1871 Survey: Black River, MO & AR

   Engineering Office, United States Army

St. Louis, Missouri, March 11, 1872.

 General.: I have the honor to submit the following report on the recent examination of Black River from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, to Pocahontas, Arkansas, to which duty I was assigned by orders from this office dated November 13, 1871.
   Black River rises in the western part of Iron and the northern part of Reynolds County, in Southeastern Missouri, and flows in a general direction southeast through that State, parallel to the Saint Francis River, and at an average distance from it of fourteen miles, traversing the counties of Reynolds, Wayne, and Butler, when it strikes the Arkansas line and diverges toward the southwest., touching the edge of Greene, flowing through Randolph and Lawrence, forming the boundary-line between Independence and Jackson Counties, and empties into the White River one-half mile above the city of Jacksonport.
   From its source to Poplar Bluff the river flows through the mountainous country of the Ozark Ranges and their spurs, and then leaves the mountains and seeks the low lands, through which it continues to flow, without any elevation on its banks higher than 25 feet above low water, until it again strikes the hills at Pocahontas.
   Between the limits of this examination the principal tributaries are Cane Creek, Current River, and Fourche Dumas, in Arkansas, and a large number of sloughs in Missouri, which drain the country between this stream and the Saint Francis River, one of which connects the two rivers, and in which the current has either an easterly or westerly direction, according to the water-level in the two streams.
   The total drainage area of the Black River and its tributaries may be estimated at 8,000 square miles.
The river frequently divides itself into branches; hence we have Dan’s River, Little River, and Catharine Slough. Again, sloughs fork into the swamps, which in the dry season much diminish the quantity of water in the river.
   Throughout its whole length the river pursues a very winding course. The bottom lands are low, varying from 18 feet at Poplar Bluff to 2 feet in places at Dan’s River, and from 18 to 20 feet at Pocahontas above low water, while the difference of level between extremes of water varies from 18.5 feet at Poplar Bluff to 5 feet at Dan’s River and 26.25 feet at Pocahontas.
   The river-bed is generally sand, or in its lower part sand and clay, sometimes mingled with muscle-shells and fine gravel.
   There are 54 shoals in the river, having a sandy bottom, generally occurring in bends, and which have much increased in size from the quantity of snags and drift wood accumulated in such places.
   These shoals cover an aggregate length of 3.7 miles, but the average depth of water upon them in the low-water season is never less than 2 feet. In addition to these there are three shoals called Cox’s, Fish-Trap, and Rocky, which have a rock bottom of a ferruginous sandstone conglomerate, friable in its nature, and extending over the whole width of the river. The depth on these shoals averages 2 feet in the channel, and their aggregate length is .25 mile. The beginning and termination of these shoals are very abrupt, and the formation is a peculiar one. Borings for wells in the immediate vicinity of the shoals failed to encounter similar rock, but at a depth of 40 or 50 feet a bed of limestone was struck.
   The general depth of the river in its upper part is not great, and the channel is often very narrow. The general width between banks is 1:30 feet, but in some of the “cut offs” the river has made, and in the portion of the main river adjoining Davis and Little Rivers, the width varies 50 to 90 feet ; below the mouth of the Current River the river is 225 feet wide.
   The current of Black River at Poplar Bluff, at low water, when the examination was conducted, had a velocity of six-sevenths mile per hour; in no place did the current exceed a velocity of 1½   miles per hour, except on the three rocky shoals mentioned above.
   I estimate the distance between Poplar Bluff and Pocahontas at 161 miles, and place the fall in the water-surface between those limits at 36 feet.
   As an appendix to this report a list of the shoals is given, their length, width, and depth of low-water channel.

   Leaving the last spur of the Ozark Mountains, on which Poplar Bluff is situated, we enter at once a swampy country, which is annually overflowed to a depth varying from 6 inches to 6 feet.
   On the right bank of the river there is a second bottom, which is very fertile, and is extensively cultivated. On the left bank there are few elevations above overflow, until Gillis's Bluff is reached, forty miles below Poplar Bluff, which is about 24 feet above low water, and of considerable extent; the banks from this point down average higher than above, and exhibit more clay in their composition.
   The upper half of Butler County, Missouri, is not so well adapted for the cultivation of cotton as the lower half. The lands bordering the river in Arkansas are eminently adapted for the production of cotton, and this is the chief farming product. The country adjacent to the river abounds in every kind of timber except pine and cedar, but both of these varieties are found in the hills north and west of Poplar Bluff. The lumber interest is a large one; poplar and cypress are annually rafted in considerable quantities. Poplar is not found below the Arkansas line. The white-oak timber, especially, is worthy of mention; parties are at present engaged in getting out large quantities of it at the head of Dan’s River for ship-building purposes.
   In the Arkansas tract of land lying between the Black and Current Rivers is called the “Cherokee Bay country,” and is probably the most fertile and thickly-settled farming country on the river. On the first terrace of this portion of the valley an excellent quality of black walnut is found, and large quantities of it are under preparation for shipment to New York and Boston.
   Between Poplar Bluff and the mouth of the river there are ten steam saw-mills. A very good quality of iron ore (brown hematite) is found in the north and west parts of Butler county, but no mines have yet been opened.

   Poplar Bluff, the county-seat of Butler county, Missouri, is situated on the right bank of the river, on an elevation 60 feet above low water. In 1870 it had a population of 400, but since that time it has increased to about 800, while the valuation of its real estate has been enhanced over 200 per cent. The extension of the Pilot Knob branch of the Iron Mountain Railroad intersects the Cairo and Fulton Railroad one and three-quarter miles above the town, and the latter road runs directly through it. It is expected that cars will be running to Poplar Bluff in July next.
   The grading of .the Cairo and Fulton Railroad is being rapidly pushed in the State of Arkansas toward and from Little Rock ; the road crosses Black River about ten miles below the State line on the eastern edge of township 20, range 4 east of the fifth principal meridian, and then, confining itself to the left bank, runs parallel to the river at a distance from is of from six to fourteen miles, crosses the White River at Elizabeth, three miles below Jacksonport, thence runs by way of Little Rock to Fulton, Arkansas, on the Red River, and connects with the South Pacific road at some point in Texas.
   The Cape Girardeau and State Line Railroad is at present under construction, and is graded within nineteen miles of Poplar Bluff, where it will intersect the trunk line. The Memphis and Saint Louis Railroad is promised, and will intersect the same line.
   Everything seems to indicate that Poplar Bluff will be the principal town of Southeastern Missouri. As far as railroad facilities are concerned, there are but few inland towns which will surpass it. It at present contains eight stores, which do a business of $120,000 in general merchandise. Goods heretofore were hauled in wagons to the town from Pilot Knob, on the Iron Mountain Railroad, or from Cape Girardeau, on the Mississippi River.
   Pocahontas, the county-seat of Randolph County, Arkansas, is situated on a bluff, 120 feet above low-water mark, on the right bank of the river. The town is the shipping point for a large section of country, extending up Black and Current Rivers, and a regular line of boats is kept up to the town for the entire year. It contains a population of about 800, and sells $350,000 worth of merchandise yearly; 2,500 bales of cotton and about 5,000 dressed hogs were two items in her shipments last year; 1,000 bales of this cotton were raised in the country adjacent to Black and Current Rivers.
   Ten thousand bales of cotton is a low estimate for the entire quantity shipped in the Black River Valley.

Previous Improvements.
Butler County, Missouri, some time before the late rebellion, had donated to her by the State a large quantity of swamp-lauds for internal improvement purposes. In 1850, 13,000 acres of this land were appropriated for the improvement of Black River by the county court, and the work let to contractors. Some little work was done in cutting trees and removing drift-piles for a distance of twelve miles below Poplar Bluff, but the improvement was poorly executed for want of suitable superintendence. In 1867 another appropriation was made of 35,000 acres of the swamp-lands for the same purpose; 15,000 acres were patented to the contractor to provide his outfit, who chartered the steamer Nitronia, (138 feet in length, 24 feet beam, and 20 inches depth of flotation,) which succeeded in reaching Poplar Bluff, from which place the improvement was to commence. On account of some legal complications in which the contractor became involved, no work was done, and his contract abandoned. On the remaining 20, 000 acres the county has made a contract with two of its citizens to run a steamer to Poplar Bluff four times a year for five successive years, without requiring any improvement to be made. The contractors have built a boat at Poplar Bluff (72 feet in length, 20 feet beam, and drawing 18 inches) for the work. No improvement to the river can result from this contract.
   The Missouri legislature of 1870 made an appropriation of $15,000 for the improvement of Black River in Missouri, contingent, however, on the condition that “a provision be made for similar improvement in Arkansas.” Butler County has donated the remainder of her swamp-lands to railroads, and Arkansas has failed to make a provision whereby the $15,000 could be made available.

The principal obstructions to navigation are snags and overhanging trees. From Popular Bluff to the Arkansas State line, a distance of sixty-eight miles, there were counted 2,977 snags and 4,618 overhanging trees. Between the limits of the examination, a distance of one hundred and sixty-eight miles, were counted 7,411 snags and sunken logs, and 10,122 overhanging trees.
   The river is so narrow that trees, in falling into it from its hanks, reach entirely across the stream, and are in the worst position for removal.
   I do not recommend that any improvements be made on the shoals, other than removing snags, except on the three shoals mentioned as having rock bottom, where the channel might he advantageously widened and the depth increased.
   As before stated, there are many sloughs and cut-offs, which, as they draw large quantities of water from the main river, should be closed up by dams. Commencing with a slough above Poplar Bluff, there are 14 places where dams should be built, involving an aggregate length of 1,200 feet. Low stone and brush dams would be well adapted for this purpose, hut as stone can only he procured at great expense, “snag-dams,” held in place by piles, will have to be resorted to.
   These dams should not be built much above usual low-water mark, in order that the water during freshets may flow over them into the sloughs, and thus prevent the excessive overflow which would ensue should the water be confined to the main banks of the river.
   There are five drift-piles in the river above the Arkansas State line, more or less obstructing navigation, and upon which some work should be done ; also a wreck of an old stave-boat, which should be removed.
   In operating for improvement upon streams the size of Black River, it being about three hundred miles from Poplar Bluff to its mouth, and its general width very narrow, it is of almost an absolute necessity to use a boat having some propelling power of its own, in order to place the snags pulled out of the way of passing steamboats. When such a boat shall have been furnished, I present the following estimate for improving Black River from Poplar Bluff to Pocahontas :

Pulling 7,411 snags and sunken logs, 20 months' work, at $3,000 per month…$60, 000
Cutting 10,122 trees, at 50 cents per tree………………………………………….5,061
Work on 5 drift-piles, and wreck of stave-boat……………………………………3,000
Pile-driver, delivered, (hand or animal power)……………………………………1,500
1,200 linear feet snag-dams, at $5 per foot………………………………………..6,000
Work on rock shoals……………………………………………………………….5,000
       80, 561
Add for engineering and superintendence……………………………………….10,000
Total estimate……………………………………………………………………90,561

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Civil Engineer.
General W. F. Raynolds,
Lieutenant -Colonel, Corps of Engineers, U.S. A. 

      Chief’s Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers to the Secretary of War for the Year 1872. Page 387 – 381. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. Accessed 07 July, 2019.

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