This is the end of the road. A large grain truck, kicking up dust behind it, rumbles onto Arkansas 44 from behind the sign announcing that state maintenance has ended. Once the truck disappears, it's eerily quiet. It's a Friday afternoon, and I've pulled into the parking lot of the post office at Snow Lake in Desha County.
There's no one else around. If you were to ask Arkansans to name the most isolated community in the state, they likely would pick a place in the mountains. But it's here in the Delta, just west of the Mississippi River and just north of the bottomland wilderness where the White and Arkansas rivers empty into the Mississippi.
To reach Snow Lake, I took Arkansas 44 out of Helena and continued south for almost 50 miles. The highway dead-ends at Snow Lake, and there are no other highways in or out. When Snow Lake residents have to drive to the Desha County Courthouse at Arkansas City to take care of business, the trip takes more than two hours since there are no vehicular bridges over the White and Arkansas rivers south of here. They must go far to the north to cross the White River at St. Charles and then head back south to cross the Arkansas River at Pendleton. The length of that trip is more than 120 miles one way.
The drive from Helena took me along Old Town Lake, a large Mississippi River oxbow, at Lake View and Wabash. I then passed through Elaine, the last community of any size. After Elaine, it was 25 miles of bad road to Snow Lake. If there's a state highway in worse shape than this one, I can't think of it. Tractors and other farm equipment have created ruts and potholes. I slowed down considerably to avoid tire damage as I passed through the tiny communities of Mellwood, Lundell and Crumrod in Phillips County.
While crossing a levee just after leaving Snow Lake to head back north, I notice a historical marker in high grass to my right. I stop my car and walk to the marker that was placed on the levee by the Desha County Historical Society during the U.S. Bicentennial celebration of 1976. The marker notes that this is part of the Laconia Circle Levee. The levee's circular construction is so unusual that it once was featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not.
"The levee encircled Laconia Circle, which consists of 18,000 acres ... in Desha County, for protection against potential flooding from the Mississippi and White rivers," Rachel Miller writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "It was the first levee in the Arkansas Delta to be affected by the Great Flood of 1927. Before the Civil War, 14 plantation homes were protected by the levee. The levee and the township were named after the Laconia Landing, one of the most active steamboat landings on the Mississippi River at the time. Desha County's levee system is separated into two parts. The levees of Mississippi Township make up the northern part, with the remaining levees making up the southern part."
Not only is this now among the most isolated areas of the state, it's one of the poorest. At the time of the Civil War, however, it was perhaps the most prosperous part of Arkansas.
A 1973 publication from the Desha County Historical Society noted that in addition to the plantations, the area in the 1880s boasted of "50,000 acres of cleared alluvial land, second only to the Nile River land in productivity; cotton farming as a way of life; transportation by river; seven stores, two schools, two saloons and three or four doctors."
Though the land is still productive, the Great Flood of 1927 marked the beginning of the end when it came to palatial homes and a sizable population base.
"By late March 1927, the Laconia Circle Levee was showing signs of deterioration from the continuous heavy rainfall," Miller writes. "Government snag boats were sent to Laconia Circle to monitor the failing levee. The boats were positioned close to the levee shoulder, which was the backbone of the structure. The shoulder rose above the levee proper and was rapidly weakening from holding back the 51-foot flood stage of the Mississippi River. On March 29, a snag boat anchored near the levee sounded the first alarm, notifying the community of an impending break. The plantation bells of the circle assumed the distress call, and the residents of the area, consisting of plantation owners and tenant farmers, began the evacuation to safe ground."
A train waited at the depot in Snow Lake to take people away. According to the Arkansas Gazette, about 2,000 residents were taken to camps at Helena and McGehee. Many were housed in boxcars due to a shortage of tents.
Almost 200 men stayed behind and worked long shifts to save the Laconia Circle Levee.
"At midnight on Tuesday, March 30, the levee seemed to be holding," Miller writes. "A few minutes later, a large section of the levee sloughed off into the river. It was evident to the work crew that the levee was failing, and the remaining government boats sounded the distress call again, warning any stragglers in the circle of the levee's demise. The levee quickly broke apart. By 2 a.m., it had given way completely. The rushing waters of the Mississippi River left a hole more than 300 feet long in the levee wall. Within a couple of hours, the entire Laconia Circle was inundated with floodwaters up to 20 feet deep in some areas. The circle was transformed into a huge vat where the water stayed throughout the summer and far into the fall."
Twelve of the 14 plantation homes were gone. Snow Lake's best days were in the past.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 05/08/2019