On Wednesday, I traveled to Poinsett County for the dedication of the state’s newest water trail. Today I’d like to share a bit of the story behind the Sunken Lands Water Trail, which was created by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the St. Francis Lake Association, the Trumann Area Chamber of Commerce, and by what insurance companies refer to as an act of God. The roots of the story reach back to the New Madrid earthquakes more than two centuries ago.
There is enough history, heartbreak, and political intrigue per square foot of this 37,000-acre patch of northeast Arkansas to keep genealogists, geologists, foresters, engineers, historians, and novelists busy for years.
The Sunken Lands Water Trail, which is a path for paddlers rather than pedestrians, is the Game and Fish Commission’s fourteenth water trail. Sunken Lands takes its name from the earthquakes in the early 1800s when the land literally sank and disappeared under water.
The quakes began in December 1811 and continued through March 1812. Land in the counties of Craighead, Mississippi, and Poinsett disappeared. An eyewitness wrote that the ground moved like waves on the land, and that the earth burst open and sent up huge plumes of water and sand. Where forests and hills once dominated, only flooded land remained. The quakes dug chasms as deep as fifty feet and dumped land into the St. Francis River. Many who survived the quakes lost everything they owned and moved away. Some who moved west settled at Crowley’s Ridge, the only high ground left.
For more than a hundred years, Arkansans worked to make something of the waterlogged regions. Their ingenuity produced the Steep Gut Floodway with a lock and sluiceway in 1926, and Marked Tree Siphons, which went into operation in 1939. A newspaper reporter for the Marked Tree Tribune wrote that the siphons lifted “the whole river thirty feet across a dam and deposited it on the other side.”
The siphons and the floodway controlled and drained the water, and allowed towns such as Lake City, Turrell, Lepanto, Marked Tree, Tyronza, and Trumann to thrive. A loop off U.S. 63 runs through much of the Sunken Lands region, including the St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area, famous for its hunting and fishing. The Marked Tree Siphons is on the National Register of Historic Places, which you can still see and which continues to siphon water.
More than two-hundred years later, Arkansas has found another use for the waterway by creating the water trail, which will draw thousands of tourists. The St. Francis Sunken Lands Water Trail was conceived by local officials and nature lovers, who were assisted in their dream by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Game and Fish Biologists Jeremy Brown and Jessica Holman spent hundreds of hours on the project. Chris Colclasure, deputy director of Game and Fish, Neal Vickers, retired executive director of the Trumann Area Chamber of Commerce, and Congressman Rick Crawford supported the project.
On Wednesday, I saw the trail from the shore and from a boat. The day was sunny, and the scenery was beautiful. Sunken Land Water Trails is another jewel in the Natural State’s crown, a place packed with history and primed for the future.