Navigation along the Red River of the 1800’s was treacherous due to the Great Red River Raft. The Red River raft was a result of the highly erodible soils of the Red River alluvial valley being carved by each high water event on the river. As the river moved back and forth across its alluvial plain, trees were undermined along the riverbanks and fell into the river. These trees formed a discontinuous series of logjams that extended approximately 150 miles along the river from the vicinity of present day Natchitoches to the Louisiana-Arkansas State line. The raft artificially raised the banks of the river and forced the creation of numerous distributaries of the Red – evidence of which can still be seen today. Also formed were numerous raft lakes along the river in low spots along the tributaries to the Red. These raft lakes were transitory in nature. Many of these lakes have been lost. Lake Iatt, Clear-Black and Saline Lakes, Nantachie Lake, Wallace Lake, Lake Bistineau, and Caddo Lake are some of the raft lakes that were preserved by building dams to maintain the lakes. The raft was not stationary, rather it was inexorably moving upstream at about a fifth of a mile per year. As pieces of the raft broke up and floated downstream on the lower end, new logs and debris were added to the upper end. As the channel naturally cleared on the lower end, the Red River channel would deepen and drain the raft lakes and close off the distributaries leaving a single river channel. Piecemeal attempts were made to clear the raft starting in the 1830s. Portions of the raft would be cleared for a brief period but it would eventually reform. Captain Henry Miller Shreve dramatically increased the pace of the natural clearing of the logjam with the invention of the snag-boat. By the mid 1870s, the raft had been cleared.
Steamboats plying the Mississippi River could now go up the Red River to Shreveport and points north as well as west into Texas along Cypress Bayou to Jefferson, Texas. However as the railroad commerce expanded in the late 1800s, steamboat commerce declined. Removal of the Red River raft caused the river to scour its channel deeper making the river have unusually high banks. Because of these unnaturally high banks, bank erosion became a tremendous problem on the river. Thousands and thousands of acres of productive land would be eroded by the river and deposited downstream as less productive sandbars. This continual erosion also led to shoaling in the river making navigation treacherous.
In an attempt to improve Red River navigation, Congress authorized the Red River below Fulton, Arkansas Project in 1892. The project provided for improvements from Fulton, Arkansas to the Atchafalaya River by systematic clearing of banks, snagging, dredging shoals, building levees, closing outlets, revetting caving banks, and preventing injurious cutoffs. No channel dimensions were specified.
Congress modified the project in 1946 by authorization of the Overton-Red River Waterway. This project provided for the construction of a 9-foot deep by 100-foot wide navigation channel from the Mississippi River via Old and Red Rivers for about 31 miles, and via a new land cut above river mile 31 generally following existing streams along the right descending bank of the Red River flood plain to a turning basin on Bayou Pierre at Shreveport, Louisiana. The 205 mile long project consisted of 9 locks 56 feet by 650 feet, a pumping plant, drainage structures and appurtenances.
In 1950, Congress modified the Red River below Fulton Project to provide a channel 9 feet deep by 100 feet wide from the exit point of the Overton Red River Waterway at Mile 31 to the mouth of the Black River at mile 35.5 in connection with the modification of the 9-foot by 100-foot Ouachita-Black River Project from the mouth of the Black River to Camden, Arkansas
The River and Harbor Act of 1968 modified these and other prior projects in authorizing the present day waterway. The Louisiana Legislature created the Red River Waterway Commission to serve as the project sponsor in the mid 1960s. The Commission has the responsibility for providing all of the necessary lands for the project purposes. The project lands remain in State ownership through the Commission except at the lock and dam sites, which will be transferred to Federal ownership. The Commission continues to work closely with the Corps towards completing construction of the project. Additionally, they will operate and maintain recreation facilities that are not on Federal land throughout the project area and manage the mitigation lands acquired.