relics, artifacts and pottery have been of Caddoan origin. The Hughes Mound, located near Benton, is one of the largest Indian mounds along the river. In August 1999, Charles Green found an ancient Indian dugout at Peeler Bend near Benton. Archaeologists dated the 24-foot canoe to the 1100s. It is tooled in the fashion of the Caddo Indians.
The southern part of the river is rich with French history. In the late 1700s, many French families settled along the banks of the lower Saline. Among the early French settlers were the Fogle, LaBeouff, DuBose, Charron, Pevetoe, Ramsauer, De Ambleton, Carcuff and Bullet families. Several of the place names along the river derived from the French.
During steamboat days, the head of navigation was at Bridges Bluff in Cleveland County. Cotton, staves and timber were shipped downriver each winter and spring to New Orleans and Monroe, La. Fifty-four steamboats have been documented on the Saline. Shipping on the river slacked off considerably with the advent of the rail system in 1880. Although there were no major Civil War battles along the Saline, minor battles, skirmishes and engagements occurred at Jenkins' Ferry in Grant County, Mount Elba and Marks' Mills in Cleveland County and Longview in Ashley County.
In the 1890s, pearl fishing became fashionable after a pearl was found in a mussel shell near Benton by Jim Davidson and was considered the largest specimen of its kind. Prices for freshwater pearls ranged from $30 to $250. Pearl fishing was a very popular sport in all sections of the river.
The Flood Control Act of 1937 proposed that every major stream in the Ouachita Basin be dammed. Numerous studies were made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the initial plan included an earthen dam capable of generating hydroelectric power and offering water recreation as a factor for justification. The plan was rejected in Washington, and elected officials in several Arkansas counties opposed the structure, while only minimal support surfaced for the project. In 1973, Gov. Dale Bumpers asked the Corps of Engineers to restudy the feasibility of the dam because of the long-range need for water in Central Arkansas. When the Little Rock Water Department stated that the city did not need any of the water generated from a new dam, the demise of the proposed project was assured.
A large rainstorm in Central Arkansas on Sept. 13, 1978, inundated the Saline River, killing three people in Benton in addition to 10 people in Little Rock. Benton's water and sewage department facilities were heavily damaged, and millions of gallons of sewage flowed into the Saline River.
Commerce diminished on the river by the 1930s, and the Saline remains relatively unspoiled. Today its entire length is used mostly for fishing and recreation. -- Jann Woodard
This story is adapted by Guy Lancaster from the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a project of the Central Arkansas Library System. Visit the site at encyclopediaofarkansas.net.