The Port of Catoosa and the Poteau River Navigation Project: A Legacy of Robert S. Kerr

Updated on December 20, 2018
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Eric Standridge is a historian and author that focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau, Oklahoma.

The Port of Catoosa
The Port of Catoosa | Source

Strange fact: The Port of Catoosa is one of the largest, most inland river ports in the entire 25,000 miles of U.S. inland river system. This port originated because of a vision that Sen. Robert S. Kerr had for Oklahoma. He wanted to see a series of inland ports scattered throughout Oklahoma. The goal of this ambitious project was to increase trade and commerce throughout the state.

Historically, this was not a new concept. Both the Arkansas River and the Poteau River have been major sources of water travel, especially during the late 1800s and into the early 1900s.

During the 1700s, during the French occupation of the area, the Poteau was one of the most well-traveled rivers in the region. Fur trappers established a base at Cavanal Mountain that connected their trade to Belle Point (Fort Smith) and then by way of the Arkansas and the Mississippi, to New Orleans.

Following the Louisiana Purchase, the Arkansas River began to see a lot more traffic. Ports from Ft. Smith to Tamaha were established to help support commerce.

During the Indian Removals and, later, the Civil War, Ft. Smith, Ft. Coffee, and Tamaha became major ports along the Arkansas.

Along the Poteau, during the late 1800s, a thriving timber trade existed. Timber would be floated down the Poteau from as far away as Monroe.

Steamboats, ferries, and pleasure craft would ply their way along both rivers. In fact, the port near Tamaha saw Oklahoma's only Civil War Naval battle.

It wasn't until the 1920s that river traffic declined. Between 1920 and 1950, trade along the Arkansas River was almost non-existent.

Ferryboat on the Arkansas River, near Fort Smith
Ferryboat on the Arkansas River, near Fort Smith
Ferrying the Arkansas River
Ferrying the Arkansas River
Pleasure boating on the Poteau River
Pleasure boating on the Poteau River

While the Port of Catoosa is widely known, a fact that isn’t so well known is that he also envisioned an inland port located in Poteau.

Known as the Poteau River Small Navigation Project, this navigable waterway would have connected the Poteau River to the McClellan–Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. From there, that would have provided direct access to the Mississippi River and to the Gulf of Mexico.

The McClellan–Kerr was a project that originated in the Late 1950s and early 1960s. Construction on it officially started in 1963, the same year that Sen Kerr died. It opened on June 5, 1971.

Studies for the Poteau River Small Navigation Project were ongoing during this time, with the final draf report being released in 1977.

The project called for several channel improvements along the Poteau River, including creating a turning basin, dredging, clearing and snagging, widening the mouth of the river, and removing abandoned structures such as unused railroad bridges and a water intake structure.

At the time of the study, the river is navigable for the first 28 miles, primarily from Shady Point to Ft. Smith. The furthest point south would have been where the Poteau River “Y”s at the old WPA era bridge.

To account for barge traffic, the river would have to be 130 feet wide by 12 feet deep, allowing 9 feet for navigation and 3 feet for sedimentation. The initial cost of the project would have been around $530,000.

The Poteau River Navigation Project was proposed to be located at Ft. Smith with upkeep of the navigation project provided by the Corps of Engineers.

The channel would provide industrial growth and tax base increase due to improved transportation facilities as well as Increased tonnage movement capabilities for the port and a significant decrease in the damage to the barges and towboats.

The channel was initially expected to move iron and steel, coal, chemicals, lumber, and newsprint. As industry expanded along the channel, projections showed an increase in tonnage was estimated at 2.84% per year over 50 years.

The only negative impacts were environmental, which include potential industrial pollution and spillage of pollutants from barges.

A meeting on July 22, 1975 in Fort Smith determined that opinions of those in attendance were favorable to the project. However, without the driving force of Sen. Kerr behind the project, it never gained enough steam to get beyond the study phase.

In 1982, a renewed interest in the project began to take shape. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tulsa Division has begun studying a $20 million project to channel the Poteau River and add a port at Panama. The primary purpose was to supplies for a hydropower plant located in Panama. However, like the previous study, this one failed to pass. During that time, President Reagan’s administration put a halt on releasing funding for water projects of this type.

Nearly 40 years later, these projects remain all but forgotten.


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    • Sharif Rayhan profile image

      Shariful rayhan 

      18 months ago from Bangladesh

      With Black and White picture awesome description

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      18 months ago from UK

      This is an interesting study on what might have been. How different the landscape might have looked and what a difference the project could have made to the locality.


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