1836 Survey: White & Black Rivers

[Report written in 1837]
White and Black Rivers.
The following are the reports made by the two Topographical Engineers who were sent to this State last spring to make a survey of White and Black rivers, to ascertain their capacity for improvement.

Vicksburg, Mississippi, August 1, 1837.
   Sir- In obedience to your instructions of the 21st of March last [1836]; directing me to complete the survey of the St. Francis, White, and Black rivers, which had been begun the year before, and for which an additional appropriation had been made, I directed my movements toward Missouri, intending to commence my labors by making the examination of the Black river, which lies partly within the State. Having arrived at Memphis, Tennessee, where was deposited public property necessary to the discharge of this duty, I directed my assistant, Joseph D. Webster, Esq., to proceed to a certain point on Black river, and there make the necessary arrangements for commencing the survey, intending to join him as soon as practicable. Ill health, however, detained me several weeks on the Mississippi, and again in Arkansas, in consequence of which I did not join Mr. Webster until he had completed the examination of Black river to its junction with White river. The accompanying descript, via memoir, furnished by that gentleman, in obedience to my instructions, embodies his observations, and gives a very favorable view of the subject. Thus it appears that from the crossing of the road leading from Greenville, Missouri, to Batesville, Arkansas, which is as high as it would be useful to attempt to improve it, in an estimated distance of two hundred and eighty-four miles. Black river has but two very serious obstructions, “the big and little rafts,” the first, two hundred and forty-four miles from its confluence with White river, the last thirteen miles below the former; both of which, is believed, may be remove without much difficulty or cost. At each of these points, the of the river is divided by an island, which, by scattering the water over a wide surface, have so reduced its depth as to create an insuperable obstacle to a constant navigation, if artificial means be not employed to remedy the evil. The use of a few miles, and the timber of the "raft" at hand, so disposed as to cut off one of the channels, it is believed, would throw all the water into the other, and cause the soft and fragile soil, which composes the bottom of this stream, to be so excavated, that an uninterrupted navigation for boats drawing at least four feet of water would be secured throughout the year. Besides these two rafts, the obstructions to navigations consists in snags and overhanging trees throughout   the whole course of the river, and in several shoals formed by the diversion of a part of the water from its proper channel, through small bayous or natural canals. These have been formed apparently by some violent convulsion of nature, which has disrupted the whole region of country, and left the banks of the river, to many places, but little elevated above its waters, even in the lower lowest state; but, as they are narrow and often deep, they may easily be dammed in the manner indicated above, and the same effects upon the main channel may reasonably be hoped for. 

   Passing down the Black river to its junction the Currant (sic) river, it presents a channel broad and deep, and with these characteristics it continues about one hundred and thirty miles, to its confluence with White river; and there exist no other obstructions than numerous snags, and one chain of rocks lying across the bed of the stream, over which there is at the lowest seasons from four to six feet of water, and ordinarily nine feet. The depth is variously reported. An occasional freshet at the time of the examination presented an accurate personal observation. 

   Below is presented an estimate of the cost of removing these obstructions; and notwithstanding the difficulty of arriving at an accurate result, arising out of the different degrees, of firmness with which the logs and snags are lodged in the bottom and banks of the river, the greater or less tendency of the soil, and the utter impossibility of ascertaining precisely the amount of labor to be performed, yet it is believed that this estimate, based upon the cost of similar work done elsewhere, will prove to be near to the truth. 

   As your instructions make it incumbent open me to advert to the question of the expediency of removing these obstructions, it is necessary I should state, that, according to the representation of credible persons, a very large quantity or valuable land belonging to the Government exists on or near this river, and within a district reported unfit for survey, which, unless this improvement be made, must forever remain uninhabited and unsold. But besides this consideration of pecuniary gain, there is another, of far greater importance to a paternal Government, suggested by the fact, that the inhabitants of the country embracing the head waters of St. Francis and Black rivers, who are now debarred all access to a market, except by a very expensive land carriage, would, were the improvement made find themselves relieved of a very great burden and bar to their prosperity; while the rich mines of metallic ore with which this region is stored, would then prove a source of revenue to the Government, and of wealth and population to the State within which they are situated. 

8,000 snags and logs to be removed at $1…………….. $8,000 00
1,000 overhanging trees to be cut, at $1…………………1,000 00
200 piles to be driven, at $10………………………..…...2,000 00
10 per cent, for contingencies............................................1,100 00
2 snag boats, to be worked by hand...……………………4,000 00
1 pile driver…………………………………………………700 00
                                                                                        $16,800 00

  I have provided for boats to be worked by hand, because of the small depth of water which would draw: I, however, they should not prove adequate to the labor to be performed, the expense would be considerably enhanced, as the smallest sized steam-boat, proper for the object, would cost from sixteen thousand to eighteen thousand dollars.

White river - This river lies almost exclusively within the limits of Arkansas; and receives Black river at a distance of about three hundred and fifty miles from its confluence with the Mississippi. Below its junction with that stream, it flows through a flat, alluvial country, with gentle current: its channel is broad and deep; and it is represented by pilots of steamboats and every one who has navigated it, to be as free from obstructions to navigation, at all seasons of the year, as the Mississippi itself. Indeed, such was the universality favorable report of its character, and that I did not deem it necessary to make any inspection of it. But, above the mouth of Black, river, its character changes with that of the country through which it winds its way. Here, high, barren, rocky ridges, break the face of the country, and, constantly increasing in altitude, in a few miles assume the character of mountains, which close in upon the river, and present a constant succession of mural precipices, many hundred feet high, on one side, while they give room for very narrow strips of alluvial land on the other. As might be expected, the river presents a rapidly increasing current as you ascend it, and running over beds of rock which have yielded unequally to its cutting power, an alternative of rapids and deep pools of comparatively gentle water is constantly met with; these give, however, an average current of very great velocity, in seasons of flood.  These rapids, of course, form great obstacles to navigation, both by the rapidity of their current, and the diminished depth of water which they present. But besides these obstructions, there are others quite as formidable, arising from the detritus of the hills and bottoms, which, in its comminuted form, causes sand-bars and shoals, wherever the channel is expanded and the current checked; while the larger and more angular masses expose descending boats to very great hazards. Trees, too, borne down by the floods, have lodged occasionally in the sand, and naturally occupying the deepest water, very materially obstruct the navigation: but their number is small, especially in the higher parts of the river. 

   It was in the month of July that I made an examination of this river; a season when the water is usually in its lowest state, but owing to heavy rains about that time, it was swollen to from two to four feet above low water mark; information, however, from experienced pilots, added to my own observations, which were materially aided by the beautifully clear and pellucid character of the water, enabled me to obtain, I believe, all the necessary facts.

   Ascending then from the mouth of Black river forty-two miles to Batesville, a flourishing town, and the principal one of Independence county, the obstructions consist in numerous “snags,” lodged in the channel, and in several shoals, the chief of which are at Bates’s and Beaver islands, where sand-bars reduce the water, in dry seasons, to a depth of two and a half feet. Above Batesville, I conducted my examination ninety-five miles, or one hundred and thirty-seven above the mouth of Black river, to “Buffalo shoal,” a very formidable rapid; passing, in about fifty-five miles, the month of “Piney bayou,” where is established the court-house of Izard county: and, in eighty-four miles, the mouth of “North Fork,” a considerable branch of White river. I did not advance any higher up, because those persons best acquainted with the river thought it unnecessary, on account of the rugged character of the stream above, and because the present condition of the country did not seem to make it necessary, had that character been different. In this portion of the river, the obstacles are: A few snags lodged in the channel, numerous rocks, some firm in chains and in isolated masses, but the greater part being detached upon the bottom, and a great number of shoals; the principle ones being “Blue spring shoal,” “Tour’s shoal,” “Cagin’s Island shoal,” a shoal at the foot of “Calico rock,” one at the mouth of “Friends creek,” and “Crooked rapids,” respectively, 7, l8, 27, 64, 72, and 78 miles above Batesville. All of these, except the last, are caused by bars of fine sand and gravel, and have no more than from eighteen to twenty inches depth of water in the dry season.  In the last one channel is divided by an island, and the water rushes with great swiftness for about a half mile over a bed of rocks, sometimes smooth and sometimes rising in ledges; but the greater part of the way in loose masses, of rather small size. 

   To remove all these obstructions would be very difficult; the logs and snags might be easily taken up, as they have been in other rivers, and the rocks might be raised and transported out of the channel; but any attempt to increase the depth of water in the shoal would be attended with great cost and would be of very doubtful effect; for, as the greater number of them are formed by the deposit of sand and fine gravel in bars where the expansion of the bed of the stream checks the current, and these are shifting their position at each successive flood, it is clear that a wing-dam, or any such work, to contract the channel at any particular point, would only have the effect of transferring the obstacles from one point to another; and that, to be effectual, it should be as extensive as the expansion of the river. But, as the natural and actual condition of the country, and a view of its eventual wants, would not, in my judgment, justify so large an expenditure as would be required to perfect this scheme, I cannot recommend any other improvement than the removal of the snags and projecting rocks from the channel of the river. This object might be effected without much cost, and would render the navigation secure, wherever it was at all practicable.

   Finally, the “expediency” of making this improvement seems hardly to admit of a doubt; for several counties in Arkansas are wholly dependent upon this stream for access to market; and their produce, transported in keels and flat-boats from above Batesville, and from that town in steam-boats are exposed to hazards and losses to a very great amount, annually; whereas, if the navigation of the river, which affords at least three feet of water six months of the year, and sometimes nine months, were rendered safe, large quantities of the public domain would be soon bought, and the mining of iron, lead, and, probably, other valuable ores, in which the region abounds, would be wrought; thus giving increase to the public revenue and wealth and population to the State.

900 snags to be removed, at $1………………....$900
8,000 cubic yards of rock, firm and detached….8,000
Add contingencies 10 per cent…………….……..890
One snag-boat to be worked by hand……….….2,000
Two Scows……………………………………….600


Batesville, Arkansas, July 14, 1837.

   Sir - In obedience to your orders of 30th of April [1836] last, instructing me to make examination of the Black river, with a view to ascertain the practicability of removing the abstractions to its navigation, I proceeded to Stevenson’s ferry, Missouri, where that river is crossed by the road leading from Greenville, Missouri to this place. Having satisfied myself, by inquiry and examination, that, in the event of the removal of the accidental obstructions, navigation could not extend higher than that point, on the 3d of June last I commenced an examination of the stream below.

    I was informed that it usually rises about fifteen feet at the annual spring freshet, and six or eight feet in the fall. At the time of the commencement of my examination it was at its low stage.

For the first six miles I found the river quite variable in width, and depth, ranging, in the former, from one hundred and twenty to three hundred feet; and in the latter, from three to ten. In this distance there were but three places where there was so little as three feet water; and the principal obstacles to navigation were the snags, which numbered about six to the mile. In the next nine miles there are two places where the river is fordable in very low water. At these points I found four and a half feet. For these nine miles the width of the river is from seventy-five to one hundred yards, and there are ten snags and overhanging trees to the mile. Thence for twenty-five miles, to the “big raft,” the river retains a pretty uniform breadth of one hundred yards, and is six and ten feet in depth, the snags being about twelve, and the overhanging trees five, to the mile. 

   Forty miles from the point from which I started the river, it divides itself into two channels, which unite again, seventeen miles by the western and twenty-one by the eastern fork, from the point of separation; thus forming a large island, at the head of which a large collection of drift wood and logs, called the “Big Raft,” extends entirely across the river, choking up both channels. This raft is 235 feet wide in its most compact part above the head of the island, and 350 feet long, from its upper to its lower edge in the western channel, though not more than 125 feet of this length is compact. 

   In the eastern channel its extreme length is somewhat greater, but its formation is much less compact, most of the logs being moveable, and with considerable spaces of open water between many of them; whereas, in the western, the mass of logs is so firmly united that small trees are growing on it almost across its whole breadth. The water is seven and ten feet deep on both sides the raft, in each channel. Below the raft, both divisions of the river are much obstructed by logs and snags and overhanging trees, particularly in the western, in which they will average from 20 to 30 in the mile, and in the eastern from 15 to 20.  In the latter, about 13 miles below the “big raft,” occurs a small island, the passes on both sides of which are so much obstructed as to be impassable, except for a canoe; this is called the “little raft.” The passage on the west of this island is 90 feet wide, filled up a distance of 7 feet in length, and a considerable portion of the logs loose and moveable. That on the east is from 10 to 15 feet wide, obstructed for a greater distance, and the logs firmly fixed and overgrown with shrubbery. 

   With the exception of one third of a mile below the “big raft,” where there is a deposit of loose sand, leaving the stream 3 and 4 feet deep, I found an average depth of 5 feet for seven miles, when the river receives the outlet of a large lake on the east, and from this point to the “little raft,” it has a depth of 10 and 15 feet. Half a mile below the “little raft,” where three large outlets, called in this part of the country “sloughs,” run off across the island to the western channel, there is a sand bar extending across the stream, and a mile and a half in length, on which the depth of the water varies from 2½ to 5 feet, and the banks are quite low, about a foot and a half above water. In the western channel there is a similar shallow, somewhat more than two miles in length, and affording a less quantity of water than that in the eastern. Above the point where the eastern channel loses the water by the outlet above mentioned, it receives a considerable quantity from the western, in drains running across the island in a southeastern direction, and the shallow in the western is between the points where this quantity of water is discharged, and more received by the outlets first mentioned. These are about 15 feet wide, and 5 and 7 feet deep. I learned from a person well acquainted with the part of the river, that the depth of water in the eastern channel had increased within a short period. Below this bar, to the lower end of the island, where the two forks of the river unite, logs, snags, and over, hanging trees, constitute the only material obstructions. 

   Proceeding further down, I found logs and snags continuing to be the only obstacles, for a distance of seventy miles, where there occurs another division of the river into two parts, a large fork running off to the left from the main river. The principal channel makes a bend at an angle of 75 or 80 degrees, and that on the left runs in the direction of the stream above. Commencing near the point of separation is a sand bar similar to those noticed above, having from two and a half to four feet of water, and two miles long. The banks here are quite low, about a foot and a half above water. Below the point of separation, the left band fork divides itself into many branches, called the “Ten sloughs;” these are much obstructed by logs and cypress trees. They unite into one stream, which comes into the main river about twenty miles below the point of separation. From this place to the mouth of Currant (sic) river, I found an average depth of ten feet water, and no impediments to navigation, but the logs and snags. The Currant (sic) is a broad and rapid stream, and below its influx there are but two or three places where there is ever so little water as six feet. At the “Eagle rifle” there is a broad shoal, but the passage to the right, although narrow, affords a sufficiency of water, and would be quite passable were the snags, which now render it dangerous, removed. 

   From the best information I could get on the subject, I was led to believe that the water in the lower part of the river, at the time of my descending it, was three and four feet above its low stage, consequently concealing many of the snags from view. I have conversed with several gentlemen, who have been up the river at a low stage, some one hundred and thirty miles, and from information communicated by them, and my own observation of the nature of the banks, I think that an estimate of twenty snags to the mile, for the last two hundred and fifty miles, will be found near the truth.
As to the considerations of general economy bearing upon the expediency of removing; the obstruction to the navigation of this river, I was unable, after a good deal of inquiry, to obtain information so definite as I wished. But sufficient elicited to show the direct utility of such an improvement to a large portion of the people of the southern part of Missouri and the northern part of Arkansas, as well as the government by rendering valuable large bodies of public lands which are now uncultivated, from the want of access to a market for the produce of their fertility.

I have the honor to be,
Very respectfully,
Jos. D. Webster
U. S. Assistant Civil Engineers
W. B. Guion, Esq.
U. S. Assistant Civil Engineers

Weekly Arkansas Gazette, 21 Feb. 1838, page 1. Little Rock, AR. Newspapers.com.

Note: this Report was also publish in the Weekly Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock, Arkansas, Wed, Feb. 21, 1838 · Page 1.

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