Centuries before a portion of it became a modern economical treasure in 1971, the Arkansas River provided explorers the first glimpse of our region. French trappers may have plied the territory before, but for recorded history in 1541 Spanish explorers Francisco Coronado and Hernando De Soto both mentioned using it, Coronado in Kansas, DeSoto in Arkansas. Beginning as a mountain stream at Leadville, Colorado south of Vail, the river meanders eastward through the Rocky Mountains through massive gorges created over time, then spills onto the flatlands of eastern Colorado into Kansas. At one point in western Kansas the Arkansas is less than five feet deep and three fourths of a mile wide.
It continues to be unpredictable all the way to the Three Forks, the confluence of the Arkansas with the Verdigris and Grand Rivers. Twenty five year old Lieutenant James Wilkinson found out just how unpredictable it was during the fall of 1806. Wilkinson, a member of the Zebulon Pike expedition, was ordered to explore the Arkansas from Great Bend in central Kansas to its mouth at the Mississippi, the trip was estimated to take two weeks. Nearly eight weeks later, Wilkinson and his bedraggled associates reached Three Forks, still 300 miles from the mouth of the Arkansas. The river had treated them cruelly, alternating from depths of inches to several feet, frozen over in some places and just generally not navigable, even for canoes. Wilkinson would die five years later, partially from the effects of that journey.
At Three Forks the Arkansas receives a tremendous influx of water joining with the Verdigris and Grand Rivers, both originating in east central Kansas. The combination of all three have enabled river traffic to reach eastern Oklahoma since the founding of Fort Smith in 1817. Even there for a time, the cantankerous Arkansas produced another barrier for larger vessels until it finally eroded, a seven- foot waterfall near present day Webber’s Falls. The waterfall preventing steamboats from provide supplies for merchants at Three Forks and the new garrison at Fort Gibson. But, after the falls eroded, ultimately there were 22 landings between Fort Smith and Fort Gibson and as many as eleven steamers might be docked at some ports from time to time.
The steamboat Robert Thompson towing a keel boat was the first to reach Fort Smith in 1822, followed by the Florence the next year. By 1829 and as removal of the five tribes progressed, steamboats became commonplace. They were ideal transportation for the fickle Arkansas, able to navigate in only six feet of water after “snag” boats cleared the channel of debris. First used in the United States in 1787, they were also potentially dangerous because of boiler explosions caused by overheated boilers and faulty gauges. One of the most tragic disasters was the explosion that occurred on the Lucy Walker, a side wheeler owned by “Rich Joe” Vann, a Cherokee resident of Webber’s Falls. Vann’s steamboat frequently steamed to Louisville, Kentucky, on the Ohio River and as it left there on October 23, 1844 filled to capacity, three boilers blew up simultaneously. The vessel quickly caught fire then sank and the river was filled with the dead and wounded. Among the dead were “Rich Joe” and his son-in-law Preston Mackey. The only evidence left of Mackey was his partially clothed arm found in a tree along the shore. In a macabre twist, the arm enclosed in a bottle, was displayed in a Webber’s Falls doctor’s office for several years, perhaps as a reminder of the perils of steamboat travel. However, the greatest disaster in terms of lives lost occurred in 1865 when Union Civil War prisoners were being returned to St. Louis. The Sultana, authorized to carry 370 passengers, was loaded with 2,300 when the boilers exploded resulting in the deaths from burns or drowning of 1,800. During the war in the west, only one skirmish involved a steamboat. In 1864, Confederate soldiers led by Stand Watie captured the J R. Williams carrying supplies to Fort Gibson in what has been labeled the only “naval battle” in Oklahoma history. After the war, with the arrival of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad in Indian Territory in 1871 among others, river boat traffic essentially ended.
Commercial travel on the Arkansas was revived in 1971 with the opening of the McClelland-Kerr Navigation System. The system was named in honor of Arkansas Senator John McClellan and Oklahoma Senator Robert Kerr who promoted the project in Congress. The system extends 445 miles from Catoosa, Oklahoma on the Verdigris River to the Arkansas where it then joins the Mississippi waterway. The system includes eighteen locks and five dams and the channel is at least nine feet deep. It is available to tug boats, flat bottom keel boats ranging from fifty to eighty feet in length or even canoes and kayaks. Over three million tons of cargo were shipped on the system last year and it also is a source of hydro-electric power. To paraphrase an old song, today the revived Arkansas “just keeps rollin’ along.”
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.