The Red River Great Raft-Why History Matters

Dr. Gary Joiner, chair of LSU-S’ History Department and a recognized authority on Louisiana history spoke to a capacity crowd of area history buffs Tuesday, December 14 at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest History Museum. Dr Joiner, who is also host of the popular Red River Radio feature “History Matters”, gave a talk on the Great Raft on the Red River and its clearing and reclearing in 1873, one of the formative events in our state’s and indeed our nation’s history.

The Great Raft was basically a huge logjam on the Red River, accumulated over thousands of years and hundreds of miles long. The raft was an impediment to navigation on the river, making trade and military troop movements difficult, if not impossible. In a one year period from 1840 to 1841 Captain Henry Shreve, Shreveport’s namesake, was directed to rid the Red River of the raft. As dynamite and other modern explosives lay in the future, captain Shreve did so by manually moving the logs, a massive undertaking. The Red River was not to stay clear however, the raft started to grow back and had done so when maintenance was completely stopped by the outbreak of the Civil War.

The Red River was cleared again in 1873, this time with the aid of guncotton and dynamite. That was also the year of the yellow fever epidemic in Shreveport, a tragedy that was to kill about 25 percent of the city’s population.

This aspect of the city’s history still has reverberations today. There is a shopping center in Shreveport that was built on what was part of the great raft when the Red River flowed through that area. The builders kept running into cypress logs when working on the foundation. They put down 800 pilings, but that was not to prove to be enough. The southern end of the shopping center had to be demolished as it kept sinking into the ground, a reminder that nature always has the final word. Dr. Joiner has had to assist in legal disputes between parishes over boundaries as the river’s shifting over the years means that what looks like the boundary may not actually be so, a major point of contention as gas and mineral rights come into play.

The talk was one of a continuing series of presentations at the museum, all free of charge. The Great Raft and its clearing, once in 1840 and again in 1873, is a fascinating interplay between nature, politics, business, war and man’s attempts to control a restive nature, not always to predictable effect. If I may presume to steal Dr. Joiner’s catchphrase from his radio show, it is a superb example of why “History matters”. There will be more presentations in January. They are all free to the public. The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest History Museum invites everyone to come and learn more about the state we call home!