Kenneth Bridges | History Columnist
The Arkansas River flows across four states, from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, across the plains of Kansas and Oklahoma, and into Arkansas before emptying into the Mississippi River. Though its importance to Arkansas has always been unquestioned, leaders in Oklahoma and Arkansas began to realize by the 1920s and 1930s that it could it could be so much more. Through the tireless efforts of two men – John McClellan and Robert Kerr – this dream became a reality with the construction of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.
Since the early 1920s, business and political leaders in both Arkansas and Oklahoma had discussed development of the Arkansas River as an economic tool for both states. The river had been used for shipping for generations, but the buildup of silt in the river made navigation difficult for modern ships. It was believed that this could be corrected and a series of hydroelectric dams could be built along the river to contain flooding problems and provide electricity for the region.
In the 1930s, attempts were pushed by business and political leaders in Arkansas and Oklahoma to fund a series of locks, dams, and dredging projects for the Arkansas River, but the plans were scuttled when engineers questioned the feasibility of the project.
In Arkansas, former prosecutor and former congressman John L. McClellan was elected to the U. S. Senate in 1942. The Sheridan native was a powerful and respected figure in the state for decades. Though a man of many accomplishments in the Senate, he worked to ensure that funding for development projects and infrastructure steadily came to Arkansas. In 1946, he won approval for the project in the Rivers and Harbors Act.
Sen. Robert S. Kerr of Oklahoma had been a tireless advocate for the development of Oklahoma since his beginnings as an oilman and his tenure as governor between 1943 and 1947. He saw the development of the waterways of the Arkansas River across the heart of his own state as a potential windfall for Oklahoma’s economy. When he entered the U. S. Senate in 1949, he made it a key priority for his state.
However, in 1954, Senate Republicans all but killed the riverway, pushing it aside for further study. When Democrats reclaimed control of the Senate in 1955, Kerr and McClellan returned funding for the Arkansas River project in a highway appropriations bill. The Oklahoma Democrat died in 1963 while McClellan made sure that support for the project continued.
The river plan would begin with a series of locks and dams, starting on the Verdigis River branch of the Arkansas River just east of Tulsa and following the Arkansas River to the Mississippi River. The river was expanded and straightened in several places to increase the flow of the river and prevent the buildup of silt. Ultimately, seventeen locks and dams were built at a cost of $1.3 billion to control river elevation and help transport of goods along the river. Thousands of people worked tirelessly to complete what was then called the Arkansas-Verdigris Waterway.
The Blue Mountain Dam is western Arkansas near Mount Magazine was completed in 1947 as the first stage of the project, creating Blue Mountain Lake. Keystone Lake and Eufaula Lake were created in eastern Oklahoma in the late 1960s to help control water levels in the navigation system. The Kerr Reservoir, a vital portion of the system in eastern Oklahoma, was completed in 1970.