The Red River was once a very dangerous watercourse. Its bottom was a forest of snags that sunk many steamboats. Its main course was often choked with driftwood, creating logjams known, collectively as “The Great Raft,” in northern Louisiana that presented major challenges to navigation. Henry M. Shreve, a New Jersey-born steamboat captain and designer who oversaw the clearing of the Great Raft from 1833-1836. The city fathers of a new settlement on the Red named their endeavor “Shreveport” in his honor.
The Red River also flooded… a lot. This was problematic for the fledgling plantation system growing in southwest Arkansas, as the Red River Valley offered highly fertile soils, good for growing cotton. The floods were a hazards that locals had to contend with up until recent years. The construction of numerous dams and locks on the Red and its tributaries after World War II brought the fickle river under control, though memories of the ravages of some floods, particularly the 1937, still crop up in oral histories. The only flood in recent times to strike Dooley’s Ferry occurred in 1990. Even then, there were parts of the valley floor that stayed dry.
That was not the case in 1843.
In March of that year, the Red jumped its banks. Perhaps “jumped” is too light a term, and we should substitute “long-jumped while wearing a rocket pack.” Whole communities were inundated. After four days of subsidence, the water was still ten feet deep across the valley, which was “a thing never before heard of” (North American and Daily Advertiser [NADA] 1843:2).
One of the places to fall victim to the flood was Lost Prairie, a settlement on the Lafayette County side of Dooley’s Ferry. The North American and Daily Advertiser (1843) of Philadelphia reported that Lost Prairie was “entirely gone.” We should pull two things out of that line. First, Lost Prairie and surrounding communities were evidently wiped out by the flood. Second, it was a bad enough flood that papers in Philadelphia were reporting on it.The Sun, in Baltimore, also ran a story.
The destruction is captured by another passage from the Philadelphia paper’s coverage. “Some thousand bales of cotton may be seen floating down the river, and the steamboat Hunter landed at Fulton yesterday with part of sixty families, which she picked up, some on drift, some on cotton bales, and others from the tops of their houses” (NADA 1843).
While there are no mentions of loss of life, flood was clearly damaging to the cotton crop. Four planters’ losses are reported in detail. Mr. Pryor, Mr. Jones, and Mr. Hamilton all lost everything. “Mr. Pryor” may be Richard Pryor, one of the early wealthy gentlemen of the Great Bend region. “Mr. Hamilton” was likely Robert Hamilton, a plantation owner at Lost Prairie whose died in 1853 or 1854 (The Daily Picayune 1854). Also, a Mr. Carrington, most likely Robert H. Carrington, lost 200 bales (NADA1843).
A second story emerged a few days later. Like the first one, this story was originally printed in the Natchitoches Herald, on March 25th. It was then picked up by a number of papers in New Orleans and the East Coast, including Boston, Philadelphia, Brattleboro (Vermont), and Porstmouth (New Hampshire). Even the local rag for fledgling Madison, Wisconsin, picked up the story.
The story runs like this. One of the locals, R.H. Finn, was returning home in a skiff (the water was still 8 feet deep), and chanced upon a man stuck high in a “gum sapling.” Finn learns that he had been there for four nights.
The water of the Red River rose very quickly, it appears. Trying to escape the water and being stuck out in the middle of the river valley, Mr. Anderson couldn’t reach high ground.
It would appear that the man, identified only as Mr. Anderson, had climbed up the tree to escape the rising waters. The exertions of reaching and then climbing his arboreal haven, combined with the effort of supporting his body weight rendered exhausted the man. Unable to climb down, without means of reaching dry land, and with his energy failing, Mr. Anderson had, apparently, rigged a crude basket out of “black jack vines” and seated himself in it. Thus tied into the tree, Mr. Anderson endured his four day and night ordeal as the flood waters swirled under his feet.
Unfortunately, Mr. Anderson was so tired that, once installed in his basket, he lacked the energy to lift himself out. Had he had means to reach the shore, he would not have been able to use it. Mr. Anderson had tied himself into his tree. Fatigue was one thing, but it was certainly not the end of Mr. Anderson’s tribulations.
Remember that this was March, and 1843 was one of the coldest winters on record. Mr. Anderson was wet through when he climbed to his perch, and then spent four nights out in bitterly cold temperatures. It’s frankly amazing that he was still alive when Finn found him. Finn cut Mr. Anderson’s bonds and helped him to dry land.
The guy Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward found dead on an electrical tower in Tremors only made it 3.
Daily Picayune, The
1854 Advertisement. The Daily Picayune 1/28/1854:6.
North American and Daily Advertiser, The
1843 The Red River Flood. The North American and Daily Advertiser 4(1229):2.