The Seed and the Story: A Changing Landscape and the Creation of Lake Dardanelle

Ariel view of the Dardanelle Lock and Dam on the Arkansas River. Taken in 1991.

The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier.  Thanks so much for reading!

Lake Dardanelle is one the region’s largest tourist attractions.  With numerous opportunities for fishing, boating and water skiing, the 34,300-acre reservoir attracts thousands of visitors each year. Construction on the Dardanelle Lock and Dam began in 1957. It was completed in 1969, and is one of the largest projects of the Corps of Engineers’ McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. The dam, which provided flood control for the notoriously flood prone Arkansas River, created the lake we know today. While the river had always been navigable and was used for centuries by Native Americans and early European settlers, the modern dam provided the kind of consistent river navigation needed for the transport of larger commercial vessels.

Although manmade, the lake and the dam have become key elements in the regional landscape. For people new to the area, or younger generations such as myself, it’s hard to imagine anything different. Yet the landscape we know today is drastically altered from its original state. It’s easy to find information about Lake Dardanelle and the lock and dam, including how it was constructed and how long it took to complete. And almost every Arkansas tourist pamphlet will mention the numerous recreational and economic opportunities the dam and lake offer the region. But what’s much harder to find is the natural history of the river and the stories of men and women who once lived and farmed on the rich bottomland that now sits at the bottom of the lake.

Longest pontoon bridge in the world, across the Arkansas River before the lake and dam were built. Image from Arkansas State Highway and Transportation.Department.

Take, for example, the sand lined banks of the riverfront. In speaking with people who lived in the area prior to the creation of the dam, they describe the banks of the river as being lined with trees and thick overgrowth native to the region. Residents of Cardon Bottoms, Riverside and the other cotton growing communities southeast of Dardanelle often speak about the regular flooding and how the river would break its banks after every large rain. The late Rosemary Piercy, who grew up in the Bottoms, often recalled the floodwaters reaching all the way to her childhood home, flooding the house and forcing them to evacuate.

The dam restricted the movements of the unpredictable Arkansas River and decreased flooding, which required the use of massive equipment and new technology that is hard to fathom, even today. The well-known journalist Ernie Dean has a fascinating collection of photos taken during the creation of the dam which includes a hauntingly memorable shot of members of the Arkansas Gem, Mineral, and Geological Society walking along the dried Arkansas riverbed, which was exposed during the creation of the dam. It looks as if they’re walking on the surface of the moon. Click the link above to see the photos.

When the dam was complete and the rains began to collect in the newly created reservoir, it covered acres of rich bottomland, which had been farmed for generations. Thelma Martin who grew up in that area recalled farming with her father, running a tractor, and making a harvest of beans, peas, and corn. There were yearly hog killings, dogtrot houses, and entire communities. If you look at a map today you’d never know that homes that once existed under the depth of water. And this is one of the key reasons oral history matters. It documents the lesser-known stories of daily life for future generations.

Lake Dardanelle today. Photo by Bob Weibler. Click on photo to see more of Weiber’s work.

So do you recall the creation of the dam? Did you once farm on soil that’s now underneath the lake? Maybe you lived in the bottoms near the flood land or perhaps you were one of the many people who helped to build the dam. I’d love to hear your story.

See Ernie Deane’s photos of the creation of the dam at the Old Statehouse Museum by clicking here