Let The River Be:
A History of the Ozark's Buffalo River
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The history of lead and zinc mining in northern Arkansas is primarily the study of an area that possessed considerable mineral deposits but only limited transportation facilities. In 1858 a state geologist prophesied that Arkansas was destined to "take the lead of all Western States, in her resources of zinc and manganese," and that the state also promised to "afford considerable lead ore." [1] The industry developed slowly throughout the nineteenth century, but during the First World War it appeared that the prediction would be realized. Zinc and lead production peaked in Arkansas in 1917, and the Buffalo River country played an important role in that production. The prosperity was short-lived, however, and the industry quickly declined.

While zinc was the more sought after mineral following the turn of the century, lead had been the subject of explorations and speculations for two hundred years. Shortly after the beginning of the eighteenth century, while France was commencing the settlement of the Louisiana territory, there occurred a short fever of interest in possible wealth in the Mississippi valley. Hungry for the kind of New World wealth that had brought riches to Spain, Frenchmen were eagerly credulous of rumors about any kind of ore deposits. On the presumptive basis of such unfounded reports, the fantastic manipulator John Law, a clever Scotsman, promulgated a scheme to reduce the French national debt while at the same time exploiting the dreamed-of riches of Louisiana. Law's company was given the rights to Louisiana; under its direction Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur d'Bienville, was appointed the territory's governor, colonization was pushed, and efforts were made to discover natural resources. But Law's entire scheme—bank, bank notes, and company—based as it was on credit and inflated paper currency, was not to last. In 1720 the highly overblown "Mississippi Bubble" burst as conservative investors asked that their stock be redeemed in coin. The fragile economic foundation of the enterprise began to crumble, and as confidence gave way to doubt and then disbelief, the highly speculative project collapsed, and Law made a hasty exit to Belgium. [2] But the adventure was not without its achievements. In 1718 the strategically located city of New Orleans was founded, and expeditions sent to the interior of Louisiana located lead mines in what is today southern Missouri. [3]

Suffering under the delusion that rich silver and gold mines existed in Upper Louisiana, Law's company sent to that region a group of miners and assayers under the direction of Francis Renault. Although the company ended in financial ruin, Renault and his associates continued their search for the suspected precious metals, and in 1724-1725 the "director-general of the mines of Louisiana" discovered and opened in southeastern Missouri a number of lead deposits which he expected would yield silver ore. Although no silver appeared, Renault continued to explore with great expectations. Throughout the century, the mines, most of which were the open pit variety, were worked intermittently with varying results. [4] But it was not until 1798, after Moses Austin petitioned for a grant of land which would encompass the mines, that the deposits were operated with any consistency. Austin moved his family from Virginia to Missouri where he constructed a saw mill, flour mill, furnace, and factory for the manufacture of both shot and sheet lead. The Virginian prospered in southeastern Missouri and elevated the lead mining business of the region to a permanent year-round industry. The success of the endeavor stalled, however, during the War of 1812 and the Panic of 1819. Austin subsequently faced financial ruin and made plans to recover his fortune by colonizing Texas—plans which were realized only after his death by his son Stephen F. Austin. [5]

As the Missouri mining enterprise was declining, Henry R. Schoolcraft led an expedition through the lead region of Missouri, into northern Arkansas, and finally along the White River as far as Batesville before he turned east toward the Mississippi. In Arkansas, Schoolcraft noted the existence of a number of lead deposits in Marion County and farther east in Lawrence County, but because of the sparse population in the Arkansas territory at that time (1818), none of these deposits were being worked. [6] Sixteen years later G. W. Featherstonhaugh, a geologist for the United States, visited the region east of the White River and observed that enough lead existed in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas that "it may be relied on for countless ages as a source of national wealth." [7]

The only working lead mine mentioned by Featherstonhaugh was located on the Strawberry River in the region of north Arkansas east of the Buffalo River. [8] Mining ventures there must have been operated by local settlers in the search for material for musket balls, as no commercial mining took place in north central Arkansas until the early 1850s when several reduction plants were constructed in the vicinity of Lead Hill in Boone County. [9]

During the later years of that pre-Civil War decade, the Arkansas state legislature authorized the governor to make arrangements for a geological survey of the state. Governor E. N. Conway obtained the services of David Dale Owen who at the time was supervising a similar survey for the state of Kentucky. As State Geologist of the State of Arkansas, Owen traveled the state during 1857 and 1858 and made a study for which he received $1,800 for the first year's work and $2,500 for the second. [10] Published in Little Rock, Owen's report confirmed the existence of large amounts of lead in the northwestern portion of the state, particularly in the Buffalo River region where he reported the extraction of sixty to seventy pounds of lead ore from a forty-five foot shaft near the mouth of Cave Creek. [11] Owen's assistant, Edward T. Cox, who conducted a similar survey during 1859-1860, found an even more extensive mining operation on the headwaters of the Buffalo in Newton County where eighteen to twenty thousand pounds of the ore had been removed. [12]

During the Civil War the increased demand for lead for munitions stimulated activity in the area. The Cave Creek deposits especially were worked by Confederate forces, but it was not until the 1870s that lead mining on large scale was introduced into the Buffalo River basin. [13] In 1876 the Boston Mountain Mining and Smelting Company, an organization which originated in Illinois, operated a mine on Cave Creek for a period of two years before it sold out to the Granby Mining and Smelting Company. Wagon teams hauled the smelted lead to Russellville and where it was shipped to Pennsylvania. [14] Other mines were operated throughout the 1870s with varying degrees of success. As the decade of the 1880s began, however, interest in lead began to decrease in direct proportion to an increased awareness of the extent of zinc concentrations in the area.

The commercial development of zinc in northern Arkansas first occurred in Sharp County near Calamine in 1857 and later in 1871. Although smelters had been constructed during both periods, the activity was of short duration. [15] Then in the early 1880s John Wolfer, one of the foremost prospectors along the Buffalo, and several of his associates located a large deposit of zinc on Rush Creek in southern Marion County. Although denied in later years by Wolfer, tradition maintained that the prospectors believed that the zinc carbonate was actually silver ore. The anxious men then allegedly had the ore assayed, and after finding that it contained eight dollars per ton in silver, decided to build a smelter to obtain the more easily transported silver. They constructed a small stone smelter, but the results were disappointing. Instead of the liquid metal they hoped to produce, the process merely created colorful rainbows over the blast which represented the zinc going off in fumes. Discouraged but not ready to quit, Wolfer held onto his claim for a few years then sold it to George W. Chase from Fayetteville who organized the Morning Star Company in 1891 when he received the patent for the property. The company installed a larger smelter and additional machinery, and the well-established Morning Star Mine eventually became one of the largest producers of zinc in Arkansas. [16]

Nevertheless, the commencement of mining activities began very sporadically as interest in the new highland enterprise rose and fell along with the price of zinc. During the late 1880s, however, the Rush Creek district became the subject of serious exploitation. Interest, for the time being, was centered in the area surrounding the mouth of Rush and Clabber creeks, which were within one half mile of one another. By 1889 two groups had established claims: the Buffalo Zinc and Copper Company and the Arkansas Mining and Investment Company. In early 1888 the former association founded at the mouth of Rush Creek the town of Exeter, complete with a two-story hotel, company stores, post office, and houses. [17] The new town was named for the secretary of the company, Fred C. Exeter, and within a year three more nearby towns had been laid off by the county surveyor. [18] Two hundred claims were recorded during 1887 and 1888 and the mouth of Rush Creek was organized into the Buffalo Mining District which adopted a seal appropriately displaying a bull buffalo. [19] In January 1888 the first ore barge was floated down the river to Batesville. [20] By 1889 the Rush mining district had grown to sufficient proportions that it was profitable for Isaac Snyder to make a weekly trip from Yellville to sell goods from his meat shop. [21] Yet the development of the 1880s was only the beginning.

Panther Creek Mine, Mill Shed, 1916 [Credit: Ardella Vaughan, Jasper, Arkansas]

Panther Creek Mine, Newton County, 1916 [Credit: Ardella Vaughan, Jasper, Arkansas]

The decade of the 1890s served to establish the foundation for the later "boom" during World War I and to advertise the zinc field to the nation's mining community. While interest vacillated, it was reported in 1899 that the influx of prospectors was so great that the surrounding agricultural region was having difficulties in providing enough sustenance.

There is absolutely no beef in that country. I ate salt pork from the time I went in there until I came away—not a bite of fresh meat for anybody. Neither are there any chickens, eggs or butter. In fact, so many have gone there, and the facilities of the people already settled there are so limited that the latter have almost been eaten out of house and home by the prospectors, immigrants and strangers. [22]

While the zinc field stretched across northern Arkansas, the center was the Buffalo basin. As a regional geologist noted, "with the Buffalo Basin left out of the thing the mineral resources of North Arkansas would be very much like the play of Hamlet with Hamlet left out of the cast." [23] While the Rush Creek region marked the focal point of the Buffalo River zinc mining activity, other operations were being instituted in other areas of the watershed along Water and Tomahawk creeks in northern Searcy County and near the headwaters of the river close to Ponca and Boxley. [24]

Although the miners in Newton and Searcy counties were burdened with hauling the ore by means of wagons over circuitous highland roads to the nearest railhead, most of the zinc removed from the mines on the lower Buffalo was transported to Batesville via ore barges. This increased activity on the river led inevitably to the prominence of Buffalo City as the center for supplying the Rush Creek and neighboring areas. Steamboats arrived at regular intervals bringing merchandise, machinery, lumber, and various incidental supplies needed in the fields. [25] The mining excitement was a boon to other industries as well. The lumber business experienced a rise in production as it sought to provide an endless supply of fuel for the smelters in various parts of the region. [26]

One of the problems which constantly plagued the development of mining in the basin was transportation. By 1900 the entire Boston Mountain area had become an island surrounded on all sides by railroads. The inhabitants therein were forced to rely on the rough wagon roads which crossed and recrossed its rugged terrain. [27] As the turn of the century approached, however, the possibility of a railroad being built into the region engendered considerable excitement. Rumors and hearsay filled the newspapers as the mining establishment pinned its hopes on a more efficient and expedient means of transporting the ore. The expected railroad would be, according to the local journals, the salvation of the north Arkansas zinc field. Searcy County's Mountain Wave steadfastly maintained that "Searcy, Newton, Boone and Marion counties contain zinc, copper and lead enough to keep two or three railroads busy for a hundred years." [28] Within a year surveys were being conducted to ascertain the most practical path for the anticipated steel rails. Although one survey plotted a route directly through the Rush Creek district, a line to the southwest received final approval. Between 1901 and 1903 the St. Louis and North Arkansas Railroad extended its lines, which already existed from Joplin, Missouri to Harrison, Arkansas, through the Buffalo River valley to Leslie in southeastern Searcy County. By 1909 the road had been continued from Leslie to Helena, Arkansas on the Mississippi River. [29]

As the new tracks inched their way through the Boston Mountains and across the river, new towns sprang up and older ones, by-passed by the railroad, folded. Pindall in Searcy County developed after the entrance of the road as a siding for shipments of ore from the nearby Big Hurricane Mine and quickly grew into a bustling village with five or six stores, a grist mill, school, and hotel. Although St. Joe had been founded around 1860, the coming of the railroad caused a new section to be added and dubbed New Town. A few miles south, the railroad passed the town of Duff by only a half mile, so the town relocated to a railroad construction camp called Gilbert, which was located directly on the Buffalo River a few miles to the south. Named for Charles W. Gilbert, later president of the railroad, the camp soon became a major departure point for investors and prospectors headed for the Rush Creek area, and at the same time became one of the major shipment locations for Buffalo River zinc. [30] A local resident later recalled that ore wagons often lined up two abreast for almost a mile waiting to unload. [31]

Morning Star Mine and Mill, Rush, 1904 [Credit: National Archives, U.S. Geological Survey, Professional Paper No. 24, Plate XXII]

The railroad was a tremendous boon to the long isolated people of the Buffalo River, but the population proved to be too sparse to enable the railroad to remain solvent. In 1906 the St. Louis and North Arkansas Railroad Company declared bankruptcy, and the newly organized Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad Company assumed operations. The M. & N. A. experienced similar problems, and six years later that company went into receivership, under which the railroad was operated until 1918 when the federal government took control of the line. Following the war the railroad was again managed privately but continued to have financial and administrative difficulties. After two and a half decades of marginal returns, the railroad was finally abandoned in 1946. [32] The building of the railroad did not become, as expected, the panacea for the economic and transportation ills of the region.

The simple presence of the railroad within the Arkansas zinc and lead mining district did not lead to an immediate and ever-increasing production of ore. The amount of finished zinc produced in Arkansas in 1913 was roughly equivalent to that mined in 1907. [33] Because the output of the Rush mills alone accounted for approximately 50 percent of the total production of the state, the figures for the state as a whole generally reflect the production of the north Arkansas mining region. [34]

With the beginning of World War I, the demand for zinc revived the north Arkansas mining district and infused it with sorely needed capital. The year between 1914 and 1915 illustrates the change. Within a matter of a few months, thirty mines became nearly 100; production jumped from eight tons to 3,209. The value of the zinc increased over twelve-fold from $62,016 to $795,832. [35]

With the prospect of success looming greater than ever, the mining district of Rush became the site of an immense immigration of prospectors and miners. Practically overnight Rush grew "from a sleepy village of a few hundred inhabitants to a thriving mining camp." [36] Estimates regarding the population of the small narrow valley reached as high as six thousand although the actual number was probably half that. [37] A "New Town" of Rush sprang up a little over a mile from the mouth of the creek, and the new arrivals quickly erected stores, hotels, pool halls, and a theater. [38]

Because wood provided the universal source of fuel for the steam boilers of the smelters and for the heating of the homes and stores, the need for a constant supply of cordage constituted a singular logistics problem. An average mill consumed eight cords of wood per day during the winter, and there were at least seven mills operating in the Rush area during the height of the activity. [39] The inevitable result of such an insatiable demand for wood led to the denuding of the forest surrounding the Rush Creek valley. Local farmers and woodcutters provided the bulk of the fuel wood under contract with the mine operators and the miners themselves for one dollar per cord plus fifteen cents per hundred weight hauling costs. [40] But hauling the wood on a regular schedule was directly related to the condition of the roads.

In 1916 a correspondent for the Engineering and Mining Journal made an investigative trip to Rush and found the access difficult at best.

To get to Rush I crossed Rush Creek 43 times and when not in the creek was on the worst road ever, the ground being hub-deep and frozen. A storm on the ocean was not a circumstance to a ride in the stage. I walked three of the 12 miles and would have been pleased to have walked more, but the darned creek kept getting in the way. To add to my discomfort, the temperature was 16 above and the breeze brisk. Rush is where wolves swoop down on the farmers raising pigs. [41]

A reliable source of fuel was not the only problem faced by the miners at Rush. Aside from the hazardous working conditions in and around the mines, the extremely crowded housing conditions and inadequate sanitary facilities led to epidemics of typhoid and related diseases. Fortunately for the Rush Creek miners there existed in the immediate area a number of fresh-water springs from which a constant supply of clear water could be obtained. [42]

No sooner had the new mining camps been constructed and an extended period of prosperity been envisioned for the entire zinc and lead mining district, than the industry experienced a devastating and unexpected decline. After reaching peak production of zinc in 1916 and 1917 when Arkansas refined 6,815 and 6,691 tons respectively, the industry in 1918 produced only 951 tons, and by 1924 the total had fallen to 4. The plight of the companion lead industry was much the same. In 1917 Arkansas's lead production reached a high with 382 tons, but three years later the total output of the state had diminished to only 8 tons. [43]

The immediate causes for the abrupt abatement of zinc and lead production were an unusual set of circumstances that could not have been foreseen. Initially, the high productivity through 1916 and 1917 led to a lowering of prices; at the same time higher production costs were necessary to refine the ore. In addition, an ever-increasing problem grew from the reduction of the labor force through the national draft. As the involvement of the United States in World War I increased, the demand for young men to serve in the armed forces grew proportionately. Consequently, the source of labor for the most physically taxing of the mining jobs was reduced. The mines hired older men as replacements in order to continue operating. The resulting loss of efficiency led to additional production costs. [44] And finally, the end of the war signaled an end to all price agreements and cooperative arrangements between smelters and ore producers. The prewar system of unrestrained competition resumed. [45]

The zinc and lead mining boom along the Buffalo had run its course. The swift decline of the industry signaled a sudden reversal of the economy of the region. As the main source of employment was withdrawn, the discouraged miners sought work elsewhere and local farmers, who had supplied labor as well as various goods and services, returned to their fields. By 1920 the end of mining manifested itself in a decline in the valley's population. Searcy County lost 15.9 percent of its citizens while Marion, slower to feel the pinch, lost only .5 percent. Newton County, which had the least extensive operations, continued to gain slightly. By 1930 the effect was glaringly apparent. Searcy County's population from 14,590 to 11,056, a decline of almost 25 percent, and Marion County suffered a loss of almost 13 percent. Newton County, which remained more agriculturally than mineralogically oriented, reported a population loss of only 5.7 percent. [46] Although a portion of the decrease must be attributable to postwar restlessness, clearly the sudden closing of the mines was responsible for a large portion of the decline. Whatever the reason for the abrupt drop in the population, the three counties never again contained the number of inhabitants they possessed during the decade from 1915 to 1925.

The decrease in prices during the last year of the war and the concurrent rise in production costs doubtless brought the mining industry of northern Arkansas to its knees. A somewhat less tangible element, however, also played a role, In 1900 Arkansas State Geologist, John C. Branner, observed that the lead and zinc region of Arkansas could never develop to its fullest potential until the rough mountain roads which connected the mines to the railroads were substantially improved. Even the introduction of railroad service into the area, he continued, would not measurably alleviate the situation unless the primitive mountain roads were completely renovated. [47]

It would be difficult to determine the extent to which the lack of an adequate system of all-weather roads affected the operation of the mining industry. The decline of mining along the river was due to many interrelated factors and while a poor transportation system arguably affected the mining operation to a certain degree, it was not a major reason for the collapse. Other Ozark districts consistently out-produced the northern Arkansas fields. The southeastern Missouri mining region in particular, with a similar topography to that around Rush, was the largest single producer of zinc in the United States in 1914 and 1915 producing 38 and 36 percent of the country's total smelter production. The northern Arkansas fields, by comparison, produced less than 1 percent of the nation's output during the same years. [48] Clearly the success or failure of the Ozark zinc and lead mine fields was not dependent upon a highly refined system of highland roads.

Life along the Buffalo River quickly regained a semblance of its former tranquility. Farmers returned to their fields, businessmen either closed their doors or adjusted their affairs to meet a greatly diminished demand, and the inhabitants of the valley soon became more interested in the current price of corn and pork than in that of lead and zinc concentrates. And the earlier, less chaotic way of life returned. Highland life once more became one with the seasons. The mountain folk re-established, if indeed it had ever been abandoned, their dependency on the soil for their principal livelihood. Survival once again depended on the farmers' ability to eke out an existence from the none too productive soil rather than on a pay check from a mine bursar. The resulting high degree of self-reliance allowed the people of the Buffalo River country to weather the decade of the 1930s without much of the wrenching social and financial dislocation experienced by the rest of the nation.

Throughout the Great Depression the inhabitants of the valley and the surrounding area were able to rely on the products of their gardens and fields to tide them over the hard times. Indeed, the protected valleys along the Buffalo appeared to hold the answer to the gnawing problem of surviving the growing economic crisis. The decade of the 1920s had significantly reduced the population of the lower valley as former miners, farmers, and other like-minded individuals sought economic success in more promising locations. But with the onset of depressed times beginning in 1930, that situation for the northwest part of Arkansas was reversed. By 1940 all three Buffalo River counties reported population gains of between 3 and 8 percent. In addition, a concurrent increase in the number of farms occurred. Between the turn of the century and 1920 the number of farms had steadily increased. From 1920 to 1930 the number declined between 7 and 13 percent. During the next decade, however, the number of farms increased by an average of almost 4 percent. [49]

The relatively isolated life style of the residents of the Buffalo River watershed became a sought after commodity during the 1930s as people returned to the Arkansas Ozarks in an attempt to elude the economic ills which beset the nation. The quest for economic independence was realized within the watershed, for at a time when many farmers were forfeiting their lands to mortgage and insurance companies, and either relocating or becoming tenant farmers, land along the Buffalo was predominately owned by those who actually tilled the soil. In 1940 over half the farms in Arkansas were owned by someone other than the operator, but the tenancy rate in the highlands was significantly lower. Newton County reported a rate of only 27.4 percent while Searcy County ranked highest among the three with a tenancy rate of 33.1 percent. Both counties ranked among the lowest in the state. [50]

Life along the river was not, however, without its hardships. The financial constriction felt by the country as a whole was experienced in northern Arkansas. The hillfolk welcomed the various relief programs instituted by the federal government. Perhaps the most serious difficulty faced by the inhabitants was an extended drought during the first several years of the depression. Crops either failed altogether or matured in very poor condition. In 1930 the Marion County Fair was cancelled because of the drought and the inferior quality of the crops. [51] In Searcy County farmers were admonished to save their crop seeds as they were in short supply. [52] To assist the distressed farmers, the State Relief Commission began, in 1932, to establish canning centers which provided a central location for the preservation of surplus crops for later consumption. By 1935 nearly every county in Arkansas had at least one such "canning kitchen," and Searcy County had three. Within three years of their inception the centers had provided the facilities for the canning of over twelve million cans of fruits, vegetables, and meats. [53]

By the mid-mark of the decade, the rainfall returned to normal and one editor announced that "Prospects for the future are brighter." [54] Crop diversification became a requisite for the successful operation of a farm, and gardens helped supply an ever greater portion of the food quota. In 1936 the Marion County Agent projected that if a farmer owned two milk cows, a good brood sow, thirty laying hens, and a year round garden, life in the county would be without privation. Once the above had been provided, the agent admonished, then it was time to plan for a cash crop to supplement the income. [55] The ability to make a living from the earth thus allowed the valley inhabitants to survive the most oppressive of the depression years without excessive hardships.

Once the depression ended, however, and the country began mobilizing for World War II, the exodus from the valley resumed. Doubtless the war itself caused the relocation of many highland residents as young men found the slow pace of Ozark life tedious after being exposed to more urban centers in the United States and Europe. In addition, economic opportunities seemingly were endless in other parts of the country as the nation geared up for the conflict and then rode the crest of prosperity during the affluent 1950s. The temptation of pecuniary gain elsewhere in addition to increased association with the "outside world" was too great for large numbers of residents. Beginning in 1940 and continuing through the 1960s, the population of the Buffalo River country declined at a considerable rate. Newton County experienced the most serious loss, 20.2 percent during the 1940s, while Searcy and Marion followed with 12.7 and 9. The subsequent decade was even more draining on the rapidly decreasing population. Losses during that period ranged from 31.3 percent in Newton County to 22.1 percent in Searcy County. [56] Emigration from the valley continued for several more decades, but stopped entirely during the 1970s when all three counties recorded population gains of from 14.4 (Searcy) to 61.9 (Marion) percent. [57]

Today the area remains one of the least populated regions in the state. Newton County, with its steep bluffs and winding valleys, has the smallest population density in Arkansas: barely nine people per square mile. [58] The Buffalo River country, today as yesterday, is predominately an area of small farms. With the exception of the twentieth century modifications such as steel bridges, asphalt highways, and scattered modern buildings, the landscape of the valley in many corners of the watershed has not changed excessively since the turn of the century. The topography of the region prevents any major changes in the land use, and there is little to attract business and industry to annarea which possesses the lowest per capita income in the state. [59]

In recent years the most significant alteration in the area's quiet existence has been the acquisition by the federal government of the river itself as a scenic addition to the National Park Service. That occurrence, and the circumstances surrounding it, was met by the residents of the valley with mixed emotions.

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Last Updated: 14-Jan-2008