Monday, August 14, 2017


Arkansas River between Canon City and Pueblo, Colorado

In the first three books I have written for the Sweethearts of Jubilee Springs historical western series, my characters, as they approach the fictional town of Jubilee Springs, they watch the Arkansas River as the train follows along its banks and crosses the river prior to it arriving in town. Andrea Dalton in Aaron’s Annulment Bride has difficulty visualizing the racing river in Jubilee Springs as being the same one that passes within a day’s ride south of her father’s ranch near Ellsworth, Kansas. Catherine Everett in Cat’s Meow is also intrigued, but not to the same extent since she is focused on keeping a kitten entertained while on the train. However, towards the end of the book, she is promised a quick swim in the snowmelt of the river. Bessie Carlson in Bargain Bessie also compares the Arkansas River to the Wabash River she knew back in her childhood home in Terre Haute, Indiana.

I personally did not know there was a river named the Arkansas until I had occasion to travel the highways along its banks to visit family in Colorado, Oklahoma and Fort Smith, Arkansas. Here is what I learned about this ribbon of water that sweeps eastward from the Rocky Mountains across the plains until it empties into the Mississippi River.
Yancopin Bridge before the Arkansas River empties into the Mississippi River.
The Arkansas River is a major tributary of the Mississippi River. It generally flows to the east and southeast and crosses the states of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Its source is the snowpack of the Sawatch and Mosquito mountain ranges high in the Arkansas Valley of Colorado near the mining town of Leadville. It then flows east into the Midwest plains of Colorado, Kansas, then turns southward into Oklahoma and Arkansas. The Arkansas River’s mouth is at Napoleon, Arkansas where it joins the Mississippi River.
Arkansas River headwaters

At 1,469 miles, the Arkansas River is the sixth longest river in the United States and the second longest tributary in the Missisippi-Missouri river system.

The river banks have been home to many native tribes since the vast herds of buffalo traveled to it for water. That changed as white settlers moved west, killed off the herds of buffalo, drove the native people onto reservations, and developed the area.

The first Europeans to see the river were members of the Spanish Coronado expedition on June 29, 1541. Also in the 1540s, Hernando de Soto discovered the junction of the Arkansas with the Mississippi.

The Spanish originally called the river Napeste. "The name "Arkansas" was first applied by Father Jacques Marquette, who called the river Akansa in his journal of 1673. The Joliet-Marquette expedition traveled the Mississippi River from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin towards the Gulf of Mexico, but turned back at the mouth of the Arkansas River. By that time, they had encountered Native Americans carrying European trinkets, and feared confrontation with Spanish conquistadors.

An 1840 Steamboat

On March 31, 1820, the Comet became the first steamboat to successfully navigate part of the Arkansas River, reaching a place called Arkansas Point, about 40 miles (64 km) above the confluence of the Arkansas and the Mississippi Rivers.

The Santa Fe Trail followed the Arkansas through much of Kansas, picking it up near Great Bend and continuing through to La Junta, Colorado, although some travelers chose to travel the more difficult Cimarron Cutoff where it separated in Cimarron, Kansas. The trail later connected with the Cimarron River, one of the larger tributaries of the Arkansas River.

Arkansas River - Salida, Colorado

White settlers had plans for the Arkansas River bigger than watering buffalo.  In the 1880s, Charles "Buffalo" Jones, one of the co-founders of Garden City, Kansas, organized four irrigation companies to take water one hundred miles from the Arkansas River to cultivate 75,000 acres of land. By 1890, water from the Arkansas was being used to irrigate more than 20×103 acres of farmland in Kansas. Colorado also used the water from this river. By 1910, irrigation projects in Colorado had caused the river to stop flowing in July and August. Disputes over water rights for the Arkansas River affected both states for years.

The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System begins at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa on the Verdigris River, enters the Arkansas near Muskogee, and runs via an extensive lock and dam system to the Mississippi River.

Through Oklahoma and Arkansas, dams artificially deepen and widen the river to build it into a commercially navigable body of water. As I traveled along this river, I personally found it hard to reconcile the narrow, racing river we drove alongside on our way down from Canon City to Pueblo, Colorado (See my image I used for this blog post header), to the wide expanse of river in eastern Oklahoma that appeared more like a large lake. The dams were the reason.

Today when I travel through eastern Oklahoma, the river looks like this.

Arkansas River at Van Buren, Arkansas
While I was researching an earlier blog post about Fort Smith, Arkansas, I learned in earlier centuries, the river flowed many feet below the city as shown in this 1856 photograph. 
Arkansas River by Fort Smith, Arkansas - 1856

However, in modern times, this area known as Belle Point, an early docking locality, is almost level with the water.

Arkansas River at Belle Point, Fort Smith, Arkansas

Here is what the river looks like flowing under the railroad bridge in Fort Smith today.
Railroad Bridge, Fort Smith, Arkansas

Flooding in 1927 severely damaged or destroyed nearly every levee downstream of Fort Smith, and led to the development of the Arkansas River Flood Control Association. It also led to the Federal Government assigning responsibility of flood control and navigation on the Arkansas to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE).

Many of today’s large cities have built up along the banks of the Arkansas River before it joins the Mississippi. Here are photos of some others.

Arkansas River, downtown Pueblo, Colorado

Arkansas River, Wichita, Kansas
Arkansas River, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Arkansas River, Little Rock, Arkansas

I have three novellas in the Sweethearts of Jubilee Springs series available.

Book 6:  Cat's Meow

Book 7:  Bargain Bessie

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  1. Ah yes, the Arkansas. I have spent many a day on or near it in Salida, Canon City and Pueblo. Pueblo now uses part of it for their River Walk.

    If you talk with almost anyone who's lived in Colorado for any time, they will tell you Colorado provides water for a majority of the West, but gets very little of it themselves.

    A wonderful look at the River. Also the best to you on this series and your other stories. Doris

  2. Thank you, Doris. It has been fun learning more about this river and the role it played in developing both Colorado and Kansas.