Heart of Louisiana: Great Raft

It was a log jam hundreds of years in the making, that blocked any boat traffic on Louisiana’s Red River
Published: Aug. 7, 2022 at 4:52 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 7, 2022 at 10:47 PM CDT

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - It was a log jam hundreds of years in the making, that blocked any boat traffic on Louisiana’s Red River. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that a riverboat captain figured out how to clear the mess.

During the state’s early history, the Red River in northwest Louisiana was clogged with a logjam so immense it was known as the ‘great raft’.

“Red River is kind of that western river where you have flash floods. Dead trees wash out, they log jam, and then once that jam’s created, just year after year, more and more logs run into it,” says Michael Mumaugh.

Those logs were sometimes dozens of feet deep, and even had plants and trees growing on top of them.

“So the raft began right around in this area and multiple areas up the river, up to Shreveport and north you have blockages,” Mumaugh said.

The raft caused the river to spill into neighboring lowlands and created several Louisiana lakes.

“This is something that had built up over almost 800 years, and by the time we started attacking it in the 1830s, it was about 175 miles,” Joseph Holoubek said.

That attack came from steamboat captain and inventor Henry Shreve, who designed what was called the ‘snag boat’.

“He would attach a chain to one of the logs, and he had crews of people that would cut the branches and roots off anything that would snag. Once it went over the back of the snag, the boat started going downstream. Now this was a long process and most of this was done by sheer manpower,” said Holoubek.

The logs were removed one at a time in an operation that lasted five years.

“They started in 1833 and they finished here in Shreveport in 1838,” Holobek said.

“It does open up navigable waterway all the way, to what becomes Shreveport, and all the way into Jefferson, TX., and Fulton, AR.,” said Mumaugh.

You get a sweeping view of the Red River from a bluff at Grand Ecore. The 80-foot high overlook was used during the Civil War by both union and confederate troops.

“Forts are built nearby here on top of the cliff. It controls a bend in the river, which would slow any boat traffic coming up or down,” said Mumaugh.

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

“Now there is a manmade channel, nine feet deep and 200 feet wide that’s maintained by dikes, by dredging, and by locks and dams that make it navigable between the Mississippi and Shreveport,“ Holoubek said.

The initial clearing of the great raft by Captain Shreve not only gave Shreveport its name, but it also began an era of river commerce that continues today on the Red River.

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