REX NELSON: The land of rivers

The Fourche River begins in the hills of Ripley County, Mo., and flows south into Arkansas. The river continues its journey for about 20 miles through Randolph County before joining the Black River. Members of the Osage tribe once hunted and fished along this river. White settlers began arriving in the early 1800s.

Henry Schoolcraft, the noted geographer and geologist, visited the region in 1818 and wrote that the Fourche River Valley was "better calculated for agriculture than those of the Eleven Point and Strawberry."

This Fourche River should not be confused with the Fourche La Fave River, which is in west-central Arkansas, or Fourche Creek, which drains Little Rock. This spring-fed stream and its surrounding countryside is the subject of a book I wrote about in Saturday's column, The Fourche River Valley by former state Rep. Harmon Seawel of Pocahontas.

German immigrants came here in the late 19th century and founded communities such as Engelberg. Seawel notes that the area earlier had been "an Anglo-Saxon seedbed for the settlement of Arkansas and the Old Southwest."

He describes the river: "Taking a serpentine route with many curves and bends, our ancestral watercourse gradually changes character from a swift-running, gravel and rock bottom ... foothills creek to a slow-moving lowland river where the most prevalent species are largemouth bass, bream, crappie, channel and flathead catfish and freshwater drum. From a fishing perspective (is there any other?), it is a six-day jonboat float from the Arkansas-Missouri line to where the Fourche enters the Black River, just north of Pocahontas. Review of a map and calculation of overland distances make this timetable difficult to comprehend. Two factors account for the river travel time. The river's route is unusually circuitous, and the number of shallow shoals, fallen trees and drifts from bank to bank defies belief.

"Many an intrepid floater has found himself stranded hours from the next takeout point. In recent years, it has become almost impossible to get anyone younger than me to undertake a day's float fishing trip. ... You can't keep them paddling down the Fourche when they have seen Lake Norfork and have access to a bass boat. My only hope is to persuade another old man with fond memories of a misspent youth to go with me. As one can imagine, I often go by myself."

Except for those raised here, few Arkansans know much about these eastern Ozark hills. As a smallmouth bass fisherman, I've long been enchanted by this land of rivers. In addition to the Fourche, there's the Spring, the South Fork, the Current, the Eleven Point, the Little Black and the Strawberry.

Mammoth Spring, which releases more than nine million gallons each hour in the town named for it, is the headwater of the Spring. The South Fork begins near Salem in Fulton County and flows east before joining the Spring near Cherokee Village. There are two fish hatcheries on the Spring. Mammoth Spring National Fish Hatchery is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A couple of miles downstream, the Jim Hinkle Spring River State Fish Hatchery is operated by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

"Two small dams are on the Spring, both near the origin of the stream," Charles Crawford writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "They are too near the headwaters to provide flood control, thus leaving much of the river in a fairly natural state. The upper part contains numerous rocky rapids, waterfalls and pools containing drifts and underwater snags. Floods occur frequently, some of them reaching 30 to 40 feet above flood level. Three of these--in 1915, 1982 and 2008--damaged homes, destroyed bridges and claimed lives."

The Spring empties into the Black River near Black Rock in Lawrence County. A bit upstream from the mouth of the river, the Eleven Point empties into the Spring near Davidsonville Historic State Park. Like the Fourche, the Eleven Point begins in Missouri. It flows through the Mark Twain National Forest and enters the state in Randolph County. It's fed by dozens of springs.

The Flood Control Act of 1938 authorized a dam on the Eleven Point in Arkansas, but public opposition prevented that from happening. President Harry Truman established the Arkansas-Red-White River Basin Interagency Committee, and the committee recommended in 1954 that the Eleven Point and Current rivers not be dammed. Congress later appropriated money for another study. The Upper Eleven Point River Association was formed to oppose a dam. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommended in April 1965 that a proposed dam be de-authorized.

The Current River also begins in Missouri and crosses into Arkansas at the border between Randolph and Clay counties. The river starts at the confluence of Montauk Spring and Pigeon Creek. Other springs feed into the river along its trip south. It flows for almost 40 miles in Arkansas, transforming from a mountain stream to a lowland stream before entering the Black River. The Little Back River flows into the Current near Datto in Randolph County.

The Strawberry River begins southwest of Salem and flows southeast for about 90 miles before emptying into the Black River in Independence County. It is yet another Ozark stream that was the subject of a long, contentious fight to keep it from being dammed. The Bell Foley Dam was proposed just northeast of Poughkeepsie in Sharp County. Then-Gov. David Pryor led the fight against the dam.


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 01/29/2020

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