MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

April 28, 2013

Waterway project opened Arkansas River

By Jonita Mullins
Three Rivers History

— Navigation on the Arkansas River has always been recognized to be of economic importance to Oklahoma.

Native Americans used the river to transport the furs they traded with the French and English. Those European and American traders used the river for moving furs and supplies, as did soldiers assigned to the frontier.

As the region became more heavily populated, the river provided passage for travelers, including members of the Five Civilized Tribes who were forced to come to Indian Territory from their homelands in the southeastern United States.

Unfortunately, the Arkansas River was for most of this time a shallow waterway, choked with sandbars and debris. Its more than 400 miles between the Mississippi River and the Three Forks region descends 420 feet. Most of the drop is gradual, but some spots have major declines in elevation, such as the falls that gave Webbers Falls its name.

All these factors made navigation on the Arkansas difficult. During dry seasons, it was often impassable. During wet seasons it could become a raging torrent.

Business leaders had long searched for ways to make the river a more dependable, and economically profitable, resource.

Serious floods in 1923 and 1927 brought the need for work on the river to the attention of Congress. The 1927 flood had washed out nearly every levee on the river and devastated towns in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

The Arkansas River Flood Control Association was established to lobby Congress for funding to address the problem. Some funding was made available, but because of negative reports from the Army Corps of Engineers on the feasibility of navigating the river, it took several years before a waterway project could begin.

In 1946, lobbying by the Tri-State Committee (representing Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma) persuaded Congress to pass the Rivers and Harbors Act authorizing the development of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.

However, progress was halted by the Korean War, and in 1954 the project was put on a “deferred for further study” list. The buildup of sediment in the river appeared to make the project impossible.

Then Professor Hans A. Einstein, a son of the well-known physicist, offered a solution: Deepen the river and it would flow faster. Faster water would prevent the buildup of sediment. The idea was tested on a stretch of river and found to work.  The project was now feasible, and construction funding began by 1958.

In 1968, the waterway was opened from the Mississippi River to Little Rock, and barge traffic began.

The full 440 miles to Catoosa were completed on Dec. 30, 1970.

And on Jan. 3, 1971, the first barge arrived at the Port of Muskogee, carrying steel. The date was almost exactly 99 years from the time of Muskogee’s founding.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.