By 1832, the Red River in upstate Louisiana was so clogged with dead wood, miscellaneous logs and snags that it, along with many other American rivers, was no longer navigable. Tellingly, the river was even referred to as “the Great Raft.” The U.S. Secretary of War ordered the Superintendent of Western River Improvements to do something about it. Thus began a seven-year project utilizing a special “snag boat,” designed by the Superintendent, to clear the river. With the boat’s high-powered ability to push away loads of wood, a 150 mile stretch of the river was cleared. Because rivers served as America’s highways there could be commerce again. The spot where the Great Raft was the most clogged was eventually named after the Superintendent. He was Henry Shreve. A city would grow there. It would be called Shreveport.
Louisiana is best known for its biggest and most important river, the Mississippi, but the state is also blessed with several smaller, but historically significant rivers that shaped cultures and political boundaries.
To the west, the Sabine River was once the subject of a boundary dispute between the United States and Spain. As a compromise the two countries agreed to establish neutral zones on each side of the river with no presence from their troops. What became badlands would, through a later treaty, become the border between Louisiana and Texas.
Near the town of Simmesport in Pointe Coupee Parish, branches of the Red River and the Mississippi form the Atchafalaya, which begins its ramble toward Morgan City and the Gulf of Mexico, and forms one of the nation’s most important estuary systems.
At 605 miles long, the Ouachita, which runs through Arkansas and north central Louisiana, is the 25th longest river in the country. Its region was once an epicenter of early American Indian populations, including Choctaw and Chickasaw groups. Though later destroyed to build a bridge, the largest Indian mounds ever discovered in North America were along the banks of that river.
There are other streams, including some rivers that are no longer rivers at all. They are the “ox-bow lakes,” which were once curves in rivers that were gradually cut off by shifts in flow. False River in New Roads is an example; another is Cane River Lake at Natchitoches.
Our cover story is about the Pearl River, which forms part of the boundary between Mississippi and Louisiana. It connects Jackson, Mississippi to the north with Lake Borgne and the Rigolets to the south. It is an important estuary and habitat for wildlife, but, as happens often with streams, there are issues, this time having to do with Jackson’s growth. To many New Orleanians, the Pearl is what you cross on I-10 to and from the coast. The river faces serious challenges. Controversies can be like logs in a river. Sometimes they need to be cleared so that the flow can continue.