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OPINION | REX NELSON: Spring River country

by Rex Nelson | November 29, 2020 at 9:17 a.m.

Living up to its name, the Spring River begins at a massive spring in the town of Mammoth Spring. From there, the river flows almost 75 miles through north Arkansas before joining the Black River near Black Rock in Lawrence County.

The big spring on the Arkansas-Missouri border is one of the great natural wonders in a state that's filled with them. It produces more than nine million gallons of water per hour through a vent that's 80 feet below the surface of Spring Lake. The small lake was formed by a dam just downstream from the spring at what's now Mammoth Spring State Park.

"Despite the attempts of modern researchers to dive into the waters, little has been discerned about the geophysical origins of the spring," Sarah Simers writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

"Geologists and other scientists believe that the spring is a release valve for a complex underground river system. According to folklore, when an Indian chief attempted to bury his son, a warrior who had died looking for water, the spring sprung from the earth and saved the tribe from devastation. Between the time of the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War, trappers and settlers referred to the site as the Head of the Waters.

"The original village site had been established long before in Missouri, near what was called the Harry Turnstall Spring, known today as Old Town. Settlers did make homesteads around the spring on the Arkansas side of the line, but section lines split the spring into four 40-acre plots. No one person owned the spring before the railroads were built. William Allen and Bill Mills established farms and built gristmills at the spring in the 1850s. Civil War historians believe the first phase of what became known as the Action at Spring River was fought near the spring on the Arkansas side."

Several miles downstream, the Spring River is joined by the South Fork, which flows east from its headwaters near Salem. I've floated the South Fork on several occasions since it features some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in the state.

Because of cold water coming from the spring, the Spring River is stocked with trout. In addition to trout fishing, the Spring welcomes thousands of floaters each summer who are attracted to its constant flow and cool water. Wild alcohol-fueled parties have been known to break out along the river, which is popular with college students and other young people. It's Arkansas' outdoor version of Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

The constant supply of cold, clear water attracted Native Americans, who maintained villages along the Spring River. The first white settlement began soon after the War of 1812.

The town of Mammoth Spring began as a railroad stop. It brought visitors in the late 1800s and early 1900s, turning the community into a vacation spot. What would later become the Frisco line extended its tracks between Springfield, Mo., and Memphis, passing near the spring.

"The railroad company bought a piece of land between the spring and river from the Dearthridge family, thought to be Irish Catholic, and there built a station and depot," Simers writes. "According to local historian Vester Williams, railroad developers realized a bridge would be needed. The town was hence moved from Missouri to Arkansas. This same bridge is also Dam No. 1, which was destroyed by floods in 1915, rebuilt later that decade and eventually made part of Mammoth Spring State Park.

"Once the railroad was established, people came to the new town looking for economic opportunities. Napoleon Hill, a Memphis native who promoted the town, also founded the first school in 1888. The Mammoth Spring Improvement Co. built two more dams farther down the Spring River. In 1927, Mammoth Spring became the first town in the region to have electricity, which was powered through the dams."

The old dams, rocky rapids, waterfalls and swirling pools of water can make the upper part of the river dangerous for floaters. Floods occur frequently below where the South Fork enters the Spring. There were major floods in 1915, 1982 and 2008.

"Only the dams on the Spring River remain as testimonies to industrialization, as the enterprises to pass through Mammoth Spring failed to find long-term success," Simers writes. "From the 1880s to the 1920s, Mammoth Spring had a textile mill, a shoe manufacturing plant and a soda bottling factory. Calumet Cotton was the major employer in 1889 and was described as a two-story brick textile mill with 120 looms, 5,000 spindles and 150 employees."

Noted Ozarks region historian Brooks Blevins describes the factory as a "rare representative of this Southern industry in the Ozarks."

A poultry processing plant known as Chanticleer Packing Co. opened during the Great Depression and operated until 1956. But tourism became the most important economic sector.

"In 1889, the first large hotel, the Nettleton, was built," Simers writes. "The Culp and Charlton hotels soon followed. Like Eureka Springs and Hot Springs, Mammoth Spring profited from the health crazes of the late 19th century, which recommended bathing in natural spring water as a cure for a host of physical ailments.

"While the spring and the Spring River, which stays a constant 58 degrees, couldn't be marketed as a health resort, Memphis residents often vacationed in the town during the summer months. Finding the climate of the Ozark town to be cooler than the Delta, they built homes on the bluffs overlooking the river."

Railroad passenger service to Mammoth Spring ended in 1968. Tourists had been arriving by automobile for years, though, and fishing was becoming more of an attraction. In 1903, what's now Mammoth Spring National Fish Hatchery was established. It's among the oldest hatcheries in the country. The hatchery long has been involved in the restoration of paddlefish, sturgeon, walleye, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and bluegill in this part of the country. It also has worked on the recovery of endangered freshwater mussels.

The state also operates a hatchery in the area. What's now Jim Hinkle Spring River State Fish Hatchery is the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission's only coldwater hatchery. It's on a seven-acre island just below Dam No 3.

In 1974, a company known as Marine Protein built the hatchery for the purpose of making trout available for sale in grocery stores. The Kroger Co. later bought the hatchery. After operating it for a brief time, the company donated it to the state in 1985. The hatchery was expanded in 2003 and is now one of the largest trout hatcheries in the region.

Concrete vats known as raceways are 60 to 80 feet long and eight feet wide. There are 21 of them at the hatchery, along with 47 in-ground silos. Water enters the upper end of the system and flows out the lower end. Trout are prevented from escaping by a mesh screen over the outflow.

The facility was renamed in 2004 for Hinkle, a former member of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission from Mountain View.

Mammoth Spring State Park, meanwhile, was approved by the Legislature in 1957. The first land wasn't acquired until 1966. The abandoned Frisco depot was leased to the park in 1968. By 1975, most of the land purchases had been completed. The depot was opened to visitors in 1971. It received a renovation in the late 1990s and now features murals and memorabilia.

In March 1987, the state's 10th Arkansas Welcome Center was opened on park property. It houses a gift shop, exhibits and offices. Other state park facilities include a playground, pedal boat rentals on the lake, picnic sites, a baseball field, a pavilion and an overlook at the spring.

Visitors may also tour the old power plant at the dam. The Arkansas-Missouri Power Co. bought rights to the dam in 1925 and built a hydroelectric plant there. It provided power until 1972.

The population of Mammoth Spring peaked at 1,158 in the 1980 census. There were 977 residents in the 2010 census.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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