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Great Raft


      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 surface1  In some places the raft was twenty-five feet deep. 2   Some areas were solid enough to serve as land bridges, bearing the weight of a man on horseback. 3  The raft was not one solid development, but was 165 miles of several smaller collections of driftwood. 4  With the slow-moving flow of water, the silt carried by the river sank, damming the bayous along the river. 5  The waters from the Red River swelled and spilled over onto the land, forming Bayou Pierre and Caddo, Bisteneau, Bodcau, Wallace, Silver, Black, Soda, and Cross Lakes. 6  A report from 1722 states that the Raft extended to Natchitoches, and Dr. John Sibley recorded in 1805 that it reached Campti. 7  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. 8

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 settlement.  9

            The area 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. 10 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 Red River. 11

  Supplies were sent down the Mississippi River and up the Red River to the fort. 12 Boats carrying supplies were forced to travel the bayous and lakes around the Red River because navigation was impossible. 13  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. 14

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 million. 15  In ten years the raft claimed 100,000 acres according to Dr. Joseph Paxton, who persuaded Congress to supply funds for the removal. 16

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. 17

Shreve arrived at the Great Raft on April 11, 1833. 18 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. 20 Archimedes 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 Pearl. 21 They used the timber removed to dam the bayous and prevent runoff water from entering the main channel of the river. 22

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. 23  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. 24  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. 25  There were no reported deaths, although many were taken ill from extended exposure to the heat and water along with insect stings. 26 A total of 9,006 days were lost due to sickness. 27

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. 28 Although it reformed, after Shreve’s work it never went below Shreveport. By 1841 it was twenty miles long. 29 With the death of the Whig presidential candidate, President William Henry Harrison, Vice-President John Tyler took office and instilled his anti-Jacksonian beliefs. 30 In a letter to the War Department dating September 11, 1841, Shreve, a Jacksonian, handed over his job to his successor. 31  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 second raft. 32 Out of 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. 33

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. 34  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 raft. 35 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. 36  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 twenty-nine years. 37 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 Oakland Cemetery in Shreveport. 38 His brother, George Woodruff, succeeded him. 39 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. 40 The river was finally cleared in November of 1873. 41

            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. 42 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. 43




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