The Mighty Red River

Early photograph of the Red River.  Photo courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum

Early photograph of the Red River. Photo courtesy of Tales N Trails Museum

Today, as one drives over the “New Bridge” outside of Illinois Bend into Oklahoma, it is hard to imagine the Red River on a raging, out of control rise.  But over the years, she has flooded the country side causing damage life, limb and property.

There have been several recorded accounts of the Mighty Red restricting the crossing of cattle at Red River Station on the Chisholm Trail.  Causing herds of Longhorns to be backed up for days while the river settled back down into its natural flow.

In June of 1891 torrential rains caused the Red River to rise higher than ever previously recorded.  The Dallas Morning News accounted how it effected communities along the river bottom on the Indian Territory side as well as the communities in Cooke and Montague Counties:

“Gainesville, Tex. Red River, which so suddenly started on a rampage yesterday, as reported in this dispatches last night, continued to rise till noon today, having in the meantime risen forty fee, being ten feet higher than ever known.  great destruction to crops and live stock has resulted and several persons have been drown.”

The article gives first hand accounts from some of those fortunate to escape with their lives.  They describe the severe damage and loss caused by the flooding.

“Capt. William Bourland of the Chickasaw nation came in today and reports several families resident in the river bottom fifty miles west of Gainesville on the Indian Territory side as having been swept away together with their horses and drowned.  The loss of stock is very great. Capt J P Harris, a prominent ranchman had 400 head of cattle drowned and 60 head of horses.  Many others who had stock in the river bottoms have lost largely and from what is already known the number destroyed will amount to several thousand, all being on the territory side and within a scope of country about eight miles long.”

The rise of the water happened so quickly that most were unable to take any precautions.

“All crops in the bottoms have been washed away and the water today covers the fields several feet deep where yesterday was as fine wheat, corn and cotton as ever grew.   A large number of dwellings and other houses were washed away.  The rise was so sudden that people living in the bottoms near the river in many instances had not time to escape.  The first intimation that many had of the terrible waters was when they were swooped down upon by a wave or avalanche of water coming upon them during the latter part of Friday night.  Early Saturday morning word was telephone from Burlington, fifty miles west of there, of the coming flood and people down the river were notified, which enabled them to escape and drive their stock to the hills.”

The flood waters took out a railroad bridge.  And as with most disasters, people were fascinated by the fall out of the tragedy.

“The approach to the Santa Fe bridge on territory side seven miles north of Gainesville, eighty feet in length, yielded to the current and passed down the stream.  It will be several days before repairs will be made so trains can pass.  A special train has been running from Gainesville on the Santa Fe to the Red river bridge and return all day and thousands of people have gone out to view the treacherous river in its mad flight and which covers a scope of country nearly a mile wide, and is by far much larger and more destructive in its course than known at any time in its past history.”

The article also described how included Saint Jo’s reaction to the flood waters.

St Jo, Tex.  Red river is higher than for many years. It commenced raining Friday and has been raining very rapidly ever since.  Saturday night the water rose so fast that it surrounded a number of houses before the inhabitants could get away and daylight found many persons on housetops calling for help.  So far as learned no one has been drowned, but terrible damage is being done to the growing crops and stock.  Hundreds and thousands of acres of the finest corn, wheat, oats and cotton are entirely covered by the wild and foaming waters.  The water is so rapid that is tearing the banks of the river away.  The great cottonwood and elm trees that line the banks are washed out by the roots and carried off by whirlpools of water.”

The article also reported from Belcherville:

“Belcherville, Montague Co, Tex.  The rise in Red river is the greatest ever known.  It rose by six to ten feet in great rolls with a noise almost deafening.  Houses, cattle, horses, hogs, sheep and all kinds of animals and grain are among the debris.  Hundreds of pieces of bridge timbers and logs of all kinds are going down.  This is evidence of great destruction up the river.  Thousands of acres of crops of all kinds are covered by from four to fourteen feet with water,  All kinds of wild animals are being washed down.  Hundreds of the curious town people are going and coming from the scene,  They tell woeful tales of drowning cattle and frantic horses.  One farmer, Joe Harris, has 300 acres of corn under water, and believes he has lost fifty head of horses which were in a bottom pasture.”

The situation was very similar at Red River Station.

“Henry Heaton, living at Red River Station, has 100 acres of cotton under water and believes he has lost all of his work horses which were on the territory side in a pasture.  Houses in the bottoms are nearly covered, and some being washed away.  No lives lost.”

These accounts show that Red River is a living and breathing thing, with a temperament that could calm and soothing or violently raging.  The Mighty Red must be handled with the utmost respect at all times.

4 March 2013 Addition:  Thank you Max Brown for these photos of the Red River on the rise in the not so distant past.

Red River flooding (2) Red River flooding

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3 responses to “The Mighty Red River

  1. I remember Mrs. Edna Dowd, mother of Dub and Ray and others, telling me once that when she came as a young woman to Illinois Bend, that she surely would have drown had it not been for my grandfather, Deward Snapp, riding his horse out into the raging waters and plucking her up onto the back of his horse. I have a brother Deward named after his grandfather, too.

    • Roberta I wish I could just follow you around asking questions!! You should right a book!
      Thank you so much for sharing the story about your grandfather. It is so hard for me to picture the river up and raging like that,

  2. Is this bridge at the old Red River Station Chisholm Trail crossing? Per our family history, my great grandparents Adam and Annie Pierce Hamman were (as told by my great aunt) … ” one of 12 couples married on horseback… married on the OK side of the Red River bridge, because each wanted to be married in the home state… Annie in TX and Adam in OK. To compromise and because the license was for OK, they were married on that side of the bridge.” My great grandparents were married in 1889. I was told there was no bridge there in 1889. Perhaps my great aunt was told this story later and only referenced ‘the bridge’ in her story. I actually do have a marriage license issued in Montague County, Texas, so they were probably married on the Indian Territory/OK side of Red River. Any stories about marriages on horseback?

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