Let The River Be:
A History of the Ozark's Buffalo River
NPS Logo

VI. "...let the River be."

With a few exceptions, the Buffalo River was never considered a navigable stream. Its flow was much too intermittent; its channel much too shallow. The river was more successful in providing power for numerous gristmills, although the periodic floods first mentioned by Timothy Flint in 1828 continued to make that enterprise tentative at best. Beginning just before the turn of the century, however, various proposals were made to dam the river, to harness and expand its supposed energy potential, and to enhance the possibilities of commercial traffic on the river.

As early as 1890 a geologist for the state of Arkansas noted that although the river contained "almost unlimited" water-power, controlling it would be most difficult due to the recurring floods. [1] Six years later, the Army Corps of Engineers conducted a survey to determine what modification of the stream would be necessary to enable it to carry regular freight service. The engineer in charge of the inspection concluded that the Buffalo could be made navigable at all stages of water by constructing a series of five locks and dams. The prohibitive expense, estimated at $30,990 per mile, compelled the Corps to forgo the project and recommend a less costly dredging operation. [2]

In 1911 an Arkansas engineer suggested harnessing the stream near the mouth of Rush Creek in southern Marion County. At what is now termed Seven Mile Bend, W.N. Gladson proposed the construction not only of a twenty foot dam, but also of a half mile long tunnel through the hill around which the river wound. An estimated 225 horsepower would be produced by the dam and accompanying tunnel. [3] The recommended construction never took place, and during subsequent years, as the population along the Buffalo began to dwindle, there seems to have been little interest in damming the river for any purpose.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, interest in controlling the Buffalo increased as public works teamed up with the development of hydroelectric power. The idea of creating thousands of jobs while providing needed electricity and flood control to rural areas of the country resulted in the construction of Boulder Dam on the Colorado and later in a massive project on the Tennessee. On May 18, 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Tennessee Valley Authority Act which in part authorized the government to construct and operate a series of dams on the Tennessee River and its tributaries. [4] The public response to this and other acts prompted Congress to endorse additional projects.

The Rivers and Harbors acts of 1935 and 1936 authorized the "construction of certain public works on rivers and harbors for flood control, and for other purposes" and included a number of impoundments on the White River, but none on the Buffalo. [5] The following year (1937) the Drainage Basin Committee, an independent governmental body, published its report on the White River which proposed a dam on the lower Buffalo. Lone Rock Dam, as it was named, was recommended for power development and for "some benefit to flood control." [6] In addition, the committee placed on indeterminate classification the construction of two smaller dams on Rush and Mill creeks. [7] Congress authorized the Lone Rock impoundment on June 28, 1938 with the Flood Control Act. That act placed the responsibility for the preparation of feasibility studies with the War Department; specifically with the Chief of Army Engineers. [8] During the succeeding year the Army Corps of Engineers recommended the construction of the Lone Rock Dam one mile from the mouth of the Buffalo at a cost of $11,422,000. [9]

Actual construction of the dams was delayed, however, due to the need for additional studies, cost evaluations, and, most importantly, the beginning of World War II. Indeed, the idea was largely forgotten until 1954 when the Corps of Engineers recommended that not one but two dams be constructed on the river. It suggested that Lone Rock be built three and a half miles from the mouth, and that a second dam, Gilbert, be located almost sixty miles upstream near the town bearing the same name. The Corps of Engineers designed the pair to operate as a unit for flood control and for power production. The two dams would have the same storage capacity as the originally approved Lone Rock Dam, but the estimated federal expenditure had risen significantly. For Lone Rock, which would rise 230 feet above the stream bed, the Corps estimated the cost to be $45,070,000, while the Gilbert structure, a slightly smaller dam at 218 feet, was projected to cost $40,910,000. The Corps at the same time rejected a dam at Carver even farther up river in Newton County, as well as a series of low-head dams on the lower portion of the Buffalo. [10] In July 1956 Congress incorporated the Corps' recommended Lone Rock and Gilbert dams into yet another flood Control Bill and sent it to the President for approval. [11] On August 10, 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower vetoed H.R. 12080, not because he opposed development of the nation's water resources, but because he believed that sufficient care and planning had not gone into a large number of the suggested projects and that the states involved had not been given sufficient opportunity to review and comment on the recommendations. [12]

Congress persisted and in early 1957 passed the River and Harbor and Flood Control Bill. [13] The bill included both projects as they had been recommended by the Corps of Engineers in 1954. President Eisenhower again vetoed the bill. He listed as his major objections many of his previous arguments for disapproval, and, in addition, objected to a number of the proposed projects because of their apparent wastefulness and the fact that at least three had no economic justification. [14] Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas denounced the President's action as "a most serious blow to the progress and the orderly development of the water resources, not only in Arkansas but in all the Nation." [15]

Arkansans, including those who lived along the river, generally approved of the dams as a beneficial progressive undertaking. The need for flood control seemed obvious, and while the projected hydroelectric plants would have produced much more power than the immediate area could absorb, their construction was considered far more positive than negative. Prior to the 1950s there was little or no opposition to the placing of dams across the river. During the latter part of that decade, however, public awareness of the beauty and grandeur the Buffalo had to offer began to mount. [16] And opponents of plans to dam the river began to unite and propose alternatives to inundation.

On January 4, 1961 Arkansas' Representative from the Third Congressional District, James W. Trimble, introduced H.R. 1839 which provided for the development of hydroelectric power and flood control within the White River basin which included the Lone Rock and Gilbert dams on the Buffalo. [17] Trimble's action prompted conservationists from around the state to organize the Arkansas Nature Conservancy, which espoused the twin goals of acquiring the Lost Valley area on the upper Buffalo and of creating "a national park on the upper and middle reaches of the Buffalo River." Elected officials included S.C. Dellinger from the University of Arkansas as President, Dr. Neil Compton from Bentonville as Vice President, and Mrs. Laird Archer from Fayetteville as Secretary. [18] Of primary importance to these foes of dams on the Buffalo was the support of Arkansas' congressmen.

A major step toward the preservation of the river came during the summer of 1961 when Mrs. Archer wrote her long-time friend Senator Fulbright about the possibility of establishing a national park on the Buffalo. Fulbright, apparently having lost his earlier enthusiasm for dams, quickly responded that he was "very interested in getting the Buffalo River included in the National Park System" and intended to obtain an "appropriation which would finance a survey by the National Park Service of this area." [19] The following October a Park Service team inspected the river and concluded that it qualified for inclusion into the National Park System. [20] Thus by the end of 1961 two governmental agencies found themselves diametrically opposed on the issue of damming the Buffalo. The Corps of Engineers and Representative Trimble advocated the construction of both Lone Rock and Gilbert dams while the National Park Service, local conservation groups, and Senator Fulbright were opposed. That basic alignment, although later augmented by the addition of interest groups on both sides, remained throughout the ten-year struggle over the future of the Buffalo.

Local proponents of the two dams also realized that organization was a necessity and during early 1962 formed the Buffalo River Improvement Association (BRIA). Made up of business and commercial interests in Marshall, Searcy County, and led by James Tudor, the local newspaper editor, and Gibson Walsh, the owner of an abstract company, the BRIA argued that "spiritual and intellectual freedom can only exist where there is economic growth," and the dams, it asserted, would furnish the necessary growth. [21] Shortly after the establishment of the organization, the Marshall group published The Truth About the Buffalo River, a pamphlet which further explained its position. The small treatise argued that the construction of Lone Rock and Gilbert dams would result in the development of needed electrical power, in soil and water conservation, in the encouragement of industry and tourism, and in a corresponding higher standard of living. The tract also considered the possibility of a national park, but only for the area upstream from the proposed Gilbert reservoir. [22] It suggested that the Buffalo could accommodate both propositions: a national park on the upper reaches of the river and dams and reservoirs on the middle and lower portions of the stream. But half a river was not enough for the opponents of the dams.

A public hearing called by the Corps of Engineers in Marshall on January 30, 1962 marked the first meeting between the antagonists in the struggle and the outcome resulted unquestionably in a victory for the local pro-dam forces. Dr. Neil Compton who attended the meeting on behalf of preservation interests later remarked that "we were definitely impressed by the thorough-going efforts of the people in the Buffalo River Improvement Association." [23] The encounter in Marshall, while a victory for the BRIA, had the more important effect of stirring the conservation faction into greater action.

Two events during the spring of that year significantly advanced the conservationists' cause. In April, United States Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas floated the Buffalo for several days with an entourage of dam opponents. Douglas, an avid outdoorsman and lone-time conservationist, enthusiastically favored preservation of the river under the protection of the National Park Service. He strongly believed that in the near future additional recreational facilities would increasingly be needed. "Today, we work a 40-hour week," the Associate Justice remarked after his float. "In the next generation it will be down to a four-day week. The people of will need something besides beer and television." [24] The media coverage of the visit helped to advertise the plight of the Buffalo and solicit support from conservation-minded individuals and groups in Arkansas and in neighboring states.

The following month preservation proponents, buoyed by the Douglas trip and aware of the strength of the BRIA, gathered on the campus of the University of Arkansas and on May 24 established the Ozark Society with Dr. Compton and Mrs. Laird Archer, both from the Arkansas Nature Conservancy, as President and Secretary. The Society pledged as its immediate objective "the preservation of the Buffalo River and adjacent areas in their natural state," and stated that its long term goal was the promotion of the knowledge and enjoyment of the Ozark-Ouachita mountain region. [25]

While the Ozark Society was being formed in Fayetteville, another anti-dam group, the Searcy County Farmers Association (a title later changed to the Buffalo River Landowners' Association), was being organized. That body consisted of property owners along the river in Searcy County, many of whom possessed land that would be inundated if the Gilbert dam were constructed. [26] Unlike the Ozark Society, the Landowners' Association was less than enthusiastic about the possible inclusion of the stream into the National Park System. The landowners were more interested in continuing as they always had rather than opting for either of what they considered extreme alternatives.

By early 1963 the National Park Service had evaluated its field work and announced it was recommending that the Buffalo be designated a National River. The damming of the river, according to the Park Service report, would so change the character of the Buffalo that it would no longer be of national significance as a free-flowing river. The report was emphatic: "Here lies the last opportunity for preservation of a river typical of the Arkansas Ozarks, and, indeed, the opportunity for preservation of a river considered by many to be the most outstanding free-flowing stream in the Southwest." [27] Thus the National Park Service entered the fray—not as an observer with only secondary interests, but directly, as a participant, with a vested interest in preserving a portion of the nation's scenic beauty for future generations.

Following the official decision of the Park Service to seek inclusion of the river into its system, the cause of the Ozark Society and the other conservationists was greatly heightened. Additional support emerged from the media as articles in state and national periodicals and newspapers appeared, and interested individuals pledged their favor if not their direct assistance. [28] In May 1964 Dr. Compton received a conservation award from American Motors Corporation for his efforts in protecting the Buffalo. The Buffalo River Landowners' Association could claim 365 members by the later part of that year. [29] But the permanent preservation of the river was far from an accomplished reality.

Support for the dams was still vigorous, enthusiastic, and substantial. On November 18, 1964 the second local hearing for the two dams took place in Marshall. The Ozark Society attempted to obtain a court restraining order to postpone the hearing on the basis that it had been denied information by the Corps of Engineers, but the plea was denied and the hearing was held as scheduled. [30] The gathering was similar in many respects to the earlier one held in January of 1962. There emerged a solid phalanx of support for the dams by the local populace, and the pro-dam advocates again made an impressive showing. A significance difference, nevertheless, became patently evident. Opposition to the dam proposal had grown substantially since the previous hearing. Two organizations, the Ozark Society and the Buffalo River Landowners' Association, had been formed with the explicit purpose of thwarting the impoundments, and both made their intentions known. [31] In addition, Assistant Director Jackson E. Price represented the National Park Service and emphatically asserted that the "Corps' announced plan is not compatible with the Buffalo National River" proposal and that the Park Service adamantly opposed any impoundments on the river. [32]

Price and the organizations opposed to the dams were supported by a large number of private citizens who were unable to attend, but who sent statements to be included in the official record of the meeting. Outstanding among those who voiced their opinions in absentia was the Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton, who, long acquainted with the Buffalo, implored the Corps to "let the River be." [33] The hearing ended in a stalemate. The distance between those for and those against the dams remained unchanged. And Congress, keenly aware of the seemingly irreconcilable philosophical differences between the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service and the similar division between Fulbright and Trimble, postponed any action. [34]

The month after the hearing at Marshall, the Corps of Engineers published its comprehensive study of the Buffalo River basin in which it recommended that the dam at Lone Rock be de-authorized, but at the same time emphasized the need for a single large dam at the Gilbert site. The engineer in charge of the study observed that a "multi-purpose dam and reservoir at the Gilbert site on the Buffalo River will provide a practical and economical means of conserving and developing the water and related resources of the Buffalo River Basin. . . ." [35] The estimated initial cost of the Gilbert project would be $55,300,000, and the Corps estimated that it would require $380,000 annually for operating expenses. [36]

During the months that followed the release of the Corps' latest proposal, both local and national newspapers and magazines published articles in support of the preservation of the river. [37] Then in the April 1965 issue of Outdoor Life appeared an article by Hank Bradshaw which appealed directly to its readers to support the Ozark Society in its battle with the Corps of Engineers. [38] The plea brought responses from as far away as California and Pennsylvania; all offering to make financial contributions, sign petitions, or write their congressmen. [39]

Public concern for the plight of the Buffalo was growing apace, and the countless petitions, letters to politicians, and editorials were beginning to bear fruit. During the summer of 1965 the Lyndon Johnson administration decided to support the proposal to save the river, and, more important, the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, while he had as yet made no official statement on the issue, endorsed the national river idea in letters to constituents. [40] By December the governor's position had solidified considerably. On December 10 Faubus sent a letter to the Chief of the Army Engineers, William F. Cassidy, in which he formally declared himself opposed to the Gilbert (or any other dam on the Buffalo) and admitted he was strongly in favor of the national river proposal. [41] The letter was perhaps the single most important aid the conservationists received in the lengthy battle to rescue the river. While the Corps of Engineers remained convinced the dam would benefit the people of the valley, it customarily did not recommend authorization for projects that were opposed by the governor of the state in which the projects were located. Thus in April, 1966 Lt. Gen. William Cassidy withdrew his recommendation for construction of both the Lone Rock and Gilbert dams. [42]

Preservation forces had gained valuable time. But as long as the river was not protected by the National Park Service, or in some other manner, the possibility remained that changing political conditions could lead to the resurrection of the proposal to dam the river. In addition, Congressman Trimble, following the withdrawal of the proposal by Cassidy, vowed to "do all that I can to get it [the Gilbert dam] authorized." [43] The upcoming election became crucially important to both sides.

The fate of the Buffalo emerged as an important issue in the race for the Third Congressional District. The results revealed that the tide had turned. James Trimble lost in two out of the three Buffalo River counties and consequently lost his seat in Congress to Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt from Harrison. Only in Newton County did Trimble win and there only by 123 votes. [44] The defeat of Trimble was significant. He was the only Arkansas congressman unalterably dedicated to the damming of the river. With his removal from office, the pro-dam forces lost much of their momentum, and positive steps toward creation of the Buffalo National River began.

On January 30, 1967 Senator Fulbright introduced a bill that provided for federal ownership and administration of the river. Representative Hammerschmidt proposed a similar bill in the House of Representatives five weeks later. [45] Because of a crowded legislative calendar, however, Congress, increasingly consumed with the war in Viet Nam, took no substantive action until 1971. [46] During that year the Senate passed its version of the national river bill and the House, moving more cautiously, conducted public hearings late in October before its Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation. [47]

The subcommittee hearings revealed to Congress what had been known locally since the beginning of the struggle: residents along the Buffalo strongly opposed the taking of their land by the federal government either for Corps of Engineers's dams or for preservation under the National Park Service. As the dam proposal was shelved in favor of the park idea, a noticeable shift in opposition occurred. The Buffalo River Landowners' Association that had opposed the dams was located largely in Searcy County and consisted of farmers who feared the loss of their farms, but who lived away from the river. With the increase in National Park Service involvement, opposition shifted upriver to Newton County where the landowners resisted removal from the homes which were located immediately adjacent to the river. These long-time residents of the valley founded the Buffalo River Conservation and Recreation Council which opposed the taking of their property on constitutional grounds. [48]

Buffalo River inhabitants traveled to Washington for the hearings and made their sentiments known through letters. Almost to a person they opposed the takeover of the Buffalo by the federal government. Their contention was basic: personal rights and county economics. A Newton County resident concisely expressed the basis for the landowners' opposition.

The landowners along the Buffalo River in Newton County, Arkansas do not oppose keeping the Buffalo River in its present state. They do oppose, and rightly so, those from outside the area and those within the federal government telling them what must be done with their lands. [49]

In addition to their desire to retain their farms and homes, some of which had been in the same family for over a hundred years, the Buffalo River citizens, especially in Newton County, were concerned that their meager tax base would be eroded further. They had reason to be alarmed. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt created the Ozark National Forest which eventually placed 195,638 Newton County acres under the jurisdiction of the National Forest Service. The removal from the tax rolls of land along the Buffalo would further reduce the taxable land in Newton County to less than 50 percent. [50] A county that already possessed one of the lowest per capita incomes in the state could ill afford, it was argued, to lose any more land to the nontaxable federal government. Opposition to the national river idea was so pervasive that in 1968 citizens in Newton County voted by over 95 percent against it. [51]

Throughout its two days of deliberations, the subcommittee heard the impassioned pleas of local landowners to leave the river valley in private ownership, but it also heard equally compelling arguments in favor of the national river proposal. After weighing the alternatives, the subcommittee members reported favorably on the bill and on February 7, 1972 it was passed by the House. [52] In less than a month, President Richard M. Nixon signed Public Law 92-237 "To provide for the establishment of the Buffalo National River." [53] Limited in size to 95,730 acres, the river would be preserved for future generations under the administration of the National Park Service.

Perhaps the outcome was inevitable. Local opposition to the creation of the Buffalo National River was considerable and determined, but almost entirely limited to the landowners along the river. The conservationists who advocated federal ownership not only wielded more influence through sheer weight of numbers, but also could rely on the disciplined organization of a large number of established societies which were dedicated to the preservation of unique natural areas throughout the United States. Those who opposed the establishment of a federally owned river were simply outnumbered.

The land along the Buffalo River has thus come full circle. Originally owned by the federal government and offered for sale during the early years of the nineteenth century, it has now been reclaimed as another addition to the National Park System. The intervening years have brought a substantial amount of change to the small valley, and yet in many ways it has changed very little since the first white settler constructed a log cabin on the river's banks. The natural beauty enjoyed for generations by the inhabitants of the region remains intact despite the intense mining and lumbering activities of several decades. Where primitive wagon trails crossed the ridges, asphalt highways now speed visitors to and through the watershed. The former prevalence of the log cabin dwelling has been largely, although not entirely, replaced by modern frame structures with asbestos siding and asphalt roofs. In addition, there is an increasing incidence of vacation style cabins and mobile homes.

In the second half of the twentieth century change dramatically affected the built, as well as the cultural, environment of the Buffalo River valley. The improvement of roads, the construction of high, all-weather bridges, and the introduction of television altered the southern Ozarks in fundamental ways. But one can say the same about almost any other rural area in the United States. The hillfolk studied by Vance Randolph arguably existed and individually lead "simple lives, without any modern gadgets." Whether they collectively formed a distinct "mountain culture" or simply constituted less progressive elements of a rural society exacerbated by a highly contorted terrain is questionable. In the absence of superhighways and urban sprawl, the Ozarks will always appear to change at a slower rate. And within the Ozarks the pace will vary as it does today from Marshall to Snowball and Harrison to Boxley.

Throughout whatever change comes to the Arkansas Ozarks, the Buffalo River will continue as it has for a century and a half to comfort its neighbors and enchant its visitors. Dynamic and static, serene and violent, the river flows with a reassuring inevitability evoking rich images of a pastoral yesterday while holding the promise of a familiar tomorrow.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 14-Jan-2008