Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Red River's Second Raft

Talfor, R. B, photographer. Scenes of the great Red River raft -/ R. B. Talfor, photo. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.
In 1838, when Captain Henry Miller Shreve finished clearing the Red River of the Great Raft, he warned Congress that without ongoing maintenance the raft would reform. Unfortunately, Congress disregarded Captain Shreve’s warning, and within a year the raft began to reconstitute itself. By 1841 there was a 20-mile raft that formed above Shreveport.

Since the first railroad was not completed in Bossier until 1884, communities along the Red River relied on the use of the river and its connected waterways of bayous and lakes as their primary source of transportation of goods, mail, livestock, and people.

Despite many efforts and some funding, attempts to clear the raft during the 1840s and 1850s were overall unsuccessful. None the less it was common for communities and individuals to make every effort to open the waterways to be navigable.

One such call to action can be seen in The Bossier Banner, Friday, November 25, 1859, where the writer was urging “the good people of Bossier to raise a sufficient fund to open the bayous and Lake Bodceau [sic].” And that the “outlay in cleaning and opening navigation in the bayous and Bodceau [sic] to Shreveport would be but a trifling sum in comparison to the good resulting from such an enterprise...Surely any enterprise resulting in good to our parish should meet the warm encouragement of its citizens: and particularly when said enterprise would result in an economical outlay, and immediate benefit two-folds equivalent to the expenditures.”

During the 1860s the raft continued to grow as the country was otherwise engulfed in its Civil War  which raged on until 1865. Finally, in 1871 Congress authorized the Corps of Engineers to clear the Red River which began in the spring of 1872.

Lt. Eugene Woodruff was commissioned with clearing the second Great Raft. Not only did he use the snag boats that Capt. Shreve had invented, but he also used crane boats and steam-operated saws. Perhaps one of the most significant advantages Woodruff had over Shreve in removing the raft was the use of the recently invented explosive, dynamite. Thanks to that, what took Shreve 6 years to accomplish, only took Woodruff 1 year.

Woodruff and his engineers not only performed the work needed to clear the raft; they also dredged the channel, created reservoirs, and constructed dams in anticipation of future floods. Unfortunately, Woodruff had the great misfortune of contracting yellow fever and died in August 1873 before the work was complete. His brother George oversaw the completion of the project which was finished before the end of that year.

Until the raft was cleared, a significant part of daily news was a “River and Weather” column published in The Shreveport Times. During this time weather forecasting was not commonplace; therefore, the weather report in this column was on the previous day’s weather. The vital information, however, were the updates on the condition of the river. It reported on the rise and fall of the river and the effects of the raft on steamboats and ships making their way from port to port along the river and its connected waterways.

On Wednesday, July 24, 1872, The Shreveport Times’ “River and Weather” report shared the following weather information. “The sun was very hot yesterday, but a cool breeze most of the day kept our good people from suffocating. It was the third day that we had no showers, which is a long dry spell for these showery times.”

After the weather report, it offered a lot of information on the coming and going of the steamers and on the current river conditions. A small sampling of this report is as follows.

“The river at this point receded nearly five inches in the last twenty-four hours, making the fall in all from the highest water of the season, eighteen feet and one inch. The officers of the Lotus No. 3 report the lower river falling fast with six or seven feet on most of the bars. At Perot’s they found five and one-half feet, which was the shoale place. None of the bars have washed out any yet. It is thought the Emilie La Barge, a large side-wheel boat drawing all the water in the river, will have some trouble in getting here. We venture to say that Capt. Silver will bring her through or pull her in two. … We are ‘hankering’ after something late and interesting from above the raft, but no stray traveler comes this way. We are aware that the river is dead low, but we are anxious to know how Capt. Jim Crooks, of the Royal George, stands his misfortune. His bad luck will be the death of him yet … The steamers Frank Morgan and Royal George are caught above the raft and will have to put the summer in the best way they can.”

To learn more about the Great Raft and local waterways, visit the Bossier Parish Libraries History Center at 2206 Beckett Street, Bossier City.

By: Amy Robertson

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