The Great Red River Raft and its Sedimentological Implications

The Red River Raft was a series of log jams believed to have developed over 2,000 years ago when the Mississippi River avulsed and captured the Red River to the South. Navigation of the Red River and the Red River Raft presented major challenges during the settlement of the Red River Valley. This Raft extended approximately 150 miles along the river from Natchitoches, Louisiana to the Louisiana-Arkansas State line. Several theories on how this raft developed include catastrophic flooding, climatic change, and prehistoric human activities. The presence and eventual clearing of the Raft influenced the geomorphic evolution of the Red River and the Atchafalaya basin as well as changed the geomorphic character of the Red River with considerable physical and historical consequences. Numerous attempts were made to clear parts or even the full extent of the Raft beginning in the 1830s. After years of struggle, the Raft was eventually cleared by AD 1873. In AD 1968, the Red River Waterway navigation effort was authorized providing for a 9 ft., navigation channel from its confluence with the Atchafalaya near Simmsport to Shreveport, Louisiana. The Red River Navigation project consisting of a series of five locks and dams was completed in AD 1994. This chapter will review and describe the historic and current geomorphic evolution of the Red River attributable to the completion of the Red River Navigation Project and the removal of the Raft.


  • Red River
  • Raft
  • Atchafalya
  • Louisiana
  • Army Corps of Engineers

Introduction: The Red River and the Red River Raft

In this chapter we will discuss the geology, geomorphology, and history of the Red River and conclude with a discussion of more recent engineering accomplishments. The Red River of the southern United States is a large alluvial river that originates in the Texas Panhandle region and flows southeast to unite with the Atchafalaya River and Mississippi River at the beginning of the great Mississippi River Delta (Fig. 1). The river is characterized by a series of unique sedimentary and geomorphologic environments that have made major socio-economic impacts in this region throughout history. It also has one of the largest sediment concentrations of all major rivers in the world, and requires a strict maintenance dredging program to keep the 9-foot-deep channel open for navigation. Historically, significant navigational restrictions such as the rapids at Alexandria, Louisiana and a massive log jam known as the “Great Raft” modified the flow and behavior of the river (Foster et al. 1987) and produced some of the most challenging obstacles to river navigation for the early Army Corps of Engineers. Footnote 1

Red River location (Foster et al. 1987, USACE)

The Red River attracted explorers since the early European expansion into America, thereby, initiating the technological and economic development in the region that continues today. The geomorphologic and anthropogenic evolution of Red River was extremely dynamic and was recorded since pre-colonial times by the local Native Americans as well as by early European settlers of the area.

The presence of the Great Red River Raft impeded navigation of the Red River between Alexandria and Shreveport, Louisiana for an extended period of time; the flashy nature of the river and its high sediment load have provided major challenges to the development of navigation, commerce, exploration, and settlement of the area.

The Great Red River Raft was a series of log jams believed to have developed over 2,000 years ago when the Mississippi River avulsed and captured the mouth of the Red River. This entanglement of logs, vegetation, and sediments remained in place for at least a millennium, and altered the flow regime of the Red River causing a complete change in its geomorphic character from a single channel to a series of anastomosing channels. As the Raft grew, the Red River was forced to seek new lateral channels, making a chain of marginal valley lakes and bayous to that part of the river that became congested by the Raft. Research has documented very few other known cases where Rafts exist in the world, and there is no stratigraphic evidence of other, older Rafts in the geologic record. Some Rafts might have existed in Southern Asia and Australia, but have not been documented and do not approach the Great Red River Raft in size or duration.

Theories on how this Raft developed include seasonal climatic patterns, catastrophic flooding, climatic change, and prehistoric human activities. It is believed that the initial formation of the raft was probably triggered by a combination of catastrophic flooding as the Red River was going through some major geomorphic threshold, like the last major avulsion through Moncla Gap (Fig. 2). The shifting geomorphic conditions in conjunction with extensive precipitation (i.e. a pluvial), river bank rotational slips and slab failure, rapid lateral migration, copious rapid growing riparian vegetation exceeding a geomorphic threshold, flashy hydrograph, and a very heavy sediment load are believed to be the main contributors to the development of the Raft.

Big Red Raft location changes through time in the lower Red River (Albertson et al. 1996, The red river raft: geomorphic response, “unpublished”, USACE)

The history of the settlement in the Red River Valley is deeply connected to the Raft. The French influence in the region began with the founding of Natchitoches in AD 1714 at the toe of the Raft (Fig. 2). One hundred years later, the Raft was still in place, and the U.S. owned the region. By AD 1820, the toe of the Raft had moved upstream to Campti (Fig. 1), an area where travelers could obtain equipment to continue to travel on land.

Immigration pressures and westward expansion of America and their belief in the doctrine of manifest destiny required the removal of the Great Raft in the AD 1830s. The USACE, in one of its first large scale river engineering projects, hired Captain Henry Miller Shreve to remove the Raft to improve navigation on the Red River. After years of resistance, intermittent construction efforts, and numerous setbacks, the Raft was eventually cleared by AD 1873. Captain Shreve, Superintendent of River Improvement since AD 1827, opened the River as far as Coates Bluff. Shreveport was founded at the site and became a port of entry to the Republic of Texas and the gateway to the West. Backwaters resulting from the Raft had allowed for navigation up to Jefferson, Texas, but when the raft was removed, the towns and ports located on tributary channels were left high and dry. As a result, water commerce in the region continued to decline while rail services continued to increase (Mills 1978).

Navigational conditions were improved, but the river’s characteristic flashy nature continued and river migration continued. In AD 1938, Denison Dam and Lake Texoma were authorized for construction of flood control structures and hydroelectric power facilities by the Flood Control Act, which was approved on June 28, AD 1938 (Fig. 3). By AD 1944, Denison Dam was completed and was put into operation for flood control. At the time, it was America’s largest rolled, earth-filled dam. The dam is now the 12th largest in volume in the United States. In AD 1968, the Red River Waterway navigation effort was authorized to insure navigation of the Red River from its confluence with the Atchafalaya to Shreveport, Louisiana.

figure 3

Red River Geology

The Red River generally flows southeast to its confluence with the Mississippi River. The total length of the river is 1,360 miles and it drains a basin of approximately 90,000 square miles. It flows through Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic age sedimentary rocks and transports a large amount of red Permian-age sediments, giving the river a reddish color that led to its name (Autin and Pearson 1993; Fig. 4). The Native Americans and Europeans referred to the river by different names such as Napleste (Native American), Rio Rojo, Vermejo, Colorado (Spanish), and Riviere Rouge (French) depending upon the region from which they visited, but usually referred to its characteristic red color during high flows.

Generalized geology of the Red River Valley (modified from Autin and Pearson 1993)

The lower Red River has three geological constrictions of hard Oligocene sandstone located near Texarkana, Texas, at Grand Ecore (near Natchitoches, Louisiana), and at Colfax, Louisiana. The river is also flanked by terraces and uplands of Pleistocene fluvial deposits. The sediments then mix with the fluvial deposits of the Mississippi River as they transition to the broad Pleistocene units of the coastal plain (Autin and Pearson 1993).

Geomorphic and Historical Development of the Red River Valley

The Holocene valley of the lower Red River was characterized by numerous rapidly meandering channels. The Raft extended for miles upstream and had a major influence in the development of this valley, as it affected the intense meander activity of the river. During the Quaternary, the Red River migrated several times and moved either independently or by means of an abandoned Mississippi River channel to the Gulf of Mexico. The Red River also joined the Mississippi River channel several times in the geologic past with the combined rivers (Aslan et al. 2005) flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

According to a late Holocene reconstruction by Aslan et al. (2005), the Mississippi River avulsed three times in south Louisiana. Around 5,000 year B.P., the Mississippi River flowed along the western margin of the Mississippi valley through what is now Bayou Teche or Mississippi Meander Belt 3 (Saucier 1994), and joined the Red River to flow to the Gulf of Mexico (Fig. 5). The Mississippi River separated from the Red River by 2,000 year B.P., avulsed eastwards to the south of Vicksburg to form Mississippi Meander Belt 2 (Fig. 6). No later than approximately 900 year B.P., the Mississippi River completely shifted to the eastern side of the valley, forming Meander Belt 1, while the Red River avulsed northeast and reoccupied an abandoned channel of the Mississippi River Meander Belt 2. The river then joined the Mississippi River close to where the current Atchafalaya River begins (Fig. 7). Although the exact timing of this Red River avulsion is controversial (Pearson 1986), approximately AD 1800 the Red River avulsed again flowing northeast through Moncla Gap, and reoccupied segments of Meander Belts 2 and 3 to join the Mississippi River at Turnbull Bend (Fig. 8; Aslan et al. 2005).

Around 5,000 year B.P., the Mississippi River joined the Red River to the Gulf of Mexico through the west of the red river valley (Modified from Aslan et al. 2005)

The Mississippi River avulsed south of Vicksburg, Mississippi forming meander belt 2 (Modified from Aslan et al. 2005)

The Red River avulsed northeast, reoccupied an abandoned channel of Mississippi River meander belt 2, and joined the Mississippi River (Modified from Aslan et al. 2005)

The Red River avulsed northeast through Moncla gap, reoccupied segments of meander belts 2 and 3, and joined the Mississippi River at Turnbull Bend (Modified from Aslan et al. 2005)

Geomorphic Process

The major geomorphic processes that have been active in the development and subsequent modifications of the Red River floodplain are lateral migration, degradation or vertical down cutting, overbank deposition on to the river’s flood plain, and post-depositional weathering of the surficial sediments of the floodplain (Albertson et al. 1996, The red river raft: geomorphic response, “unpublished”). Geomorphic changes continue to alter the floodplain of the Red River. The Atchafalaya River captured the flow of the Red River in prehistoric time and is preparing to capture the Mississippi River, making the Atchafalya Delta the primary course to the Gulf of Mexico (Fisk 1952; Autin and Pearson 1993).

Red River Historic Exploration

The Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was probably the first European explorer to see both the Red River and its Raft as he wandered through the valley in AD 1541 on his second expedition to the region. Little is known about his observations as the expedition was poorly documented and ultimately ended in disaster. de Soto died from a fever most likely caused by malaria at the mouth of the Red River in AD 1542. The Raft would have been approximately 1,500 years old upon de Soto’s death.

The first historic accounts in an AD 1806 navigation expedition described it as trunks of large trees, lying in all directions, and damming up the river for its whole width, from the bottom, to about 3 feet higher than the surface of the river (Freeman et al. 2002). The more recent formation process of the Raft was further described by Dr. Norman Caldwel in his publication “The Red River Raft” (Caldwell 1941), relating higher stages of water in the Mississippi River with backed up waters at the Red River. Floating driftwood accumulated within the meandering parts of the river and settled as the waters receded. Once established, these accumulations would increase yearly, progressing up the river. As time passed, the lower end of the Raft would rot and fall apart as the upper end grew. “The raft was thus like a great serpent, always crawling upstream and forcing the river into new lateral channels” (Caldwell 1941). Estimates of the length of the Raft range from 70 to 200 miles (Albertson 1992).

Since AD 1542, the lower Red River has been the focus of interest because of its perceived value as a navigational route. The Raft territory was originally inhabited by the Adais (Brushwood) Indians of the Caddo Confederacy and was claimed first by Spain, then France, England, Spain again, and finally France again. The Red River was the only practical route to northern Texas and to an enormous area of Indian territories, then a part of Mexico. The Red River was the logical route for westward expansion and commerce. However, unlike the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers, the Red River’s unique geologic and hydrologic properties would prove to be major challenges to the numerous attempts to remove the Raft and make it suitable for navigation (Wright 1930).

More than a century and a half would pass from de Soto’s sighting of the Red River to the establishment of a trading post at Natchitoches, Louisiana in AD 1714. Natchitoches was founded at the toe of Raft by the French explorer, St. Dennis. The trading post served as a base for several attempts to continue the westward expansion. Bernard La Harpe was dispatched from Natchitoches in AD 1719 to explore the region, and to try and establish trade with the Spaniards in New Mexico, but poor communication with the locals and war ultimately limited French expansion to the west.

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Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States as the Louisiana Purchase in AD 1803. In AD 1806, President Thomas Jefferson sent Captain Thomas Sparks and scientist Peter Custis to explore the Red River as a possible alternate boundary to the Louisiana Purchase. This expedition, known as the Freeman-Custis Expedition, was the southern counterpart to the Lewis and Clark expedition, and was greatly overshadowed by the latter’s achievements (Flores 1984). No new information was obtained, and the mission was a political setback for President Jefferson.

The Freeman-Custis expedition was stopped about 30 miles northwest of present-day Texarkana by a superior Spanish force under Captain Don Francisco Viana. Viana questioned the American claim that the Red River was the southern boundary of the Louisiana Territory. Based on the expedition’s findings or failure, it was the general opinion at that time that the Great Raft could never be removed due to its size, pervasiveness, and anastomosing channels. The nature of the anastomosing channels of the river was reported in the early nineteenth century accounts (Mills 1978).

Army engineers from Fort Jessup in AD 1826 considered clearing a navigable route through Soda Lake and Bayou Pierre in an attempt to circumvent the Raft. These engineers actually did some clearing and snagging work (i.e., the removal of large trees, submerged stumps, and vegetation from the channels), but the failure of Congress to continue appropriations brought operations to a standstill (Report of the Chief Engineer 1831); therefore, settlement expansion into Louisiana continued to be restricted by the toe of the raft at Natchitoches, Louisiana. Travel farther up the Red River was only possible with small shallow-draft boats, giving developers or farmers no real access to the land area above Shreveport. By AD 1831, the Great Raft extended for more than 165 miles, with its head located about 200 miles below Fort Towson, or 600 river miles below the mouth of the Kiamichi in its headwaters.

Transportation on the Red River would become an absolute necessity by AD 1830. Andrew Jackson’s administration was forced to move into action in AD 1832 by the brewing revolution in Texas, and continued problems with Native Americans as the westward expansion progressed. Transportation on the Red River was vitally important, but remained blocked by the Raft and was not navigable. At this time, government engineers estimated the Raft’s length to be about 130’s miles, with its lower end (toe of the Raft) located some 400 miles from the Mississippi River.

Captain Henry M. Shreve was an entrepreneur who had successfully invested in new technologies like the steamboat and developed the snag boat. He also successfully cleared navigational paths in the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in AD 1829 (McCall 1984). Shreve arrived at the toe of the Raft in April, AD 1833 with four boats (including the snag boat Archimedes) and a force of 159 men (Fig. 9) with the goal of clearing a navigable route through the raft debris. Shreve’s group began clearing a path through 71 miles of the Great Raft, and finally in the spring of AD 1838, a path was cleared through the Raft (Caldwell 1941; Flores 1984; Tyson 1981; Wright 1930).

figure 9

Depiction of Captain Henry Shreve with a snag boat during the Red River raft removal (Mills 1978)

However, the resulting remnants of the raft were not cleared from the river banks, and once Shreve’s work ended, the Raft immediately began to reform. This produced another Raft of about 2,300 feet in length. By August AD 1838, the Raft had reformed enough to interrupt steamboat traffic above Shreveport, Louisiana. By AD 1841, the raft was 20 miles long. The head of the raft was reported to have advanced some 30 miles between AD 1843 and AD 1855, with the Red River closed for a distance of 13 miles by AD 1854. Once again, discussion of diverting the Red River through lateral channels instead of removing the Raft itself was considered (Report of Red River Survey 1855). The construction of these lateral channels was interrupted in AD 1857 due to the Civil War.

The Red River Campaign of the American Civil War consisted of a series of battles fought from March 10th to May 22nd AD 1864. These battles were fought mainly along the Red River in Louisiana between 30,000 Union troops under the command of Major General Nathaniel Banks and Confederate troops under the command of Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, whose strength varied from 6,000 to 15,000 troops.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers’ reports to Congress documented the remainder of the nineteenth century with continued river engineering and progress reports until the Raft(s) were finally conquered and the rapids at Alexandria, Louisiana, were removed in AD 1893 (Mills 1978).

Red River Waterway Project Lock and Dams

The Red River Waterway project was authorized in AD 1968 to improve navigation, with the purpose of providing a navigation channel that was 9 feet deep by 200-feet wide, extending from the Red River’s confluence with the Mississippi River to Shreveport, Louisiana. In order to maintain the channel, the project required intense channel realignment, bank stabilization, and the construction of a system of five locks and dams (Fig. 10). Lock and Dam (L and D) No. 1, 2, and 3 were completed by the fall of AD 1984, fall of AD 1987, and December AD 1991, respectively while No. 4 and 5 were completed by January AD 1995 (Fig. 11). L and D No. 1 is the largest of the five and is located at the junction of the Red and Old Rivers. L and D No. 2 is located near the city of Alexandria, and L and D No. 3 is located near Colfax, Louisiana. L and D No. 3 houses the central maintenance facility of the project.

figure 10

Lock and dam # 3 in the Red River

Red River location of locks and dams (modified from Wooley 1997)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District built L and D No. 1 and designed L and D No. 2 before passing the project to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Vicksburg District in AD 1982. L and D No. 4 was designed and built by a consulting firm (Sverdrup Corp., Maryland Heights, Mo.) while the Vicksburg District simultaneously built L and D No. 5. L and D No. 4 was built between two horseshoe bends and is located about 50 miles downstream of Shreveport, Louisiana. L and D No. 5 is located in the town of Caspiana near Shreveport and elevates the river to its last 120 feet, passing the design tow of six barges and tug in approximately 25 min. Each dam maintains the required minimum pool elevation during low water periods and is designed to pass the 100-year flood level (Combs et al. 1994).

The Corps of Engineers completed the Red River Waterway Project from the Mississippi River to Shreveport in January AD 1995. This navigation project was the last of the Corps of Engineers’ great western rivers projects. In AD 2000, the waterway was renamed and dedicated to Louisiana Senator J. Bennett Johnston.

The lower reaches of the Red River are known as a high-energy system. Frequently shifting sandbars and caving banks contribute to the large amount of suspended sediment load. During a single high-water event, a lateral migration of several hundred feet of bank line is not uncommon (Pinkard and Steward 2001).

Channel straightening was a major part of the modifications that were necessary to make the river navigable. In order to achieve a stable navigation, numerous channel cuts were made across bendway necks, resulting in a shorter, straighter river stretch. In total, 50 miles (18%) of the 280 miles of the Red River were removed by this process (Combs et al. 1994). In the larger (1 mile+) pilot channels, non-overtopping dams diverted the flow into the new course. In shorter bendways, low stone enclosures allowed for overtopping during high flow conditions in order to divert some of the flow of the river, allowing for alternative flow paths. These flow paths also promoted sediment deposition to areas accessible to maintenance dredges. Trench fill, stone fill, and timber-pile revetments were installed to straighten and prevent channel migration. Trench fill was used to move the river inland, and stone fill or timber-pile were used to shift the banks riverward (Combs et al. 1994).

In order to develop and maintain channel depth against a revetment at the opposite bank, stone dikes were placed on the convex bank. By constricting the channel, scour is induced, which preserves the depth and reduces unwanted deposition. Where channel depth is crucial, kicker dikes push the channel crossing to the opposite bank. These dikes are an extension of the upper reach revetment and are used to preserve navigability, while helping to reduce maintenance dredging. After the completion of the channel realignment, 29 bendways were partially severed. These bendways were later developed in the early AD 1900s for recreational and environmental purposes. According to Robinson (1995), excessive silting is still problematic downstream of some of the bendways.

Sediment Management

The placement of a dam generally reduces the overall flow velocities of a river and in turn, tends to induce sediment deposition. Siltation can occur in the approach channels or the actual lock chamber; thus, dredging is needed to maintain the required 9 foot navigation channel. The fine-grained sediment in the transported load is capable and often largely responsible for impeding navigation. The higher concentration of fine-grained sediments in a transported load results in an increased need for maintenance dredging. The Red River, in particular, carries a large amount of fine-grained suspended sediment (Combs et al. 1994).

Red River bank materials originate from sources that include meander belt alluvium and clay plug materials, back-swamp deposits from a nineteenth-century flood plain, and Pleistocene/Tertiary materials from the alluvial valley walls. Generally, scour depth increases with outer bank resistance to erosion and failure. Scour pool depths for revetted bends with non-erodible outer banks are 5–20% greater than those in equivalent free, alluvial meanders (Thorne 1992).

Sound understanding of the processes and mechanisms involved in bank erosion is very important since it is believed to be the main source of the fine bed load sediments. Bank stabilization efforts in the reaches above Shreveport have greatly reduced the sediment problem. However, some river responses to the bank stabilization efforts, which include increased bed scour in revetted bends, reduced sediment storage capacity in crossing bars, and enhanced sediment transport owing to channel realignment, can produce an increase in sediment load from other sources. These concerns have to be considered in order to assure the long term decrease in sediment load. Protected bank materials could be replaced by the bed load sediments as bed scour in revetted bends increase in an attempt to cancel the effect of reducing long term sediment load in the river. When the outer banks are revetted, the point of maximum weathering migrates downstream at high river flow and overlaps the revetment of the next bend. The channel capacity to store sediments in the mid-channel bar between bends is reduced, which results in lower water elevations during floods and increased navigation depth during low flows at the expense of faster sediment transfer downstream.

Furthermore, river sinuosity can have significant effects on the sediment load of the river. When channels are realigned, the sinuosity decreases while the channel gradient increases; this can result in a substantial increase in sediment load. In the case of the Red River, this increased sediment load would be supplied by bed scour. The reduction of flow resistance by the straightening of the channel would increase the flow velocity and thus, the sediment transport capacity, thereby having an even more dramatic effect on increasing the sediment load than the one produced by the increase in channel gradient alone. This reduction in flow resistance could be counter-productive in reducing the sediment load of the river.

The bank stabilization in bends in the Red River is expected to add from 5 to 20% increased channel scour, with a resulting increase in suspended sediment load to the river (Combs et al. 1994). The increase in transported sediments should diminish as the bed levels re-stabilize. Although more sediment would be transported downstream, storage at crossings or subsequent bends is unlikely (Thorne 1989). The sediment load transported by the Red River would also change in composition and would be transported mainly by bed load. Bed load sediment is coarser and will not settle in the same locations nor behave in the same manner as a suspended load. The bed load moves more slowly than the suspended load and will settle as deltaic deposits at the head of navigational pools, while the suspended load would fall out in the lock chambers and behind the dams. The coarser size of the sediments will promote pool-head deposition rather than sedimentation in locks and dams, and would be a positive solution for the dilemma of the sedimentation of lock and dams.

Meander Migration and Bank Erosion

Bank erosion depends on a combination of the engineering and geomorphic properties of the riverbank materials and the distribution of those materials with different properties through the bank. Evidence obtained from historic studies of the river indicates that the nature of the materials in the outer banks will affect the rate and distribution of bank erosion in a bend in the Red or Mississippi Rivers. Boundary material characteristics function as geomorphic controls in river development; thus, an understanding of these processes is needed to predict the reaction of the river channels to natural and human influences (Thorne 1989, 1991).

The Red River has one of the largest sediment concentrations of all major rivers in the United States, and a large amount of the transported sediments are fine-grained sands. The average annual suspended sediment load of the Red River is approximately 32 million tons at Shreveport and 37 million tons at Alexandria, Louisiana. The bed load on the lower Red River is less than 10% of the total load. Fine sand and silt are the main components of the suspended load (wash load). The sediment contribution from the tributaries is minimal. The large amount of transported sediments is derived from the erosion of unrevetted banks mainly upstream of Shreveport.

Combs et al. (1994) concluded that the depositional tendencies of the transported load, if not properly managed, would require frequent maintenance dredging to preserve the navigability of the channel. The first two lock and dam structures constructed, therefore, had to be modified to reduce the sediment maintenance problems. Lessons learned from this experience led to appropriate modifications during the design phase for later construction. Channel structures have been successfully used for this purpose

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Lock and Dam No. 1 consists of an 84-feet by 685-feet lock and dam structure located at pre-project river mile 45 in east central Louisiana. Shortly after construction, Lock and Dam No. 1 experienced significant sediment deposition during the high water season that resulted in structural damage. Though sediment deposition was expected, the amount received silted the lock chamber rendering it inoperable. The continued operation of the lock during the high water season resulted in damage to the lower miter gates. Structural modifications had to be made in order to either reduce the amount of sediment deposition or at least relocate the deposition into areas assessable by maintenance dredges. Dikes were constructed in the upper approach channel, and the riverside lockwall was elevated as well as extended to manage sediment deposition.

Lock and Dam No. 2 consists of an 84-feet by 685-feet lock and dam structure with an uncontrolled overflow section and fixed guidewalls, located approximately 14 miles downstream of Alexandria. To identify and reduce potential sedimentation problems in this lock, a series of physical and numerical models were performed; one sediment control dike extending downstream from the riverside lockwall, three reverse angle dikes extending from the right descending bank immediately downstream the bank, and narrowing of the approach channels to increase velocities were installed. After much investigation and study, the Vicksburg District designed and installed a high-velocity jet system to resuspend the unwanted sediments at the miter gates. This measure has been extremely successful in reducing sediment depositions at the upstream miter gates. The sediment management measures developed for Locks and Dams No. 1 and 2 were subsequently incorporated into the design of Locks and Dams No. 3, 4, and 5, which included moving the downstream guidewall from the landside of the lock to the riverside, installing a permanent more elaborate jet system for either the upper miter gates or both sets of miter gates, and engineering the river channel cross section to more closely approximate the natural river section. The five sets of Locks and Dams control the flow of the lower Red River, raising it a total of 141 feet. The locks can accommodate a total of six barges (two across by three lengthwise).


Throughout its history, significant interest has been placed on navigation of the Red River and settling its valley. The Red River Raft presented many challenges to those wishing to use the Red River as a path to connect the eastern US to the west. This Raft was first encountered by Native Americans and described in writings by Europeans. It is believed that Spanish explorer, Hernado de Soto’s expedition first explored the region in the early AD 1540s; it is likely that the raft had been in place for about 1,500 years. In AD 1714, a French settlement was established at the toe of the Raft; this territory was later purchased by America. Clearing of the raft was begun in AD 1832 and was seen as an answer to westward expansion. A portion of the raft was cleared by Captain Shreve by AD 1838. The final removal of the raft occurred in AD 1893.

The Red River Raft was essentially a log jam that caused a complete change in the geomorphic character of the Red River, from numerous anastomosing channels when the raft was at its maximum extent to a single channel after removal of the raft. The original formation of the raft is believed to have been the result of extensive precipitation resulting from a long term period of climate change, causing wetter conditions, rapid lateral migration, and copious rapid growing riparian vegetation, thus exceeding a geomorphic threshold that resulted in an avulsion, a flashy hydrograph, and a very heavy sediment load.

At its full extent, the Raft split the river into numerous anastomosing channels; these channels were consolidated into a single, faster flowing channel as a result of the Raft’s removal. As the flow was increased, scouring caused by bank failure and degradation also increased. The dominant modes of bank failure were rotational slips and slab failures. These mechanisms also contributed significantly during the formation of the Raft and continue to present challenges to anthropogenic modifications to the river. The excess sediment produced from bank failure coupled with failure to remove vegetation inland during the first attempts to remove the raft allowed for reformation of the raft.

The Red River Waterway project involved a series of five locks and dams and was authorized in AD 1968 with the purpose of providing a 9-feet deep by 200-feet-wide navigation channel from the Mississippi River to Shreveport, Louisiana. Because the Red River has one of the largest sediment loads of all major rivers in the United States, intensive channel realignment and bank stabilization was necessary to maintain navigability of the channel and meet the requirements of the project. Further, because a large portion of the sediment load is fine grained materials, large amounts of maintenance dredging are necessary to keep the locks and dams functioning and the navigation channel open.

After the construction of the first two locks and dams, sediment maintenance became a major concern. The problem of very large sediment load was solved with a combination of revetments, which maintain higher river velocities and a jetting system within the lock and dam itself. These fixes were designed to keep the river’s sediment load in suspension and have it drop in areas that could be reached by maintenance dredges.

The first two locks and dams were modified after construction to reduce the sediment maintenance problems, and the other three were subsequently modified in design for the same objective. Today, the five Locks and Dams (Fig. 11) control the flow of the lower Red River, raising it a total of 141 feet and maintaining a 9-foot navigation channel from it confluence with the Mississippi River to Shreveport Louisiana. The Locks can accommodate a total of six barges (two across by three lengthwise) with tug and are 84 feet wide by 685 feet of usable length.


The origin of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) from its early beginnings in the Revolutionary War, came in response to the need for capable trained personnel in war. Later, in peace times, a necessity to overcome the challenges brought up by the environment, the European expansion, and the evolution of economic progress promoted its development. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 by President Thomas Jefferson expanded river navigation, which has been one of the Corps most relevant missions since its early beginnings. Currently, the USACE mission is to provide vital public engineering services in peace and war to strengthen our Nation’s security, energize the economy, and reduce risks from disasters.


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McCall E (1984) Conquering the rivers: henry miller shreve and the navigation of America’s Inland waterways. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge

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We want to thank to the many scientists and authors that provided the original research and publications on which this document is based. Special thanks to Lawson Smith, Paul Albertson, Ken Jones, and the USACE Vicksburg District for their vision and knowledge, and to Joe Dunbar, Julie Kelley, Ashley Manning, D’Ante Brown, and Laura Matthews for their generous support. Permission to publish is granted by the Director, Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory, ERDC.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Engineer Research and Development Center, Corps of Engineers, Waterways Experiment Station, 3909 Halls Ferry Road, Vicksburg, Mississippi, 39180-6199, USA

Clearing the Red

Clearing the Red

Hawthorne, Lloyd – painting – “Captain Henry Shreve Clearing The Great Raft From The Red River,” 1833-38, Lloyd Hawthorne.

This selection has been excerpted from Historic Shreveport-Bossier, An Illustrated History of Shreveport & Bossier City, published in 2000 for the Pioneer Heritage Center at Louisiana State University in Shreveport by the Historical Publishing Network, a division of Lammert Publications, Inc., of San Antonio, Texas.

T he metropolitan area of Shreveport and Bossier City, often referred to as Shreveport-Bossier, began as a commercial venture. The idea of an inland port on the Red River took root in the mind of Captain Henry Miller Shreve of Kentucky, when he brought his flagship Enterprise to Natchitoches toward the end of the War of 1812.

Known as the “Superintendent of the Western Waters” for his success in clearing the western rivers of obstructions to navigation, Shreve saw the “Great Raft”—the massive logjams that clogged the Red River north from Natchitoches for more than 400 miles upriver—as a challenge to his ingenuity. The Raft had been there for hundreds of years and was not unknown to Shreve. The French explorer Juchereau St. Denis, who established the fort and settlement at Natchitoches, had explored the bayous and rivers north of Natchitoches and had described the Great Raft that blocked his passage up the Red River.

A hundred years later, Captain Shreve believed he could clear the obstructions and turn the Red River into a navigable inland waterway that would serve a vast area of mid-America. In 1828 Shreve convinced the Jackson administration to award him a con­tract to clear a navigation channel through the Raft northward from its southern end to Arkansas.

The task facing Captain Shreve was a for­midable one. At times the Raft seemed to be a living creature, growing and changing. New mass was added to its upper end as trees and plants caved off the sandy banks. The force and weight of the water’s flow pushed this mass forward and down. This water displace­ment pushing up on the banks created a sys­tem of lakes and parallel channels that com­plicated the task of making the Red River a navigable stream.

Many of these lakes and channels remain part of the environs of Shreveport and Bossier City today. Caddo Lake, Cross Lake, and Lake Bistineau are three of hundreds of lakes created by the Raft. So great was the water displacement that early gov­ernment survey maps show Cross Lake and Caddo Lake joined together as a single “open lake.” During the history of the Raft, fingers of the vast open lake system became separate lakes. Ferry Lake, Clear Lake, and Soda Lake were among the finger lakes that joined together when high water occurred to form one huge lake.

Incidentally, “Soda Lake” is a European mispronuncia­tion of the Caddo word “T’Sodo,” meaning “frothy water.” It was never connected with the Spanish explorer DeSoto, as many believe. It seems impossible to believe that 200-foot-long steamboats could traverse the ditch that runs by Querbes Golf Course up through South Highlands and dock at the bluff that is on the south side of Betty Virginia Park. Yet, they did, since Betty Virginia Park was once Deer Lake.

The Raft created much of the geography that is today dry ground in Shreveport and Bossier City. The Cotton Belt Railroad Yard (part of the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific system), located due south of the Civic Theatre and Sports Museum, was once Silver Lake. Fingers from this shallow overflow Raft lake flowed into the low area below the elevated portion of 1-20 where the Ogilvie Hardware building now stands. The office of the Times newspaper is located on Lake Street, so named because during the 19th centu­ry the street ran along the shore of Silver Lake. The river’s unpredictable flow patterns, together with commer­cial development, have destroyed much of this lake topography.

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Another low area of Shreveport was created from the swamp caused by overflow from Cross Bayou when its waters backed up behind the dense Raft, which acted as a dam. When the Raft was removed, the water remained, and this boggy, marshy area became known as St. Paul’s Bottoms, taking its name from St. Paul’s Methodist Church. Today, this area is known as Ledbetter Heights, though “heights” is misleading, since the area was never part of the city’s high ground. The name honors the famed musician Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter, who once lived and per­formed there.

The Challenge

With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the size of the United States dou­bled. It was a natural progression in the westward expansion of the United States. However, until Captain Shreve arrived, others had simply accepted that the Raft made navigation of the river impossible.

Though he was awarded the con­tract in 1828, five years went by while Shreve awaited federal appropriation of funds for the project. At last, on April 11, 1833, with two snagboats, two supply boats, and 160 workmen, Shreve started slicing a narrow ship­ping channel through the Red River Raft. Crews worked on the shore, aboard the boats, and standing on the logjam itself, using log pikes (peavies), axes, shovels, grappling hooks, and sometimes dynamite, to dislodge the logjams in the bends of the river. The workmen snagged the largest logs and pulled them aboard the twin-hulled snagboats where steam-powered saws cut the logs into smaller pieces that would float downstream on the rising current. Smaller trees, tree roots, and other debris from the log­jams were shoved into adjacent bayous to block the outward flow and force the water to stay in the main river channel.

After four months, when operations halted because the funds ran out, Shreve reported that he had cut through 71 miles of Raft to a position between Norris’ settlement and Coates’ Bluff, and that the river current had increased from one-fourth mile to three miles an hour. Shreve requested appropriations of $30,000 annually over the next five years to complete the clear­ing of the Raft and keep the nav­igation channel open. He also proposed a new ironclad snag­boat, at a cost of approximately $20,000, to replace the wooden snagboats that were constantly in danger from the huge under­water snags.

Shreve’s Ingenuity

Shreve would eventually hold more than 20 patents for devices he created to remove the log­jam. Much of the equipment used in the logging industry today has its ori­gins in Henry Shreve’s machinery. He invented the snagboat, which was a catamaran created by bolting two steamboats together and placing on the central common deck a small steam-powered sawmill. He created grappling hook devices, conveyor belt systems, and circular saws mounted for both horizontal and vertical use. Some of the boats were fitted with iron-beaked rams to dislodge logs. Some used long articulating arms with pincers to grab logs and haul them aboard the snagboat for sawing into pieces. Other boats were equipped with horizontal underwater saws which projected out in front of the boats to cut through the log mass below the surface.

Black-and-white reproduction of a photograph of the Red River Raft clearing operations in the 1870s. Courtesy of State Library of Louisiana.

Over the next six years, during peri­ods of high water when his boats could come upriver, Shreve worked to conquer the Red River. Sometimes Shreve’s boats would be delayed for months in getting to the Raft by low water downstream at the Alexandria rapids. There, the boats would have to be unloaded, all cargo portaged upriv­er and reloaded on the boats once they cleared the rapids. Every time the snagboats returned to the task, there were large sections of new Raft that had formed since the last cut, so the same area had to be cleared again and again. Frequent work delays were occasioned by illness among the work­men as they fell prey to malaria, dysentery, and yellow fever in the humid, mosquito-infested swamps along the river. The second year Shreve requested salary for a doctor to accompany the work crews.

By the end of July 1836, the cost of the project had reached $157,338.62, and river traffic was still impeded by a long stretch of Raft from south of Shreveport to Arkansas. Clearing the dense portions of the Raft was a tedious task. Thirty miles of the upper Raft took longer to clear than the first 100 miles of the Raft below Shreveport. As the Raft closed the river, northbound steamers and keel­boats had to go around through adja­cent bayous, lakes, and canals, and then re-enter the river above the Raft. Most of the streams in the valley run parallel to the Red River and, indeed, were former river channels. Among these are Bayou Pierre on the Caddo side and Red Chute on the Bossier side -two of the streams that steamboats used to avoid the Raft. In 1873, before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made the final clearing of the Raft, both Bayou Pierre and Red Chute were twice the size of the Red River.

Reshaping Boundaries

Shreve’s strategic cuts to shape the navigation channel had far-reaching impact on the history of Shreveport-Bossier. Shreve had authority to remove the Raft in whatever manner he wished. In some places, he would rip through the Raft and let the pieces float downstream on the current. At other locations, he might create a chute or shunt across large meanders, cutting them off from the river and forming oxbow lakes and islands. Examples of these are Wright Island, Anderson Island, Shreve Island, and the island now occupied by Shreveport’s downtown airport.

Shreve’s actions created some inter­esting situations in the history of Caddo and Bossier parishes. Unfortunately for modern govern­ment leaders, Shreve was conducting Raft removal at the very time that Government Land Office crews were surveying and establishing the town­ship range and section grid in Natchitoches Parish, which at that time covered all of northwest Louisiana. Caddo Parish was carved out of Natchitoches on the west side of the Red River. On the east side, Claiborne Parish was separated out of Natchitoches Parish, and later Bossier Parish was created out of Claiborne.

Black-and-white reproduction of a photograph showing the Red River Raft in the 1870s. Courtesy of the State Library of Louisiana.

The river defined the boundary between Caddo and Bossier parishes. When Shreve made a cut that created an island ahead of the government survey crew, the parish boundary at that site was the new riverbed. If Shreve cut the island after it was sur­veyed, the prior channel was the parish boundary. Hence, the river boundaries were not always the same as the boundaries established by the Government Land Office. This has cre­ated havoc, and continues to do so, for governing bodies as the land along the river between Shreveport and Bossier City is developed and redeveloped.

For example, the cut that created Shreve Island set the stage for a legal battle decades later when both Caddo Parish and Bossier Parish claimed this valuable slice of Red River real estate. Some residents of Anderson Island live in the city of Shreveport and the parish of Bossier. Thus, a person buy­ing a house on the Caddo side of the river may discover that he or she is paying Bossier Parish property taxes and Shreveport city taxes. It is also possible that a person could receive a speeding ticket on Clyde Fant Parkway from a Shreveport City policeman and a deputy sheriff of either Caddo or Bossier Parish on the same roadway.

Areas that appear to be in Shreveport but are actually in Bossier are the downtown airport, Wright Island, Barnwell Center, Hollywood Casino, and the log ride at Hamel’s Park. Areas that appear to be in Bossier but are actually in Shreveport or Caddo Parish are most of Cane’s Landing, Casino Magic, and portions of the eastern bank of the river south of Jimmie Davis Bridge.

One important cut was made for economic reasons, to protect the port of the Shreve Town Company from competition. In January 1839, when Captain Shreve’s snagboat, the Eradicator, finally arrived at the Raft after being delayed for months by low water in Alexandria, its first task was to clear 2,300 yards of new Raft that had formed over the past six months. Its second task was unexpected. After clearing through the new Raft, Captain Shreve was greeted with the unwel­come news that a Natchitoches compa­ny had laid plans for a competing port at Coates’ Bluff, just three miles down­stream. Shreve sent the Eradicator back downriver to cut out a ditch 250 yards wide and three miles long around the point at Coates’ Bluff.

The ditch soon shifted the flow of the river so that Coates’ Bluff was left high and dry without a landing site, so plans to build a town there quickly evaporated.

Finally, on March 20, 1839, the Raft was clear to a point north of Shreveport. The inland port that Shreve had envisioned was chartered that year as Shreveport in his honor. Until the Republic of Texas joined the Union in 1845, Shreveport was the westernmost city in the United States and a gateway to the West. In the 1850s more than 60,000 people passed through the port headed westward. Before the Civil War, Shreveport would become the commercial ship­ping center for the four-state Red River region of Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

The Raft continued to reconstitute itself with intermittent attempts by others to clear it or cut channels around it. In 1873 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, using snagboats and shallow-draft steamboats designed and patented by Captain Shreve, made the final clearing of the Red River Raft. Steamboat commerce on the Red River would enjoy a second brief heyday before the railroads took over the bulk of transportation.

Marguerite R. Plummer, Ph.D., was the former executive director of the Pioneer Heritage Center and director for the Red River Regional Studies Center at LSU-Shreveport.

Gary D. Joiner, Ph.D., is a cartographer and associate professor of history at LSU-Shreveport. He is past president of the North Louisiana Civil War Round Table and is a scholar of the U.S. Civil War. His weekly radio program on Red River Radio, “History Matters,” is funded in part by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

Red River Raft

The Great Raft on the Red River blocked any attempt to use the river for navigation. The Raft was a logjam hundreds of years in the making that blocked any boat traffic on the Red River in northwestern Louisiana. In the mid-18th century, a riverboat captain and inventor figured out how to clear the colossal mess.

old tinted photograph of massive logjam on red river

Photograph of Great Raft on the Red River (courtesy LSU Shreveport Archives)

During Louisiana’s early history, the Red River between Shreveport and Natchitoches was clogged with a logjam so immense it was known as the ‘Great Raft’. Those logs were sometimes dozens of feet deep and even had plants and trees growing on top of them. The Red River stretches more than 1,300 miles from its headwaters in New Mexico, following the border of Oklahoma and Texas, then entering the far northwest corner of Louisiana on its way to the Mississippi River. “The Red River is kind of that western river where you have flash floods,” explains Michael Mumaugh of the Cane River Heritage area near Alexandria. “Dead trees wash out, they log jam. And then once the jam’s created, year after year more logs run into it.” Mumaugh adds.

model of paddle wheeler boat with chained log

Model of a snag boat used to clear the Great Raft

clearing the logjam

By the 1830’s the Great Raft was 175 miles long. The logjam caused the river to spill into neighboring lowlands and created several Louisiana lakes that remain today. Those lakes include Lake Bistineau southeast of Shreveport, which is now a Louisiana State Park. Steamboat captain and inventor Henry Shreve came up with a solution, a ‘snag boat’. There are photographs and a model of the Shreve-designed boat at the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway Regional Visitors Center in downtown Shreveport. “He would attach a chain to one of the logs and crews of people would cut the branches and roots off anything that would snag,” explained Joseph Holoubek of the Corps of Engineers. The work was mostly done by hand. Holoubek added, “They started in 1833 and they finished here in Shreveport in 1838.”

curve in red river lined by trees

View of Red River from high bluff at Grand Ecore, LA

The Cane River National Heritage Visitors Center at Grand Ecore offers a high overlook of the Red River. The center is 75 miles southeast of Shreveport. Museum manager Michael Mumaugh explains that the work by Shreve, “does open up navigable waterway all the way to what becomes Shreveport and beyond,” into eastern Texas and southern Arkansas.

black and white portrait of Henry Shreve

Captain Henry Shreve engineered clearing of Great Red River Raft (courtesy National Portrait Gallery)

Visitors to the Grand Ecore center can picnic atop the high river bluff. Both Union and Confederate forces used the location during the Civil War. “Forts are built nearby here on top of the cliff,” Mumaugh tells me. “It controls a bend in the river which would slow any boat traffic coming up or down.”

picnic table outside visitors center

Picnic tables offer visitors a panoramic view of the Red River at Grand Ecore Visitors Center

the red river today

Congress ignored Shreve’s recommendation to maintain the cleared river channel. A second raft formed, which forced a second clearing in the 1870’s. Today, the Army Corps of Engineers operates a series of four locks and dams on the Red River.

water flowing through a dam on the red river

Water flows through a dam on the Red River south of Shreveport, LA

Regular dredging keeps the river channel at a depth of nine feet by 200 feet wide. That allows barge traffic to navigate the waterway that was once unusable due to the Great Red River Raft.

pipe for river dredge spews water in red river

River dredge at work on the Red River

the red river raft featured on tv

steel train bridge across red river at shreveport

Watch this Heart of Louisiana TV feature on the Great Red River Raft

Railroad and highway bridges cross the Red River between Shreveport and Bossier City, LA

Getting there

The J. Bennett Johnston Waterway Regional Center is located near the Red River in downtown Shreveport. 700 Clyde Fant Parkway, Shreveport, LA. Phone: (318) 677-2673.

The Grand Ecore Visitor Center is located on the Red River north of Natchitoches, LA. 106 Tauzin Island Road Natchitoches, LA. Phone: (318) 354-8770.




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