The History of the Port of Little Rock

Barge on the Arkansas River

As a complete intermodal transportation center, the Port of Little Rock is an essential part of the U.S.
economy, not to mention the economy of Arkansas. But do you know how it started? Read on to learn
the rich history of the Port of Little Rock, including the floods that demanded a new navigation system
and the important historical figures who made the Port possible.

The Arkansas River

During the 1800s and early 1900s, steamboats dominated American trade—but the nature of our
untamed rivers caused difficulties. The water levels of the Arkansas River fluctuated dramatically from
year to year, shifting between raging floods and nearly-dry beds you could walk across.

Congress passed legislation for river maintenance during the early 1800s, but money was only provided
for clearing obstructions and dredging shallow spots. In 1824, President James Monroe directed the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers to plan, improve, and maintain the country’s navigable waterways. However,
five years later, President Andrew Jackson declined to approve the $15,000 congressional appropriation
for this project.

In 1832, the River and Harbor Act appropriated $15,000 for the Corps to maintain a channel deep and
wide enough for navigation all the way from the mouth of the Arkansas River to the Grand River, 465
miles upstream.

↪ Did You Know? Between 1833 and 1971, the U.S. Geological Survey measured 42 floods along the Arkansas River that went at least two feet over the river’s banks.

Disastrous Floods

In 1879, Congress passed the Mississippi River Commission Act to address flooding. After several
additional major floods, it was followed by the Flood Control Act of 1917, which focused on
implementing levees for flood control. Unfortunately, the new levees only caused the water level to rise.

As early snowmelts occurred in the spring of 1927, every levee along the Arkansas River between Fort
Smith and Little Rock failed. For five months, 6,600 square miles—including over 3,100 square miles of
farmland—were covered in water of depths up to 30 feet. Over 100 Arkansans died, the economy was
devastated, and the state’s damages came to over $15 million.

In response to the disastrous 1927 flood, the Arkansas River Flood Control Association was formed,
which led to the passing of the Flood Control Act of 1928. But in 1935—the midst of the Great Depression—the Army Corps of Engineers argued that it was too costly to make improvements to the levee systems. The Corps’ Chief of Engineers, Major General Edward Markham, suggested a cheaper alternative: a single reservoir located north of Little Rock to control flooding. However, creating the
reservoir would cause flooding to local landowners, and individual states would be required to fund
additional drainage systems.

John McClellan Champions Flood Control in Arkansas

Arkansas Representative John McClellan opposed Markham’s suggestion because he knew the state
couldn’t afford to fund the drainage systems. In response, McClellan helped create the Flood Control
Act of 1936, which provided $2.25 million to reinforce the Arkansas River’s levees. McClellan’s plan also
required the federal government to pay for the drainage systems and to compensate any landowners
who were affected by the construction.

After a flood struck the Arkansas, Mississippi, and Ohio rivers in 1937, President Franklin Delano
Roosevelt called for a plan to control the nation’s waterways. As a result, Representative McClellan
helped create the Flood Control Act of 1938, which provided $21 million to develop the Arkansas River.

McClellan’s term ended the next year, but he was elected senator in 1942. In the spring of 1943, another
flood struck—but while levee repairs were funded by an emergency bill, the fix wasn’t permanent. In
response came the Flood Control Act of 1944. The next year, Senator McClellan joined the Senate
Commerce Committee and became president of the National Rivers and Harbors Congress. He later
became chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for Flood Control and Rivers and

Robert Kerr Offers Support Across State Lines

In 1943, Robert Kerr became governor of Oklahoma. Together with Arkansas Governor Ben Laney, over
100 businessmen, delegates from both states, and concerned citizens, he formed a committee to support the development of the Arkansas River. This committee helped publicize the idea that flood control was a national issue, not a state-by-state one.

The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1946 was signed into law by President Harry Truman. The act aimed to
create a nine-foot-deep navigation channel and 27 sets of locks and dams along the Mississippi River.

↪ Did You Know? In 1954, Professor Hans Einstein—the son of Albert Einstein—developed a way for the Arkansas River to clean itself of the 100 million tons of silt that blocked navigation each year. Einstein’s plan involved straightening and lengthening sections of the river to allow silt to flow through instead of building up.

In 1955, three reservoirs were created in Oklahoma. Kerr, by then a senator, agreed to support the
Federal Highway Act in exchange for funding for these reservoirs. When President Dwight Eisenhower
vetoed the funding, Senator Kerr—alongside Senator McClellan—rallied congress to override this
decision. As a result, $1 billion was set aside to build the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation
System: 18 locks and dams running from Mississippi to Tulsa.

The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System

In 1958, construction of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS) began. The
U.S. Corps of Engineers created Lake Dardanelle, which would house the navigation system’s first lock
and dam. In September 1966, the second lock and dam—later named the Wilbur D. Mills Lock and
Dam—opened near Tichnor, Arkansas.

The first section of the MKARNS, running to Little Rock, opened in January of 1969. The first barges
reached Little Rock later that year. The first barge to reach the port of Catoosa in Tulsa arrived in early 1971.

The system officially opened on June 5, 1971, and its opening ceremony in Tulsa was attended by
President Richard Nixon. At the time, it was the largest civil works project ever built in America, with
the total cost reaching $1.2 billion.

The Little Rock Port Authority

In 1959, the Arkansas cities of Little Rock, Pine Bluff, and Fort Smith and the Oklahoma cities of
Muskogee and Tulsa agreed that they wanted ports on the Arkansas River. On July 6, 1959, Little Rock’s
city council founded the Port of Little Rock on paper and formed a committee to officially build it.
The city issued over $3 million in general obligation bonds, supported by a $1.85 million increase in the
property tax. This money was used to buy six parcels of land, totaling 1,200 acres, and to construct
warehouse space. The Little Rock Port Authority (LRPA) was organized in 1959 to oversee the Port of
Little Rock and provide intermodal transportation services connecting U.S. markets and the deepwater
ports of the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1963, the citizens of Little Rock approved a $1.2 million public bond to build the Port of Little Rock.
A dock, warehouse, and railroad tracks were built on just over 1,000 acres. In 1967, the Little Rock Port
Authority railroad was authorized by the Interstate Commerce Commission as a board-certified surface
transportation switching railroad. In 1969, over $1 million in general obligations bonds was issued to
construct four miles of railroad track, enlarge the warehouse space, and extend utilities in the area.

↪ Want to Know More? Read about the Port of Little Rock Railroad.

21st Century Milestones

In 2002, funding from the federal Economic Development led to the building of the slackwater harbor, an
inland channel that provides direct river access. The slackwater harbor allows cargo to be handled
year-round, regardless of conditions on the Arkansas River.

In 2011, $10 million in citywide sales taxes was set aside for the LRPA to expand its footprint. This
expansion helped the Port compete for global industrial prospects, keeping it relevant in the
ever-changing world economy.

In 2014, the LRPA opened the Arkansas River Resource Center. The facility serves as the LRPA
headquarters and was funded in part by a nearly-million-dollar grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Did You Know? The Arkansas River Resource Center is a LEED-certified building, which means it’s
environmentally friendly. LEED-certified buildings are designed to improve efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

In 2016, the Port received a $10.6 million grant to build a new dock on the slackwater harbor.

↪ Want to Know More? Read about the slackwater harbor at the Port of Little Rock.

Over the past three years, the Port of Little Rock has attracted several major industries, including
Amazon, W&W AFCO Steel, the Trex Company, Synthesia, Fiocchi, and Bluestem Partners. These
companies will create over 4,500 jobs when fully operational and will contribute in excess of $2.5 billion
to the central Arkansas economy.

Looking to the Future

The Port of Little Rock’s status as a vital hub for commerce and transportation has shaped—and been
shaped by—the growth and development of our city, as well as the historical events of our country. As
surely as it continues to serve as a critical gateway for trade and industry in the region, the Port will
continue to adapt, innovate, and thrive.