Before the arrival of the Europeans, “log jams” formed by the accumulation of fallen trees and driftwood on rivers and streams were a common phenomenon across North America, but none was as enormous as the one that existed on the Red River. At its peak, this log jam—known as the Great Raft—extended for 165 miles (265 km) clogging the lower part of the river in what is now Northwest Louisiana and Northeast Texas.
The Great Raft began forming sometime around the beginning of the last millennium. Periodic flooding of the Red River dislodged great number of trees from the river’s flood banks that was made up of easily erodible soil. The trees filled the river and formed a series of intermittent log jams that stretched for miles. Each spring brought a fresh supply of logs and the raft grew until it was more than a hundred miles long. Pieces of the raft sometimes broke up and floated downstream, but new logs and debris that got added to the upper end kept the raft at a nearly constant length of between 130 and 150 miles. The jam also forced water over the banks and into the valley creating numerous large and deep lakes. Some of these lakes—Caddo, Cross, Wallace, Bistineau, and Black Bayou—still exist and are known as Great Raft Lakes.
The Caddo Indians, who lived along the Red River, were greatly benefitted from this phenomenon. Every spring, as the river uprooted trees and added to the raft, it left behind fertile, open fields where the Caddos grew crops. The log jam also ensured that the Caddos remain untouched by Europeans for another 150 years before a Spanish expedition made contact with them in 1691.
When the Freeman-Custis Expedition went exploring the Red River in 1806 looking for its headwaters, before they were turned back by Spanish troops near Oklahoma, they encountered the “almost impenetrable mass” of the Great Raft on the river north of Natchitoches. Freeman described it as a concentration of cedar, cottonwood, and cypress trees covered in bushes and weeds so thick that “a man could walk over it in any direction.”
The first effort to clear the river was made in 1833 by Captain Henry Miller Shreve of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Shreve had recently cleared the Mississippi river of a similar but much smaller log jam using a new invention he called the “snag steamboat”. By 1838, Shreve had removed the Great Raft enabling steamboats from New Orleans to sail all the way up the Red River to the newly founded city of Shreveport, named after Shreve. From there, boats found their way across a series of raft lakes till they reached Jefferson, which soon become one of Texas’ most important port cities.
Keeping the Red River free of logs, however, became a continuous effort that kept the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers busy for the next 30 years. Finally in 1872, the Corps, led by Lt. Eugene Woodruff, began in earnest to open up the Red River once again. Woodruff had in his arsenal the dependable snag boat that Shreve had invented and successfully used to clear the river earlier, and a new tool not available to Shreve then—dynamite. Woodruff blew up the logs, dredged the riverbed, created reservoirs, and constructed dams. The work progressed fast. Unfortunately, Woodruff contracted yellow fever and died in Shreveport in August 1873, a few months before the project was completed.
Although the river was finally open for navigation, the geology of the Red River valley was changed forever. Many lakes and bayous that the river created disappeared. Only those protected by dams remained.
Despite the millions of dollars spent in dredging the river and in locks and dams, river navigation began to decrease within a decade with the arrival of a new and superior mode of transportation —railways. By the half of the next century, only local rock barges traversed the Red River.