The J. Bennett Johnston Waterway Regional Visitor Center provides the opportunity for people of all ages to learn about the Red River, past and present. The center tells the story of how the Corps of Engineers worked to tame the mighty Red for navigation and recreation. The J. Bennett Johnston Waterway Regional Visitor Center offers 8,300 square feet housing a reception area, theater and exhibition hall with audiovisual, static and interactive exhibits. The multi-purpose theater provides a continuous film, highlighting the Red River. As a Regional Visitor Center, all the states (New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana) which the Red River passes through are represented. State maps and tour guides are available to the public for all these states.
Collapse All Expand All
The educational programming and interpretive services at the visitor center provides tours for school groups - 3rd grades through university level, which meet the state requirements for educational curriculum objectives. Tours are also available for other groups such as scout, civic, church, senior citizen and other community organizations or clubs.
The scheduled programming includes:
- Boating & Water Safety- provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
- Theatre- 12 minute video “Rambling Red” and Power Point Presentations
- Guided Natural History Museum tour of the center with various interpretive points of interests such as:
- History of Red River Valley and its early inhabitants, the Native Americans and predominately the Caddo Indians;
- European exploration of the Red River Valley , Spain and France
- Expanding America through the Louisiana Purchase
- American exploration of the Red River Valley
- Captain Shreve‘s influence on 19th century navigation of the Red, and the growth of a city, Shreveport
- Operation of the locks and dams on Red now known as the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway
- 21st century navigation and Red River ports
- Wreck of the “Kentucky” – history and artifacts of a steamboat salvaged from the Red River
- Fish Identification of freshwater fish in the Red River
- Wetlands and migratory waterfowl of the Red River
- Recreation on the Red
Contact the Program Director to schedule programming or tours at (318) 677-2673 or 677-2669. Teacher workshops are available by request.
The European exploration and settlement of the lower Red River Valley was successful because of the native Caddo Indians in the area, and the names of these explorers and Indian tribes surround us today. The first European explorers were Spanish Conquistadors looking for gold and silver similar to their findings in Mexico and South America with the Aztec Culture.
Fifty years after Columbus sailed, Desoto arrived in Florida in 1539 and laid claim to the area for Spain. He then explored southeast United States including the Red River Valley, He died on the banks of the Mississippi River in 1542. We commemorate Desoto by naming a parish for him. Desoto’s claim to fame was dubious. Although he did contact the natives of the New World, he did not leave a very positive image with them – his legacy was smallpox.
In 1682, LaSalle traveled down the Mississippi River and laid claim to the Mississippi watershed for King Louis XIV – calling it “Louisiana”. LaSalle laid the foundations for the future fur trade with the Indians. He too died in the New World in East Texas. By 1700 other French explorers – the brothers Iberville & Bienville – returned for further exploration of the Mississippi and Red River Valley. As the French governor of Louisiana, Bienville expanded the fur trade with the Caddo Indians. He commissioned the fort at Natchitoches – Fort St. Jean Baptiste – in 1714 which was the first permanent settlement in Louisiana. He also founded New Orleans in 1718. Bienville was a very good administrator and encouraged trade in the area, even trade between the French Fort at Natchitoches and the nearby Spanish Presidio at Robeline. This trade and the presence of a friendly native population were responsible for the success of European settlement of this area.
At this point, we should examine the history of the native Indian population in the Red River Valley area. At the time of European exploration, Native Americans had populated the Red River Valley for approximately 12,000 years with the Caddo becoming the dominant tribe around 800 A.D. A shortened version of Kadohadacho, the name Caddo was given to them by European explorers and meant “real chief’. This was reflected in everyday life; the Caddoes were looked up to as the head of a loose confederation of over 20 tribes. Their leaders were consulted whenever major decisions were made or treaties were signed. If you wanted something done, you went to see the Caddoes and they acted as intermediaries. Their trading partners were the Natchez, Natchitoches, Hisonai, Wichita, Nokoni, Quahadi. The Caddoes were well respected for their pottery making skills and traded as far away as the Great Lakes and the East Coast to Florida. They were considered one of the Civilized Tribes and signed peace treaties with European settlers developing a lucrative fur trade. In fact, Caddo chiefs boasted they had “never shed a white man’s blood”. Their society was very well developed, with a maize (corn) agriculture component. Their enemies were historically the same enemies we remember: the Apache, the Osage, and the Comanche. Unfortunately, their loyalty to their word and friendship with settlers did little to keep them from being pushed off their lands by a flood of European settlers. In 1835, they sold their lands to the United States Government and began to move out of the lower Red River Valley. By 1872, the Tribes had been resettled in Oklahoma.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson with the help of James Monroe & Robert Livingston negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from France. Jefferson had originally sent Monroe to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and the Floridas from Napoleon Bonaparte. America felt this necessary following the recent Spanish occupation of New Orleans and their suspension of American trade rights. The West and the South clamored for freedom of trade, even at the cost of war. Talleyrand, French minister of foreign affairs, was instructed by Napoleon to sell all of Louisiana to the United States for the sum of 15 million dollars or 3 cents an acre. This effectively doubled the size of the United States and provided the impetus for the push West. From 1803 on, we see many names familiar to us from exploration of this country. From 1804 to 1806, President Jefferson and Congress commissioned several scientific expeditions. The best known was Lewis & Clark up the Missouri River. Another expedition, Hunter & Dunbar, went up the Red River to the Ouachita River, then to Hot Springs, Arkansas. The Choctaw Tribe was the most populous along the Ouachita River at that time. The first scientific expedition up the Red River - the Freeman and Custis Expedition – mapped the River from Natchitoches past Texarkana, but was turned back by the Spanish at Spanish Bluff. Custis, as the expedition’s naturalist, managed to catalog many plants and animals. Later in 1806, Lt. Zebulon Pike (Pike’s Peak) left Louisiana and headed up through Kansas and Colorado, eventually ending up at the Rio Grande, which he mistakenly thought was the Red River. There he was captured by the Spanish and eventually returned to Natchitoches. It has been speculated that Lt. Pike was in reality spying on Spanish troop locations. In 1819, the Long Expedition, headed by Major Stephen Long, attempted to find the headwaters of the Red River but found the Canadian and Arkansas Rivers instead. Finally in 1852, two Army Captains named Marcy and McClelland found the springs that form the headwaters of the Red River in northeast New Mexico. The Prairie Town Fork was fed by other smaller streams to form the Red River which became the boundary between Oklahoma and Texas. The river is approximately 1360 miles long
Navigation of the Red River was important to the settlement of this area. After the Louisiana Purchase and the subsequent purchase of Caddo Indian lands, the United States Government gave Captain Henry Miller Shreve the job of clearing the Red River Raft to allow navigation. Captain Shreve was an employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Superintendent of Navigation for the tributaries of the Mississippi River. He had designed the famous Snag Boats, the “Heliopolis and Acropolis”, but could not patent them in his name. Therefore, he wrote Congress asking them to give him land in return for his dedicated service. The land he was given was in the northwest corner of Louisiana. Captain Shreve formed the Shreve Land Company and established a town on the Red River which became known as Shreveport.
Daily tours are available at the center. Large groups must call first to schedule time and date of tour. The daily operation hours of the center are: Wednesday - Saturday 10:00 a.m.- 4:00 p.m., closed Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
Contact the Visitor Center Manager at (318)677-2673, (318)-422-5156, or (318)677-2669 for more information or to schedule tour dates.
The Center’s mailing address is J. Bennett Johnston Waterway Regional Visitor Center, 700 Clyde Fant Parkway, Shreveport, LA 71101.
Free travel brochures and other recreational pamphlets are available onsite to the public for the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.
Navigation has been restored to the Red River from the Mississippi River to Shreveport with the completion of five locks and dams. These series of locks and dams has opened the river to commercial traffic. Now the Port of Shreveport/Bossier and Port of Natchitoches provide the opportunity for various commercial products to reach northwest Louisiana communities at a much lower transportation cost than by truck or railroad car.
Let’s compare the energy efficiency of road, rail, and river transportation.
What is the number of miles a truck, train, or river barge can carry one ton of goods (coal or rock, for example) on one gallon of diesel fuel?
Truck ………………………… 59 miles
Railroad ……………………...202 miles
River Barge…………………..514 miles
The Corps of Engineers dredges the Red River to remove sand and silt build-up on the floor of the river channel maintaining the channel at 9 feet deep and 200 feet wide for barge traffic. The locks and dams, which are over 700 feet long, 85 feet wide also maintain the water level for boating traffic. As a barge or boat is locked into the lock chamber, the gates to the chamber are closed raising or lowering the water level 20 to 30 feet depending on whether the boat is traveling upstream or downstream. It takes approximately 20 minutes for the lock chamber to fill.
The journey of the Red River begins 600 miles from here and is 300 million years in the making, before the dinosaurs roamed this area. Limestone and gypsum formed the river’s foundation during this Pennsylvanian period of history. The Triassic Age followed, when dinosaurs roamed the land, and sandstone and shale were deposited in the River. Seventy million years ago, a saline sea covered the area leaving many fossils, even mastodon and whale fossils have been found. From one to ten million years ago, sand, silt and clay were deposited in the upper regions, giving the Red River its color.
The rambling Red River has an interesting story to tell - how it has impacted lives, the history of the United States as the river touches 5 states, and how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers improves the benefits of the river. The scenery changes as our journey begins - Tierra Blanca Creek, some 600 miles Northwest of Shreveport in New Mexico. The water, then, is known as the Red River as it moves to become the boundary between Oklahoma and Texas. At Arkansas, the River turns southeast at Texarkana as it goes to Louisiana. Through Louisiana, the Red River merges with the Atchafalaya River and then flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Once a tributary of the Mississippi River, the Red River now connects with the Mississippi only through the man-made “Old River Control Complex”. As the water of the Red river travels 1200 miles, it passes through six distinct ecosystems. The river begins its travel at an elevation of 5,000 feet above sea level with an average yearly rainfall of only 15 inches meandering through plains and prairies to end its journey near sea level in the swamps of Louisiana with an average yearly rainfall of 52 inches.
Throughout history, the Red River has been used for navigation and trade. The native Caddo Indians traveling in dugout canoes used the river for transportation. The Spanish and French explorers, as well as American explorers, used other types of boats, from pirogues to keelboats and flatboats. In the early 1800’s the Great Raft became an obstacle to travel on the river. The Great Raft on the Red River was a mass of logs and debris that fell into the river and collected as the banks eroded. It was more than 100 miles long, extending past Shreveport. Attempts to clear the Great Raft began in the 1830’s. At this time, Captain Henry Miller Shreve, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employee, invented the snag boat for the U.S. government, which was used to clear the Great Raft. The town of “Shreveport” was named in his honor.
The Civil War and the railroad had a role to play in effecting navigation and trade on the river and the Shreveport area. In 1864, during the Civil War, the Red River helped the Confederate Army win a major battle by slowing General Nathaniel Banks and the Union Army gunboats from reaching Shreveport as a result of low rainfall and a low river level at the time. During the 1870’s the Red River was used to transport goods between Texas and New Orleans, but in 1885, the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Pacific Railroad was completed. This marked the end of steamboat commerce on the Red River for 100 years. During this time the river was little used. Residents dealt with flooding, swift currents, unstable banks, and erosion.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work to soften the hazards of the River. The taming of this wild river began with the Corps of Engineers building earthen levees, then dams and reservoirs, which provided added benefits of recreation, enhanced natural resources, and hydropower. Water quality projects make the water usable for agriculture and drinking water. All of this led to the return of commercial navigation. The J. Bennett Johnston Waterway opened in 1994. It permits boats to travel between Shreveport and the Mississippi River. The waterway is made up of 5 locks and dams. Dredging of the river prevents a build up of silt on the bottom of the river, maintaining the channel 9 feet deep and 200 feet wide for towboats and barges. Tons of cargo is now moved on the Red River. The main river channel was straightened with many of its bends removed. Dikes and revetments were placed along the river banks to control erosion.
Red River today has recreation sites located along the river for water sports and nature enthusiast; lakes formed by the locks and dams provide havens for animals, fish and birds. This has made the river a sportsman paradise for the hunter and fisherman.
After a journey of more than 1200 miles the Red River continues to ramble across this valley, shaping the land and its inhabitants. With careful stewardship the Red River will offer its bounty and benefits for generations to come.
The continuing mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is bank stabilization, dikes, dragging, and revetments on the Red River.
The navigation channel is maintained at 9 feet deep and 200 feet wide.
The amount of river silt that passes the visitor center every second in the river is 27,154 cubic inches.
Retuning to commercial navigation on the Red River requires ports on the Red River. There are ports at: Alexandria, Natchitoches, Coushatta, and Shreveport.
Two years ago the Port of Shreveport-Bossier handled over 2 million tons of goods. The relative energy efficiency of barge versus train or truck is important in this time of high gas prices.
Recreation on the Red River consists of bass tournaments, fishing, and boating with parks and campgrounds developed along the river by the Corps and the Red River Water Commission.
Located on a major tributary of the Red River is Bayou Bodcau Dam & Reservoir, 34,000 acre wildlife management and forestry area open to the public for camping, fishing, hiking, horse riding, and hunting.