Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Tale of the Red River Raft

I love the story of the Red River Raft for several reasons. 

First the might see in your mind's eye images of pioneers racing down a river with all of their earthly possessions stacked on a hastily fashioned wooden log raft, but that's not what this story is all about.  

In fact, the story involves the INABILITY to move on a river.

Yes...this story is not what you expect, and if you spend any time around here then you know I like the unexpected change-up in content.

This story also embraces a bit of historical myth... which again....if you spend any time around here reading my meager little offerings you know I like to bust those myths as much as possible, but in this might be okay to include the myth with the lesson content as a hook to draw students in. 

This story also has geological and geographical implications  and a bit of science. It spans several historical eras including Native Americans, pioneers, and the transportation age...and some interesting characters as well. 

Known as the great raft, it was actually a gigantic log jam. It was a huge "raft" that clogged the Red River and ran for 160 miles.

Now at this point I'm sure you are asking yourself.....What in the heck could cause this thing?  I was asking that very thing myself.

It seems the flood rivers of the Mississippi River engulfed the smaller Red River forcing large amounts of driftwood upstream....over thousands of years a log jam formed comprised of cedar, cypress and petrified wood.

In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson assigned Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis to explore the southern Louisiana Territory. President Jefferson ranked their trip second only to the more well known Lewis and Clark Expedition. Freeman and Custis discovered the log jam north of present day Natchitoches, Louisiana and described it as "so tightly bound a man could walk over it in any direction." It covered the width of the river and went to the bottom. 

You can find out more information regarding the expedition here and here.     

See the map of the expedition below:

The first effort to clear the river came in 1833 when Captain Henry M. Shreve of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used a new invention Shreve had contrived called the "snag steamboat" to pull the logs out and send them floating downstream. The boats had and interesting nickname..."Uncle Sam's Tooth Pullers". These boats were not just used to clear the Red River Raft. They were also used to clear snags along the Mississippi and other major waterways.

It took three years to clear approximately 70 miles of the river, but by 1839, the raft had reclaimed much of what had been cleared.

One scheme after another followed for the next 32 years trying to free the Red River Raft. Some resources report the government spent over half a million dollars to remove the log jam.

By 1872, Lieutenant E.A. Woodruff, an Army engneer tried his hand at attacking the log jam. He used Shreve's snag boats, but added other boats as well including boats outfitted with saws and boats with cranes to eat away at the edges of the raft. 

This link tells a bit more regarding Lieutenant Woodruff's work, and how he met his death. 

Eventually, another tool was utilized as well when the boats couldn't untangle the logs... nitroglycerin.

Yes, what they couldn't untangled.....they just blew up.

To keep the log jam from reforming the crews dug reservoirs, dredged the main channel and constructed dams.

By 1900, the Red River was permanently opened for trade from the Indian Territory to the Gulf of Mexico. 

Now the story takes a little turn of the bend to the former port city of Jefferson, Texas....a town along the Red River described as the westernmost outpost on the river. The town actually spread out along the banks of Big Cypress Creek.

The log jam existed when the town formed, and in their case the log jam actually helped them. The logs made the water level rise in the Big Cypress Bayou at Jefferson and permitted commercial riverboat travel, and of course....Jefferson became a very important port in Texas between 1845 and 1872.

The town reached its peak right after the Civil War when the population rose to 7,297 people. The town's history page states....The years after the Civil War became Jefferson's heyday with people coming from the devastated southern states seeking a new life. In 1872, there were exports in the thousands of dry hides, green hides, tons of wool, pelts, bushels of seed, several thousand cattle and sheep and over a hundred thousand feet of lumber. For the same period, there were 226 arrivals of steamboats with a carrying capacity averaging 425 tons each....Hotel registers from the early days indicate some very important folks moved through Jefferson including Ulysses S. Grant, Oscar Wilde, and Rutherford B. Hayes.

Today...the population is a paltry 2,024 per the 2000 census.

So, you might be asking why the decline?

At this point of the story we need to bring in Jay Gould, the railroad magnate. Mr. Gould came to town wanting to bring the Texas and Pacific Railroad through Jefferson. One version of the story goes that Jefferson's town leaders would have nothing to do with the newfangled railroad because they were happy with the river traffic. They turned down Gould's offer to purchase the right-of-way, and the Texas and Pacific line did NOT go through Jefferson.

Gould is said to have not been happy when the folks in Jefferson turned him down, and there is a popular story...JUST a story some say....that Jay Gould announced the grass would grow in the streets of Jefferson since they turned their backs on his offer. It is said he wrote in the register of the Excelsior Hotel that the refusal to accept his offer would mean "the end of Jefferson." There is also a story concerning the fact he gave assistance to those removing the log jam which eventually caused Jefferson's decline as a port city.

There are those who say Mr. Gould never did such a thing mainly because he didn't own the railroad until the late 1880s, and he wasn't in Jefferson until later either, but it does make for a good story.

Many  people also point to the fact that the town attempted to build its own railroad from Shreveport to Marshall in 1860, but only 45 miles was completed before the outbreak of the Civil War. Folks argue the town couldn't have been against the railroad since this attempt was made.

Most amazingly considering how they protest the story isn't true, the city of Jefferson capitalizes on the story.   It seems they have Jay Gould's personal rail car.....The Atalanta....on display and own it outright.

No matter which version of the story you go with it cannot be denied that the destruction of the Red River Raft, and the rise of the railroad caused the city of Jefferson to decline,

...and what we are left with is a great story to craft lessons in order to share this information with students!