The Forgotten River

by Charles Portis


From Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, published October 2012 by Butler Center Books, edited by Jay Jennings. Reprinted with permission. This story appeared in the September 1991 issue of the Arkansas Times. Charles Portis is the author of True Grit.

The forest rangers at Mena were all very nice but they could tell me only approximately where the Ouachita River began. It rose somewhere out there in the woods, they said, above the little bridge at Eagleton, where I would find the first Ouachita River road sign. I wanted to see the very origin and so I floundered about between Rich Mountain and Black Fork Mountain with further inquiries.

Through that forested valley runs Highway 270, as well as the Kansas City Southern Railway, and the headwaters of the Ouachita, at an elevation of 1,600 feet above sea level. The two mountains rise another thousand feet or so from the valley floor. A sign warns hikers about the presence of black bears.

Nearby, right on the Oklahoma line, there is a log cabin beer joint, which might have once served the Dalton Brothers; Bill, Grat, Emmett, and Bob. It was dark inside, like a cave, with a very low ceiling. The girl behind the bar knew nothing, which was all right. You don’t expect young people know river lore.

Then a young man sitting far back in the gloom— the only customer—told me just how I should go. I was to enter the woods at the start of the Black Fork Mountain hiking trail. When I reached the river, here a small watercourse—“so narrow you can straddle it”—I walk upstream for about a mile, and there I would find three or four trickling threads of water coming together to form the Ouachita River.

This would have to do, though I had hoped for a spring, a well-defined source. Probably I didn’t walk the full mile. I followed the diminishing rivulet up to the point where it was no wider than my three fingers, and declared victory. After all, it was much the same as spring water, cold and clear. I drank some of it. From here it flows 610 miles, generally southeast, to Jonesville, Louisiana, where it joins other streams to form the Black River.

I grew up in south Arkansas and thought of the Ouachita only in local terms, certainly not as an outlet to the sea. It was a place to swim and fish. I knew you could take a boat down it from the Highway 82 bridge near Crossett to Monroe, Louisiana, because I had done it once with a friend, Johnny Titus. It was shady a good bit of the way and we had the river pretty much to ourselves. The keeper at the old Felsenthal lock was annoyed at having to get up from his dinner table to lock through two boys in a small outboard rig.

But I knew no river lore, less than the Oklahoma barmaid, and it came as a great surprise to me lately when I learned that there was regular steamboat service on this modest green river, as late as the 1930s, and as far up as Camden. I am not speaking of modern replicas or party barges, rented out for brief excursions, but of genuine working steamboats, with big paddle wheels at the rear, carrying bales of cotton down to New Orleans and bringing bananas and sacks of sugar back upstream, along with paying passengers.

There were two vessels, the Ouachita and the City of Camden, and they ran on about a two-week cycle—New Orleans-Camden-New Orleans, with stops along the way. The round-trip fare, including a bed and all meals, was $50. Traditional steamboat decorum was imposed, with the men required to wear coats in the dining room. At night, after supper was cleared, the waiters doubled as musicians for a dance.

It was Dee Brown of Little Rock, the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, who told me about this, and how as a teen-aged boy in the late 1920s he took the Ouachita from New Orleans to Camden. He had a summer job at a filling station between Stephens and Camden, and had often watched the steamer tie up and unload. “I’ve got to ride that boat, ‘I kept telling myself.” He saved up a bit more than $50 for the adventure—“an enormous sum in those days” —but then thought better of this extravagance. He would keep half of it back. “So I made a reservation for the other end and hitch-hiked down to New Orleans. Hitch-hiking was easy and safe then, and faster than the boat.”

His timing was good, which kept expenses down. He paid a dollar for a night’s lodging at a boarding house near the French Quarter. The trip back was a delight, as Mr. Brown remembers, a leisurely voyage of five or six days. He got full value for his $25. The big splashing wheel pushed the steamer up the Mississippi, the Red, the Black, and at last in to the Ouachita at Jonesville, with the two walls of the forest closing in a bit more day by day.

There were fine breakfasts of ham and eggs, when ham was real ham, with grits and hot biscuits. At lunch one day he found a split avocado on his plate, or “alligator pear,” as it was called on the menu. “I had never seen one before. I wouldn’t eat it.” Young Mr. Brown was traveling light and so had to borrow a coat from a waiter at each meal before he could be seated. He had a tiny sleeping cabin to himself with a bunk bed and a single hook on the wall for his wardrobe.

He enjoyed the nightly dances, though he had to sit them out as a wallflower because he didn’t know how to dance. Towns-folk along the way came on board just for the dance, and among them were young Delta sports sneaking drinks of corn whiskey and ginger jake. These were Prohibition days. A young girl from New Orleans, traveling with her family, offered to teach Dee Brown how to dance. “I wanted to dance with her, too, sure, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.” This family, he recalls, who had never seen any high ground, marveled over the puny hillocks of the upper river. He remembers an Arkansas woman vowing never again to eat sugar, after seeing the deckhands, dripping with sweat, taking naps on the deck-loaded sacks of sugar.

Published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 1. Jan. 1, 2013.