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.