Saturday, August 02, 2008

Great Red River Raft

The Red River begins in Colorado and flows east, toward Louisiana. It forms a physical barrier between much of Texas and Oklahoma, Texas to the south and Oklahoma to the north. In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson sent Peter Curtis and Thomas Freeman to explore the southern portion of the Louisiana Territory.

They found the Red River clogged from bank to bank with trees, brush and impenetrable debris. The Great Raft acted as a dam, effectively raising the water level north and west of what is now the city of Shreveport. This system of interconnecting bayous and lakes, with time, became a watery pathway from New Orleans to Jefferson, Texas.

What did Jefferson have that brought up to 15 riverboats a day from New Orleans? It was cotton. Michener talks about the superior quality of East Texas cotton in his novel Texas. Fortunes were established and antebellum mansions sprang up around Jefferson as goods and celebrities reached the booming town. At one point, Jefferson was the largest seaport in Texas.

In 1872, the Corps of Engineers attacked the Raft with snag boats, an invention of Captain Shreve, the founder of Shreveport. The snag boats, along with the help of explosives, cleared the Raft within the year. The result was a drop in the area water level.

The lakes and bayous no longer interconnected. The riverboats that had plied their trade, up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, to the Red River, Caddo Lake and finally Jefferson, could no longer make the trip.

Farmers found new methods to get their cotton to market and, like a jilted lover, the City of Jefferson faded into a mist of distant memory.

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