The Red River: The Great Raft
By Edward Southerland
Aug 9, 2016
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The efforts of man transformed most of the great rivers of the nation from barriers to highways of trade, commerce, and transportation, but that promise never quite took hold on the Red. It was a mean river, reluctant to be controlled and wild until very late in its history.


Floods often wiped out the few settlements that rose close to the river. Early steamboats chugged their way up the river, but the irregular water levels and natural obstacles made the journey problematic and dangerous. The greatest and most enduring of these difficulties was the Great Red River Raft.


The Caddo, among the early inhabitants along the Red, knew about the raft of course. With the spring floods that swept down the river clearing new areas for planting came with the boom and crack made by additional trees and debris crashing into the jam. Luis de Moscoso, who took command of the de Soto expedition on the explorers death, encountered the raft in 1542, and another Spanish probe by Domingo Teran de los Rios that mapped the Caddo villages made note of the obstruction.


President Thomas Jefferson’s “Grand Excursion,” led by Thomas Freeman, a surveyor and astronomer, Peter Custis, a medical student from Pennsylvania, and Benjamin Barton Smith, a naturalist, set out to explore the southern reach of the Louisiana Purchase in 1806. They got only as far up river as Spanish Bluff before being intercepted and turned back by Spanish soldiers, but by then, they already had discovered the Great Raft. Their reports described it as so thick “a man could walk over it in any direction…an impenetrable mass.” Freeman held that no attempt by man could clear the raft from the Red.


The Great Red River Raft somewhere north of Natchitoches.


The Great Raft was a huge logjam stretching 160 miles up the river from north of Natchitoches, Louisiana. Probably, in some far distant time before man, any man, had seen the river, the Mississippi had swallowed the mouth of the Red and forced great quantities of driftwood upstream. Over thousands of years, the Red had cut wide swaths out of the soft alluvial valley, undermining the banks and bringing trees into the river. Floods carried the debris downstream where it piled up.


The raft was not a static impediment; it was an ever-changing thing, creeping up river at about a fifth of a mile a year. Logs on the downriver side would work their way free and float down to the Mississippi while new debris added to the upriver side.


In places the raft stretched from bank to bank and to the bottom of the riverbed. Soil became lodged in the mass of timber and plants took root. In some spots one could pass over the river and never know it was underfoot. On all of the great rivers of the continent, the Red River raft was unique.


The Americans who came to the river tended to view natural obstructions like the Great Raft as things to be overcome rather than accommodated. Over time, the raft had caused the Red to seek new tributaries, and so boats could carefully work their way around the obstruction, but as the area opened to more settlement, voices began to clamor for the government to make the river more amenable to navigation.


Captain Henry M. Shreve
Leading this call was the U.S. Army, who needed reliable river transportation to supply the chain of forts being built on the north bank. In 1828, congress agreed to allocate $25,000 to clear the Red. The man chosen to lead the assault on the raft, indeed, one of the few men who thought it could be done, was Henry M. Shreve.


Shreve was a steamboat man of the first renown. In 1814 he took the Enterprise on the first trip from Louisville to New Orleans and back, proving the efficacy of steam power in moving upstream against the flow of the Mississippi. In 1816, his new boat, the Washington, introduced a revolutionary engine with cylinders mounted on the horizontal. It was lighter and more efficient than anything yet seen on the river. He built the first side-wheeler with separate engines for the paddle wheels, and brought many more advances to navigation.


Concerned with clearing the waterways of the snags, fallen trees, and limbs that were deadly to boats on the river, Shreve developed the first snag boat in 1827. It was a steamer named the Heliopolis, and it boasted a steam-powered windless to haul debris from the water and shove it through a sawmill set up on the deck of the boat. It was an innovative idea, and it worked. In 1832, at the direction of the Secretary of War, Shreve attacked the Red River Raft.


Shreve’s snag boat Heliopolis.


Plan drawing of a river snag boat.


Working only three or four months of the year when the water levels on the river were high, Shreve and a crew of 160, had cleared 71 miles of the raft by 1836. He understood that each spring brought more logs and limbs down from the upper Red, and so he asked Congress for additional funds to continue the work and to constantly patrol the river. Congress demurred, and by 1839, the raft was back and the river closed to navigation.


Lieutenant Eugene Woodruff as a West Point cadet.
Thirty-two years and more than $600,000 later, the government was still trying to get back what Captain Shreve and cleared, and they were about ready to give up the effort as undoable. Enter Lieutenant E. A. Woodruff of the Corps of Engineers.


With a fleet of snag boats, saw boats, and crane boats, Woodruff and his crews went after the raft on the down stream side in 1871. They pulled and tugged and cut and smashed, and what they could not dislodge with steam power, they blew up with nitroglycerine. Within a year the Great Red Raft was no more, although Woodruff did not live to see it. He got yellow fever and died in Shreveport in August 1873. George Woodruff took over for his brother and finished the job by year’s end.


One of Lt. Woodruff’s snag barges on the Red River.


To prevent the raft’s return, the engineers dredged the channel, build reservoirs, and belatedly got Congress to allocate the funds to put snag boats on the Red on a full-time basis. By the turn of the century, the river was open for navigation from the Mississippi to the Indian Territory.


The Red had been cleared, but it had not been tamed. It ran free from its headwaters on the llano to the Mississippi, and it was still a mean and dangerous river. Rising as it did in the semi-desert, the water flow was sporadic. Huge floods that scoured the bed and left high, steep banks were followed by low water, which uncovered sandbars and dangerous quicksand.


Snag boat at work on the river.


For the drovers who pushed the great herds of Texas cattle north to railheads in Missouri and Kansas after the Civil War, the Red was a barrier second to none on an already perilous journey. Natural crossing points were few. The Western Trail crossed the river at Doan’s Store near the confluence of the Prairie Dog Town Fork and the North Fork. The famed Chisholm Trail crossed at Red River Station in Montague County, and north of what is now Pottsboro, the Shawnee Trail traversed the muddy waters at Rock Bluff near Preston Bend.


There was a natural trough in the rocks of the bank at the Preston Crossing that funneled the cattle down the bluff and into the river before the spooky animals could get it into their minds to refuse. Big drives were safer than small ones during the journey across the Nations, and smaller outfits would congregate on the Texas side, sometimes for weeks waiting to join with others before making the crossing.


Even after the railroads came into Texas from the north in the early 1870s, it was still cheaper to trail the herds to Kansas than to ship them by rail. From 1866 to 1886, estimates of the numbers of cattle that made the four-month walk out of Texas run to nine million. The era of the great treks north with the herds was short, but from those adventures came lore and legend that survive today, and in effect have defined the idea of the Red River of the South for most of the world.


Men finally tamed the river, at least as to controlling the periodic floods, in 1944, when the great earthen dam north of Denison impounded the waters from the west and created Lake Texoma. One of the largest earth filled dams in the world when it was built, it stretches 17,200 feet across the river valley. Work on the project began in 1938, and during World War II, German prisoners of war, many from the famed Afrika Korps, were counted among the work crews.


Today, with its waters carefully controlled by the dam, the Red down stream from Denison to Texarkana is more lethargic than lethal. But every now and again, when rains swell the runoff from the lower tributaries, the river runs with at least a hint of its former ferocity.