GREAT RAFT IN RED RIVER
Even the gods were powerless in
defeating the Evil One, who had created the creeping
beast that continually slithered and suffocated the
river. Or so says a legend of the
Caddo Indians. The
impediment drove out the animals that the Indians hunted
and ruined the land. The Great Raft, described as
perhaps the continent’s largest log jam, formed where
the Red River leaves Arkansas and begins to run through
Louisiana. It began as the river ate away at its banks,
causing the trees at the river’s edge to collapse into
the water. Timber and driftwood formed solid bridges
that stretched across the river, sections that jutted
from the river’s surface, and other parts that were
hidden below the surface. 1
In some places the raft was twenty-five
areas were solid enough to serve as land bridges,
bearing the weight of a man on horseback.
The raft was not one solid development, but was 165
miles of several smaller collections of driftwood.
With the slow-moving flow of water, the silt carried by
the river sank, damming the bayous along the river.
The waters from the
River swelled and spilled over onto the land, forming
Bayou Pierre and
Caddo, Bisteneau, Bodcau, Wallace,
Silver, Black, Soda, and
A report from 1722 states that the Raft
extended to Natchitoches,
and Dr. John Sibley recorded in 1805 that it reached
In 1806 the War Department sent surveyor Thomas Freeman
and naturalist Dr. Peter Curtis to set the boundaries of
the Louisiana Territory; the most noteworthy element
they found was the Great Raft.
Spain received Louisiana from France in
1763, but few Spaniards wanted to leave for the new
territory. After the American Revolution some American
citizens were willing to live on the land, and the
Spanish government was agreeable in the beginning.
Eventually, however, they began to fear an uprising,
suspecting that Americans would want to claim the land
as theirs. In 1795 they banned all foreigners from
Spanish areas. Spanish officials continued watching the
Americans carefully after the Louisiana Purchase in
1803; therefore, Texas was closed to Americans the
following year under Commandant General Nemesio Salcedo.
With Louisiana gaining statehood in 1812 and the signing
of the Adams-Onis Treaty in 1819, settlers quickly began
to move to the area and the lower Red River Valley’s
population readily increased. Above the Great Raft,
however, barriers remained in the way of full
above the Red River Raft was considered Indian Territory
by the U. S. government and to protect whites and the
more peaceful Indians from the more aggressive Indians,
the Army built Cantonment Towson, the first military
post on the Red River above Natchitoches, between
present day Hugo and Idabel, Oklahoma.
A small group of
soldiers were stationed there, near the convergence of
the Red and Kiamichi Rivers, in May of 1824, but
difficulty in obtaining supplies caused the abandonment
of the fort in 1829. Indian trouble increased after
this, and Camp Phoenix was established in November of
1830. The following year it was renamed Fort Towson,
and the army established Fort Leavenworth farther up the
Supplies were sent
down the Mississippi River and up the Red River to the
carrying supplies were forced to travel the bayous and
lakes around the Red River because navigation was
Boats detoured to the east on Bisteneau, Swan, Bodcau,
Dorcheat, and Willow Chute and to the west along
Twelve-Mile Bayou and Bayou Pierre. When the fort failed
to receive one season’s supplies because of low water,
the War Department insisted that the river be improved.
In 1828 Congress set
aside $25,000 for the raft’s removal and sent engineers
and surveyors to examine the raft. They returned,
feeling that it would be best to desert the idea, as
they foresaw the project’s costs amounting to $2 or 3
In ten years the raft claimed 100,000 acres according to
Dr. Joseph Paxton, who persuaded Congress to supply
funds for the removal.
Captain Henry Miller
Shreve, who had served as the Superintendent of Western
River Improvement since December 10, 1826, felt that it
was possible to remove the raft. In February of 1833
Brigadier General Charles Gratiot, Chief of the
Engineers of the War Department, gave Shreve orders to
remove the raft. He was given what was left of the
original $25,000 that had been set aside for the
project; the remaining amount was $21,663.
Shreve arrived at the
Great Raft on April 11, 1833.
Shreve invented a snag boat that resembled two
steamboats being connected at the front, and the newest
boat, Archimedes, was used as Shreve and his crew
reached the foot of the raft near Natchitoches.19
Within two months, Shreve, his crew, and Archimedes
reached Cane and Bennett’s trading posts, located where
the Texas Trail crossed the Red River at the present-day
intersection of Texas and Commerce Streets beneath the
Texas Street Bridge.
was sunk in November of 1836 while trying to raise a
large snag boat. Two other snag boats were used as
well: these were Eradicator and later Captain
Henry M. Shreve. Barges, keelboats, machine boats,
and steamers were also used including the most notable
Java, Souvenir, and
They used the timber removed to dam the bayous and
prevent runoff water from entering the main channel of
By May 5, 1833 they
had cleared forty miles, and seventy-one miles had been
cleared by the time they stopped in June because of the
weather, low water, and pestilence.
During the first year, 159 men worked on the raft, and
300 laborers were employed by 1835. The men were
transported to the South from the Ohio Valley and the
St. Louis area.
The mechanics involved received ten to twenty-five
dollars more a month than they did while working on the
Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Laborers made about
twenty-five dollars a month.
There were no reported deaths, although many were taken
ill from extended exposure to the heat and water along
with insect stings.
A total of 9,006 days
were lost due to sickness.
Captain Shreve had
cleared the channel by March 7, 1838, but almost
immediately after Shreve quit working on the raft, it
returned, being 2,300 feet long.
Although it reformed, after Shreve’s work it never went
below Shreveport. By 1841 it was twenty miles long.
With the death of the
Whig presidential candidate, President William Henry
Harrison, Vice-President John Tyler took office and
instilled his anti-Jacksonian beliefs.
In a letter to the War Department dating September 11,
1841, Shreve, a Jacksonian, handed over his job to his
In the following year, Colonel Thomas T. Williamson,
later a co-founder of the Shreve Town Company, agreed to
a five-year, $100,000 contract for the removal of this
funds, he petitioned Congress, but feeling that removing
the raft was a lost cause, they allowed the work to
stop. It continued briefly in 1852 and again in 1855,
but after that Congress would refuse to allot funds for
the raft’s removal until 1872.
Lieutenant E. August
Woodruff, the leader of the U. S. Army Corps of
Engineers, was placed in charge under Captain C. W.
Howell in New Orleans for the removal of the thirty-mile
raft in 1872 when Congress finally allotted enough money
to clear the raft.
A 136-foot, light drought steamboat, Aid, had
been built in 1869 in Pittsburgh, and was used along
with two crane boats and several flatboats to remove the
Dynamite was also used but was considered to be
virtually worthless. In May of 1873 Woodruff used
tri-nitro-glycerin and opened a narrow channel through a
raft below Red Bayou.
On May 15, 1873 the 150-foot steamer R. T. Bryarly,
fully loaded with cargo, arrived at the
Shreveport Landing; it was the first to do so in
On September 15, 1873, Woodruff caught yellow fever, and
safety measures were taken to keep yellow fever out of
Shreveport. He died on September 30 and was buried in
His brother, George Woodruff, succeeded him.
George paid homage to his brother in 1874 when a U. S.
snag boat was christened the E. A. Woodruff. The
boat was used on the Ohio River until 1925.
The river was finally
cleared in November of 1873.
With the opening of the
river, the shipping costs to Fort Towson were reduced by
$45,000 a year, and between 1840 and 1860, over 100
steamboats traveled the river where originally only
thirty-six traveled. Trade with New Orleans brought in
over $100 million a year. In 1850 one-eighth of the
nation’s cotton crop went to market on the Red River.
When the Raft was
removed Silver, Soda, and Cross Lakes disappeared. Cross
Lake was later reconstructed with an artificial dam for
use as a water supply.
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