The trip will take me all the way across south Arkansas--from Mississippi to Texas on U.S. 82. On the first day, I drive by two bodies of water that have been important to the history of this region, Lake Chicot and Bayou Bartholomew. After beginning the journey at the bridge that crosses the Mississippi River, I travel along the western shore of Lake Chicot, the largest oxbow lake in North America at almost 5,000 acres.
"Until the 1920s, water from Lake Chicot was considered pure enough that the city of Lake Village used it untreated," writes Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster. "However, that changed later in the decade as work on the Mississippi River levee began. To prevent flooding behind the levee, Cypress Creek Gap, through which flowed drainage north of Lake Chicot to the Mississippi, was closed.
"A new system of ditches and canals diverted drainage waters southward. In 1926-27, the local drainage district extended Connerly Bayou on the lake's northern end to connect Lake Chicot with nearby Macon Lake, with drainage extended through Ditch Bayou on the lake's southern end."
The Great Flood of 1927 caused the dam on Connerly Bayou to break. Silt poured into Lake Chicot, and water levels dropped. Bowing to pressure from state officials in Little Rock, the drainage district built a dam on Ditch Bayou in 1932 in an attempt to restore the lake to its normal level. That dam later washed out.
"Beginning in the 1940s, increased clearing and cultivation of the surrounding watershed, combined with the growing use of pesticides on farmland, left the lower three-quarters of the lake (south of where Connerly Bayou entered it) a polluted and sediment-laden waste, its muddy brown water in dramatic contrast with the bright blue of the upper part of the lake, which was isolated by an earthen dam constructed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in 1948 to protect that portion," Lancaster writes.
A concrete dam was built across Ditch Bayou in 1956, but silt continued to enter the lake. What had once been among the South's great spots for bass fishing almost saw the end of recreational use, with the exception of the northern part of the lake.
The Game and Fish Commission joined forces with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Chicot County Rural Development Authority beginning in 1968. It was known as the Lake Chicot Project. A dam was built on Connerly Bayou with gates that could open or close depending on water quality. Dirty water was diverted to a pumping plant that sent it to the Mississippi River via Rowdy Bend.
"Obtaining the necessary funding for the project took time," Lancaster writes. " The pumping plant was installed in 1985. That year, the Corps drew down the lake to compact the sediment on the bottom, and seeded it with plants that would provide a food base for fish. Game fish were restocked. Within a few years, the lake had largely recovered."
I consider it one of the most impressive government projects ever done in the Arkansas Delta. Our state's largest natural lake had been restored. Lake Chicot was beautiful again.
Leaving Montrose as I drive west, I cross Bayou Bartholomew, the longest bayou in the country. It begins near Pine Bluff and then goes through Jefferson, Lincoln, Desha, Drew, Chicot and Ashley counties before entering Louisiana, where it flows through Morehouse Parish. Bartholomew empties into the Ouachita River. Before the railroads came to this part of Arkansas, the bayou was the primary transportation corridor.
Area residents once used the bayou as their major recreational site. They drank from it, fished in it, swam in it and were baptized in it. With the clearing of timber, sediment polluted the stream, and it became jammed with logs. Curtis Merrell of Monticello organized the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance in 1995 to bring the stream back to life. The group began monitoring water quality, planting trees along the banks, picking up trash and removing logs and other obstructions.
"The present bayou bed was formed by the waters of the Arkansas River during a period when it was constantly changing course," writes Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey, the foremost expert on the bayou. "About 1,800 to 2,200 years ago, the river diverted from the present area of the bayou, and the leisurely bayou began to develop in the old riverbed. The first inhabitants along the bayou were Native Americans, who left artifacts along the banks from its source to its mouth.
"French explorers crossed the bayou in 1687. Henri Joutel, a member of the ill-fated La Salle expedition, left Texas that year in search once again of the Mississippi River. Among the six men he chose to go with him was 'Little Bartholomew, the Parisian.' His party crossed the Saline River and the bayou and eventually found Arkansas Post, where Bartholomew stayed. It's likely that the bayou was named after this young Parisian."
By the 1830s, there were steamboats on the bayou, hauling out cotton and timber. Commerce halted during the Civil War but resumed soon after the war.
"In southeast Arkansas, the major ports were at Poplar Bluff (present-day Parkdale in Ashley County), Portland, Thebes, Boydell and Baxter," DeArmond-Huskey writes. "All steamboating was a treacherous business, but according to Ben Lucien Burman, who boated on both large rivers and bayous, 'bayou steamboating was steamboating at its worst.' The bayou was much more narrow and shallow than the river, and pilots had to avoid sharp bends, shoals, snags and overhanging trees."
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.