The Arkansas River, the longest tributary of the Mississippi-Missoury River system, is both a centerpiece and a starting point for any historical perspective of the River Valley region.

The river has been a source of life and transportation for the region for as long as humans have inhabited the area. It was how Army Maj. William Bradford and his men got to the area in 1817 to set up the first Fort Smith. It provides more than 1 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually at half the cost of electricity produced by coal. It is a shipping lane for agriculture and manufacturing products, keeping about 400 semi-trucks off the roads for a typical tow of eight barges carrying 12,000 tons.

And it is where Wesley White of Hartford caught a state record 80-pound flathead catfish on Oct. 28, 1989. That record stands today, 30 years later.

The 445-mile-long McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System from the Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma to its meeting with the Mississippi River provides a continuous 9-foot deep channel for barge traffic.

According to an 2018 economic impact study conducted by MarTREC at the University of Arkansas, complete disruption of operations on the MKARNS could result in a daily loss of $23 million in gross domestic product within the state of Arkansas.

The Arkansas Waterways Commission, using numbers recorded by the Corps of Engineers, reports over 10.9 million tons were moved on barges along the Arkansas River in Arkansas in 2018, and 11.9 million tons were moved in 2017.

“It’s a liquid highway,” said state Sen. Mat Pitsch. “So much more should be moving on it and we should be building more infrastructure to support it, and use it more for recreational purposes.”

Pitsch is also executive director of the Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority (WAIA), whose board of directors have kept as a No. 1 priority the development of an intermodal port near Van Buren on the Arkansas River.

WAIA has for several years pushed to create a 12-foot channel through the river to make way for larger barges coming through an expanded Panama Canal. Although approved by Congress, there has been no funding set aside to create the 12-foot channel on the MKARNS. A U.S. Corps of Engineers Little Rock District spokesperson said another study may be required to approve funding for a 12-foot channel on the river.

Pitsch pointed to the marina in Muskogee on the Arkansas River and trails development in Fort Smith on the river as a way to further take advantage of the recreational aspects of the river.

For Marty Shell, president of Five Rivers Distribution in Fort Smith and Van Buren, the Arkansas River system is a livelihood and economic generator.

“It’s a livelihood to many people in the River Valley as well,” Shell wrote. “It keeps transportation costs low, and jobs in the River Valley. It’s a lifeline not only for manufacturing but for agricultural as well. This system moves 12 million tons of commerce per year that you never hear or see. It’s the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation and costs less as well.”

Shell points out the Arkansas River is deep in history and brought city’s like Van Buren and Fort Smith to life. And it remains an economic tool to help retain and grow jobs, he adds.

MKARNS history

The MKARNS was the largest civil works project ever undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the time of its opening in the 1960s, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Prior to the navigation system’s locks and hydroelectric dams, the river was shallow enough to freeze over at Fort Smith during the winter and prone to flooding in the wet months.

“The Flood of 1927 made the Arkansas River a conduit for an 8- to 10-foot wall of water that destroyed nearly every levee downriver from Fort Smith to the Mississippi River,” the Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry states. “This led to the formation of the Arkansas River Flood Control Association (ARFCA) to lobby members of Congress for a comprehensive flood control program.”

Even with its 18 locks and dams, the river is not invulnerable. Heavy rains upstream in May and June 2019 brought historic flooding in the River Valley. The river crested at 40.79 feet and flowed at an estimated 570,000 feet per second at the Van Buren gauge. In comparison, the 1927 flood registered flows of 750,000 cubic feet per second, according to the Arkansas River Historical Society Museum.

On July 24, 1946, Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Act authorizing the building of the MKARNS. It was officially known as the Arkansas-Verdigris Waterway prior to legislation changing its name, according to the encyclopedia entry. The plan included hydropower, flood control, recreation, and navigation from Catoosa, Oklahoma, to the Mississippi.

U.S. Sen. John L. McClellan of Arkansas and U.S. Sen. Elmer Thomas of Oklahoma sat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. In 1948, Oklahoma Gov. Robert S. Kerr ran a successful campaign to become Oklahoma’s junior senator, where he joined McClellan in championing waterway transportation.

In June 1971, President Richard M. Nixon provided the keynote address for the dedication of the MKARNS at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa.

According to the Corps of Engineers, there are currently about $230 million in backlogged maintenance projects along the entire MKARNS in both Arkansas and Oklahoma.

The Corps of Engineers is also in the “pre-construction, engineering and design” phase of a solution to the flood-prone Three River area in southeast Arkansas where the Arkansas, White and Mississippi rivers converge. The outcome of this phase produces the plans and specifications for the project, and that information will be used to advertise the project for construction. The PED phase typically lasts two to three years, pending receipt of funds, the Corps states.

Bridges

While there are many bridges over the Arkansas River, one of the most heavily traveled is the Interstate 540 bridge from Fort Smith to Van Buren. It is named for Clarence Byrns, editor of the Fort Smith Southwest Times Record in the 1920s. Byrns wrote editorials for four decades promoting navigation on the Arkansas River.

Byrns was a past president of the Arkansas Basin Association and chaired the powerful Tri-State Committee that handled the appropriation requests for Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

More ingrained in the public conscious today, however, is the bridge over the Arkansas River at Webbers Falls, where 14 people died on May 26, 2002, after a towboat crashed into the I-40 bridge pier and caused a portion of the structure to collapse into the water. Three people were rescued that day.

The Garrison Avenue bridge was opened and dedicated on May 11, 1922, after two years of construction, connecting Garrison Avenue in Fort Smith to Oklahoma. At 3,173 feet long and containing more than 20,000 cubic yards of concrete, it was the longest concrete structure of the Southwest. It is reinforced with 784 tons of steel.

In a history of the bridge by Engineering News-Record, Vol. 88, No. 8, Feb. 23, 1922 — seen at the Arkansas Department of Transportation’s website — M.M. Elkan of Macon, Georgia was the original contractor but suspended work in April 1920 after building four river piers and one abutment pier on the Arkansas shore. The Elkan contract awarded in February 1919 was for $537,000 for the entire bridge.

In July 1920, a new contract with the Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Co. of Leavenworth, Kansas, was awarded to complete the remaining 75% of work. The new contract called for work on a percentage fee basis. The total cost of the bridge was about $85,000. It was designed by Hedrick & Hedrick consulting engineers of Kansas City, Missouri, with J.M. Robinson as the resident engineer. M.L. Wagner was superintendent and C.A. Prokes was the resident engineer for the Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Co., the 1922 Engineering News-Record article states.

Another iconic river bridge in the River Valley region is the bridge at Ozark, sometimes known as the Ozark Toll Bridge. Originally built in 1929, the six-span concrete and steel arch bridge was rehabilitated with the main span replaced in 1970, according to Bridgehunter.com. The original bridge builder was M.E. Gillioz The total length is 1,536.6 feet and its average daily traffic is about 6,400 vehicles.