Arkansas River Historical Timeline

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From 1900-1910, irrigation wells began to be constructed in the Arkansas valley. This development occurred because of the rapid expansion of irrigation in Colorado. This expansion in Colorado caused the flow in the Arkansas River to cease during July and August when water was so sorely needed by Kansas irrigators. Well water could be obtained at depths of 6 to 20 feet. These early wells were constructed to supplement the river flows, not to replace river water.


Two years before Oklahoma statehood, the Muskogee Commercial Club organized the Arkansas Navigation Company. The reasoning was that river navigation could take advantage of the oil boom in Indian Territory. The "MARY D.," was purchased and a commercial run was established between Fort Smith and Muskogee. The Commercial Club raised $15,000, and contracted the building of a 125 foot long packet. When delivered in July, 1908, she was dubbed "CITY OF MUSKOGEE." Banners on the boat boasted "Bound for Oklahoma."


Flooding along the Arkansas in Tulsa. The railroads are hit hard.


For all practical purposes, steamboats were driven into retirement.


In the 1920's there were advocates in Arkansas and Oklahoma who looked to river development as an achievable goal for the future. Chief among them were Newt Graham of Tulsa, and Clarence Byrns of Fort Smith. Both men were considered major leaders for river development.

Newton Robert Graham was a gentle mannered businessman judged by history as a guiding force in keeping the vision of navigation alive in the face of well-organized opposition, ridicule, and skepticism. In his book Land Wood and Water, Senator Robert S. Kerr devoted a chapter to Graham, describing his efforts as a "Labor of Love." Kerr continued, "In nearly half a century of volunteer effort, he wore many titles and figured prominently in many organizations, but his multiple dreams for the Arkansas basin were basic to most of the worthy causes on which he labored so diligently for his community.

Clarence Byrns was the editor of the Fort Smith Southwest-Times Record. He was called the "father of the Arkansas River Project," by those in Arkansas. He wrote editorials for four decades promoting navigation on the Arkansas River. Byrns, a past president of the Arkansas Basin Association, chaired the powerful Tri-State Committee that handled the appropriation requests for Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The success of the committee and the status of the Arkansas River project today are reflective of Byrns himself. Of many honors bestowed upon Mr. Byrns, perhaps the most fitting was that of being named "Great Living Arkansan" by the state Chamber of Commerce in October, 1960. He was cited for his longtime work on behalf of Arkansas river development which he began in 1920, and in 1946 as a member of the committee which presented to the waterway development program to Congress.


Disastrous floods had struck Oklahoma in June and October of 1923. The Canadian River shattered Oklahoma Citys water supply dam. In Tulsa the Arkansas destroyed the city waterworks and drove 4,000 from their homes. Nearly every wagon and railroad bridge in central Oklahoma was washed out. There were proposals to create reservoirs on the Arkansas and Red Rivers to help prevent future flooding.

The Tulsa Chamber of Commerce leads an effort to form a seven state commission to investigate flood control methods in the Arkansas and Red River basins.


"The 1927 flood on the Arkansas, the greatest ever known, came out of a little area here in southeastern Kansas."

As a result of excessive rainfall, the Arkansas River became a conduit for an eight to ten foot wall of water--with registered flows of 750,000 cubic feet per second--roaring down the valley and emptying into the Mississippi River. Nearly every levee down river from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to the Mississippi, was destroyed.

This occurrence led to the formation of the ARFCA (Arkansas River Flood Control Association). The focus of this organization was to lobby members of Congress for a comprehensive flood control program.

The next year a flood control act is passed by Congress. The Arkansas and Red Rivers are included for survey as part of this comprehensive study.


56,939 acres of land now irrigated by Arkansas River water in Kansas.


From 1933 to 1937, Dust Bowl and drought in the Arkansas River Basin and Great Plains.

July 1935

U. S. Army Corps of Engineers informs Congress that Arkansas River Navigation is technically but not economically feasible. Independent estimates put the cost for Arkansas River Navigation much lower than the Corps figures.


Congress ignores the Corp of Engineers negative report and passes a landmark flood control act. As a result of this legislation the Southwestern Division of the Corps of Engineers was created, and authorization given to 211 flood control projects in 31 states.


July 14. Southwestern Division begins work in territory that includes the upper Arkansas, Red, White, and Black River basins, among others.


July 1. Tulsa District of U. S. Army Corps of Engineers is formed from the Little Rock District, and receives $11,000,000 for work on eight authorized projects.


Flooding along the Arkansas River between Muskogee and Ft. Smith

December 7. The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. The United States enters World War II (1941-1945). During the war, Tulsa and Denison Districts placed $800,000,000 in military construction and procured special engineering equipment costing more than $100,000,000.


Flooding -24 inches of rain in 6 days from McAlester to Muskogee. Some reports state that "half of Arkansas" was underwater.


Flood Control Act authorizes recreation facilities at reservoirs.


Arkansas Basin Development Association (ABDA) established. Organized by Newt Graham and John Dunkin. Officers include top businessmen of Tulsa, including: department store owners Dunkin and Gary Vandever, Maurice Sanditen (OTASCO), oilman Charles Klein, N. R. Patterson (Patterson Steel), and Russell Rhodes general manager of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce. Graham served as president.

The ABDA led the effort for Arkansas River Navigation legislation.

July 24. Rivers and Harbors Act authorizing the building of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System is passed by Congress. The plan includes hydropower, flood control, recreation, and navigation from Catoosa, Oklahoma to the Mississippi River.

Completion of the project was not assured by passage of this act. $55,000,000 was authorized for initial improvements. Funding was to be approved on a year to year, dam by dam basis. Fortunately, Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan, and Oklahoma Senator Elmer Thomas, sat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

When construction started in 1950, the development of the Arkansas River for navigation was the largest civil works project ever undertaken by the Corps of Engineers.


Oklahoma Governor Robert S. Kerr runs a successful campaign to become Oklahomas junior senator. Once in Congress he will champion waterway transportation.


Construction is started on Oologah Reservoir, then stopped because of the Korean War.

Acres in Kansas now irrigated by the Arkansas River reaches 260,000.


Arkansas River navigation is placed in a "deferred for further study" category. A major engineering problem needs to be solved: 100 million tons of silt flowing down the Arkansas annually could prevent navigation.

A study conducted by Professor Hans Albert Einstein, son of the famous scientist, proposed a way for the river to clean itself, thus reducing sedimentary flow. Major reaches of the river would be deepened, straightened, and narrowed. This would stabilize the banks and make the river flow faster. The faster waters would flush out sediment that would otherwise settle and require constant dredging.

This plan was tested by the Waterways Experiment Station and was found to work. The system would work so good that $31,000,000 could be stricken from the budget for three upstream dams which had been designed to trap sediment. This solved the sediment problem.


Construction of lake dam projects begins on Lakes Eufala and Keystone. Work resumes on Oologah Lake.


Oklahoma Senator Robert S. Kerr wins funds for three reservoirs vital to the navigation system in return for throwing his support to the popular Federal Aid Highway Act (which authorized the interstate highway system). President Eisenhower vetoed the bill, but his veto was overridden by Congress. The question now was how to get the President to spend the money authorized for the project.

This was the second time these funds had been approved. In 1955, the funds had been authorized, but President Eisenhower refused to spend the money. He said it was because it would be a commitment to complete funding for the entire navigation system.

At this juncture, Republican Congressman Page Belcher, from Tulsa, had a talk with the President over breakfast. Congressman Belcher stated plainly that the river project meant a lot to his constituents back home, and that he might lose his seat to a Democrat if funding were not authorized. As a result, President Eisenhower put funding for the navigation project in the White House budget.

These upstream lakes are vital to the navigation system. In addition to providing flood control, hydroelectric power, and recreation, these reservoirs were designed as one means to regulate the depth of water in the navigation channel.


Navigation system construction begins. Dardanelle lock and dam construction begins in June.


Land in Kansas irrigated by the Arkansas River reaches 1,010,00 acres.


January 1. Senator Robert S. Kerr of Oklahoma, the acclaimed "King of the U. S. Senate" dies. Senator John L. McClellan of Arkansas, picks up the torch in the struggle for funds to complete the Arkansas River navigation project.

Construction starts in May, 1963 include: Norrell Lock and Dam No. 1, Lock No. 2, Wilbur D. Mills Dam No. 2, and Joe Hardin Lock and Dam No. 3.


Construction starts include: Emmett Sanders Lock and Dam No. 4 in May, Lock and Dam No. 5 in November, Murray Lock and Dam No. 7 in November, and Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock and Dam No. 12 in December. Construction begins on Robert S. Kerr Lock and Dam No. 15.

Keystone Dam is completed.


Construction moves forward with starts on David D. Terry Lock and Dam No. 6 in January, Arthur V. Ormond Lock and Dam No. 9 in April, Toad Suck Ferry Lock and Dam No. 8 in July, and J. W. Trimble Lock and Dam No. 13 in October. Construction begins on Webbers Falls Lock and Dam No. 16.

In April the first Dardanelle Lock and Dam No. 10 power unit goes on line.


Construction begins on W. D. Mayo Lock and Dam No. 14.


August 22, people of the city of Tulsa passed a 17.5 million dollar bond issue for port development. This was joined by funds from Rogers County to develop the site for the 2000 acre Tulsa Port of Catoosa.

Construction starts include: Chouteau Lock and Dam No. 17, and Newt Graham Lock and Dam No. 18.

In June, Norrell Lock and Dam No. 1 is placed in operation.


Navigation is opened to Little Rock October 4. A United States postage stamp is issued boasting "Arkansas River Navigation" to commemorate the occasion.

Several Lock and Dam projects were completed and made operational this year, including: Wilbur D. Mills Dam No. 2 and Lock No. 2 in March, David D. Terry Lock and Dam No. 6 in August, Joe Hardin Lock and Dam No. 3 in December, Lock and Dam No. 5 in December, and Emmett Sanders Lock and Dam No. 4 in December.


January 4. First commercial barges (from Wheeling, WV, and Pittsburgh, PA) to dock at the Port of Little Rock.

More Locks and Dams are completed and placed in operation. These include: J. W. Trimble No. 13 in April, Arthur V. Ormond No. 9 in July, Murray No. 7 in October, Toad Suck Ferry No. 8 in November, Ozark-Jeta Taylor No. 12 in November, and Dardanelle No. 10 in December.

Navigation opened to Fort Smith.

December 30, 1970

The waterway is ready for use, 448 miles, 17 Locks and Dams.

The Arkansas River Navigation project provides a minimum 9 foot deep channel with a total lift of 420 feet, 450 miles long, from the Mississippi River to the head of navigation at Catoosa, near Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The navigation project begins at the confluence of the White and Mississippi Rivers, goes 10 miles up the White River, then 10 miles up the man made Arkansas Post Canal, where it flows into the Arkansas River. The system continues up the Arkansas River to Muskogee, Oklahoma, then turns up the Verdigris River for the last 50 miles before reaching the head of navigation at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa.

To make the Arkansas navigable, 17 locks and dams were constructed. The dams form a series of "navigation pools," each of which is connected to the next by a lock which enables vessels to move from one pool to another. It is the locks and pools which create the "staircase" that permits vessels to "climb" 420 feet in elevation from the Mississippi River to the head of navigation at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa. The capability to generate hydroelectric power was built into Webbers Falls, Robert S. Kerr, Ozark, and Dardanelle dams.

The 17 dams along the main channel of the waterway do not have the capability to provide flood control. The upstream dams in Oklahoma do this. The dams are equipped with "tainter gates" which can be moved to maintain pool elevations with a one-half foot tolerance at the dam. The gates are, in effect, movable parts of the dam which if fully raised will almost completely remove the resistance of the dam and allow large volumes of water to pass unimpeded during period of high flow.

Each of the locks has a single chamber 110 feet wide and 600 feet long, the standard size for much of the Mississippi waterway system. Each lock is large enough to accommodate several vessels or a single tow as large as 108 ft. wide by 585 ft. long. This will permit the lockage of a towboat and eight "jumbo" barges each 35 ft. x 195 ft. Longer tows can be "locked through" in sections.

Because of the single chamber, a lock cannot be used simultaneously for up bound and down bound traffic. When a vessel must wait its turn, usually no more than a half-hour is involved. The order of precedence for using the locks is: vessels owned by the United States, commercial vessels carrying passengers, commercial vessels carrying cargo, rafts, and pleasure craft.


January 3. First commercial barge to the Port of Muskogee. The cargo is steel pipe manufactured by Republic Steel.

January 21. The First tow to Tulsa Port of Catoosa arrived at 2:20 pm. This was the first commercial tow to travel the full length of the Arkansas River Navigation System. The cargo was 650 tons of newsprint from the Bowater Paper Company. The newsprint was delivered for use in The Tulsa World newspaper.

January 22. Dedication of the Port of Muskogee. Governor of Oklahoma, David Hall, Oklahoma Senator Henry Bellmon, and other state and local dignitaries speak to a large gathering of well wishers.

February 20. On a cold February day, William Verity, President of Armco Steel Corporation gave the keynote speech at the dedication of the Tulsa Port of Catoosa. Seated on his left is Tulsa Mayor Robert J. LaFortune. To his right is Jacques Cunningham, master of ceremonies for the dedication. Mr. Cunningham was the first chairman of the City of Tulsa-Rogers County Port Authority.

June 5. The President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, was the keynote speaker for the Dedication of McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa. Other dignitaries in attendance were: Senator John L. McClellan of Arkansas; Robert S. Kerr Jr., son of the late senator; Governor and Mrs. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas; Governor and Mrs. David Hall of Oklahoma, United States Attorney General John Mitchell and his wife Martha; House Speaker and Oklahoma Congressman Carl Albert; Congressman Ed Edmondson of Oklahomas second district; Oklahoma Senators Henry Bellmon and Fred Harris; Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt of Arkansas; and Congressman Page Belcher of Oklahomas first district. The press corps sported such luminaries as Dan Rather for NBC and Herb Kaplow for CBS. Entertainment included Jazz entertainer Al Hirt and Singer Anita Bryant.

"There was a contagiously good spirit among the thousands of visitors at the dedication ceremony. It was like an old-fashioned family outing on the Fourth of July, wholesome and patriotic. People were proud of the occasion, proud of the port and the accomplishment it represents--and they were proud to greet the President....Everyone at the dedication was not necessarily a Nixon fan. There were Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, doves and hawks...people of all kinds. But it was a good-time occasion unmarked by ugly differences in politics or philosophy." --The Tulsa World


The Delta Queen leaves Memphis for a seven day cruise up the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. She docks at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa on July 17. The celebration at the first arrival of a commercial passenger boat at Catoosa signals kickoff of the 25th Anniversary celebration.


April 17. Continuing the 25th Anniversary Celebration, crowds gather at Chouteau Lock and Dam No. 17 to commemorate the first barges that traveled the length of the waterway in early 1971.

July 29. Culmination of 25th Anniversary celebration. Tulsa Port of Catoosa activities include: an Industrial exposition, launch of a flotilla of about 50 vessels down the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, and rededication ceremony for the waterway.

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