I spent some time last night researching and thinking about White River flooding from an historical perspective, and it got me thinking about my own history and connection to the White.
Now I spend most of my time on the tailwater sections and live close to the headwaters of the White River. But Harrisburg is where I was born. The town is a county seat and is located south of Jonesboro about 20 miles on Arkansas Highway 1. Highway 1 starts at Jonesboro and heads directly south to Wynne, Forrest City, Marianna and terminates at West Helena, whose sister city Helena is located east a few miles on the Mississippi, well south of I-40. These cities used to have a strong connection to one another being located on this unique highway and in Mississippi farm delta.
Highway 1 runs along a geographical feature known as Crowley’s Ridge. The ridge is about 200 miles long and extends from Cape Girardeau, Missouri to Helena, Arkansas, both Mississippi River towns. Crowley’s Ridge is thought to have been created as a kind of giant sand bar when the area lay between the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers in their prehistoric courses. It is likely that glacial activity created the fine windblown soil which was later deposited by the wind and rivers. Other research has suggested it had origins from uplift as a consequence of the New Madrid fault. Whatever its origins, the soil of the ridge has more of a clay consistency than the rich black soil of the delta. I distinctly remember as a child playing army in the clay ridges and digging fox holes on the ridge above the square in Harrisburg.
This is what used to be cotton country. My grandfather farmed an area 6 miles north of Harrisburg and just west of the ridge in a railroad community called “Greenfield.” He planted cotton, vegetables and also had orchards. Greenfield and Harrisburg both had their own cotton gins, the latter of which I remember. My father grew up through the Great Depression and dropped out of school after the 8th grade to help on the farm.
In adulthood, I’ve come to understand the significance rivers played in the history of Arkansas. Running roughly in the same north to south trek as the ridge, several rivers in northeastern Arkansas have a Mississippi or White River connection.
The St. Francis River runs on the east side of Crowley’s Ridge and drains into the Mississippi near Tunica. The L’Anguille River (pronounced LANG-gill) starts just south of Harrisburg and continues south until it cuts east at Marianna across the southern end of Crowley’s Ridge and joins the St. Francis. I remember dad talking about fishing the L’Anguille, and he would often go frog gigging at night there. He showed me the large bull frogs he had caught the next morning, and we would be treated to frog legs for breakfast. These rivers as well as others have been heavily channelized now as agricultural drainage ditches but are still very flood prone. The St. Francis was used by riverboat operators to transport early settlers and their goods into northern Arkansas.
West of where I grew up, the Cache and Black Rivers flow into the White River. Harrisburg is only 30 miles east of Newport, a major White River town, and I remember trips there as a youngster. Just a sidelight–in the late 50s, there used to be at Waldenburg on the way to Newport, or perhaps it was at Whitehall, a store at the crossroads where we would always stop. I remember it had a wooden Indian statue out front. Inside was something of a grocery, gas station, and novelty store. Dad would buy me, for a nickel, a large stick of chewing gum shaped like a cigar. Other than its pink color, it looked very similar in shape to a real cigar and had its own cigar band. I would take the cigar band off and wear it on my finger. I vividly remember, on one of those occasions, dad took the cigar band off my finger and slid it onto one of the fingers of the wooden Indian! One could also, of course, buy wooden nickels there.
Below Newport, the White River leaves the Ozarks and enters the Mississippi delta region and becomes similar to the rivers east. It is no longer the highly channelized mountain stream it was, but during floods resembles the Mississippi itself and is broad and wide. Having grown up in the delta area as a boy and having lived (and even frog hunted) in the mountainous regions of the river later in life, I have an appreciation for both aspects of the 700 mile long White River.
The people who live on the delta portion of the White are primarily farmers and commercial fishermen who depend on the river. During the Great Depression, many families living along the river would wade and dive for mussels and sell them to manufacturers who would craft them into Mother of Pearl buttons. During flood events, even today these communities are often severely impacted as homes and farmlands become inundated–sometimes for months. These are hardy folks.
I will post some flood data for the Georgetown area in the next post and talk about the historic scale of the flooding we have had this year.
© 2008, Scott Branyan