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story.lead_photo.caption A mock-up of a steamboat from the mid-19th century is displayed at Arkansas River Visitor Center. (Photo by Marcia Schnedler, special to the Democrat-Gazette)

RUSSELLVILLE — The recent severe flooding across the Natural State gives a timely spin to one exhibit's bold headline at the Arkansas River Visitor Center just southwest of Russellville.

"A River With a Mind of Its Own" is the wording, which fairly describes the onslaught of water that surged eastward through the state in late May and early June. Ranked as the worst Arkansas River flooding of the 21st century, it might gain a future display panel at the visitor center, which offers sweeping views of Dardanelle Lock and Dam from its balcony.

Maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the visitor center offers a brisk account of life along the river from prehistoric times to the present. The generally upbeat narrative details the work done mainly since World War II by the Corps, sometimes criticized for having altered nature too extensively:

"In its natural state, the Arkansas River was often unpredictable and destructive. It flooded in 1898, bringing six to ten feet of water into Van Buren, Argenta, Pine Bluff and other cities in the region.

"Three years later, an equally disastrous drought followed. The Arkansas River slowed to a mere trickle — no more than three feet deep in some places. Hundreds of Arkansans were financially ruined. But the worst was yet to come.

"In 1927, spring rains brought another flood. Before it was over, half the state was under water. Rescue vessels steamed beyond the river channels to pick stranded families out of tree tops. Several thousand head of cattle were lost and millions of dollars in property destroyed.

"In 1936, the state was hit again by floods, and again the next year. Waters of the river became polluted, partly by salt and runoff from the Oklahoma oil fields, as well as by industrial wastes and raw sewage. The water could not even be used for irrigation, according to a Corps engineering report, unless dams and reservoirs were constructed to induce the settling of impurities."

Despite the treacherous nature of the untamed Arkansas River, it became a major transportation artery in the decades before the Civil War. An information panel notes that the first steamboat to go upstream was the Comet, which reached Arkansas Post on March 31, 1820. This began transforming travel by water here, two years before the Eagle became the first vessel to make it to newly founded Little Rock.

In 1868, there were 23 steamboat landings between Petit Jean and Roseville, including Patterson's Bluff, Spada, Shoal Creek, Scotia, Norristown and Galla Rock — some of those being places long since vanished from the map. The rapid expansion of railroads after the Civil War much diminished the river's role as a commercial route. The Corps' partial taming of the waterway has helped revive that function in recent decades.

Visitors to the center likely will have a more direct interest in another offshoot of the damming, described in an information panel:

"In constructing the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, the Corps impounded five large lakes and 12 smaller navigation pools on the Arkansas and Verdigris rivers and six large lakes on the tributaries of the Arkansas River. ...

"To enhance recreation, the Corps has constructed and maintains over 130 parks on the system offering overnight camp. Camping, hiking, boating, water skiing, fishing, hunting and scenic beauty are all a part of today's Arkansas River."

One of those facilities, Old Post Road Park, lies below the visitor center. Now open again after river levels receded, it offers campsites, picnic pavilions, a boat ramp, sports fields and off-road bicycle trails. The park is the former site of now-gone Norristown, briefly the seat of Pope County in 1834, back when the untamed river was an important if hazardous artery.

Arkansas River Visitor Center, at 1598 Lock and Dam Road off Arkansas 7, is open free of charge 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday. For more information, visit or call (479) 968-5008.

Style on 07/16/2019

Print Headline: ARKANSAS SIGHTSEEING: River's history flows at visitor center

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