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The Arkansas

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These planks that were a town Lie warping in the sun
As if a barrel tumbled down the peaks
Were shattered into staves.
You always wish these wasted towns were older...

—Thomas Hornsby Ferril, “These Planks”

Flowing 1,450 miles from the High Rockies to meet the Mississippi below Little Rock, the Arkansas tumbles from the highest point in Colorado, Mt. Elbert (14,433 feet), in the Sawatch Range above Leadville, to the lowest place, Holly (3,350 feet), near the Kansas border.

The upper Arkansas first became known to the United States when President Thomas Jefferson asked Zebulon Pike to explore the southern frontier of the Louisiana Purchase in 1806. Thirteen years later the river was established as the boundary between the United States and New Spain. After the Mexican revolution of 1821, it became the border between the United States and Mexico. Traders and trappers used it as a major route into the Rockies, especially after Charles and William Bent built Bent's Fort in the 1830s, at a site on the Arkansas near present-day La Junta in Otero County.

The Bents experimented with raising crops at their adobe castle and found that with irrigation the Arkansas Valley could be productive. For centuries the Arkansas Indians in Oklahoma and Arkansas had farmed the banks of the river named for them. In southeastern Colorado, Apache Indians had grown corn along the river's banks before they acquired horses and became nomadic hunters. These ancestral Apaches built distinctive, five-sided earth lodges. They began with five poles stuck in the ground and joined at the top by horizontal poles. Vertical logs were then piled against this framework, and a log and sod roof were added to pentagonal lodges that resembled the Mandan lodges immortalized in George Catlin's paintings.

By the 1840s settlements such as El Pueblo (the predecessor of the modernday city of Pueblo), Green-horn, and Hard-scrabble had emerged as small agricultural and trade centers with a diverse population of U.S. citizens, Native Americans, French trappers, and Mexicans. With the 1858–1859 gold strikes on the South Platte, the Arkansas became the major southern route to the Colorado gold fields. Prospectors followed the Arkansas to its headwaters and found the yellow metal in what they called California Gulch. There the town of Oro City shone with million-dollar brightness during the 1860s but had died by the 1870s when silver strikes in the area gave birth to Leadville.

When the Civil War brought a blockade of the Mississippi River and cut off the Arkansas River as a southern route into Colorado, traffic switched north to the South Platte route. Not until the 1880s arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad and the development of irrigated farming did the southeastern Colorado high plains along the Arkansas begin to prosper.

Although the Santa Fe Railroad turned south at Pueblo to head for its namesake city, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and later U.S. Route 50 continued to follow the Arkansas westward and upward to Leadville, Colorado's largest silver city. From this two-mile-high city on the headwaters of the Arkansas, ores and wealth flowed downstream to enrich Salida, Cañon City, and Pueblo, the regional metropolis.

East of Pueblo, the southeastern quadrant of Colorado is dry agricultural land sustained by the Arkansas River's muddy milk. On the plains, the river has few reliable tributaries. Most of the other streams have at some time dried up, as have many of the towns. Surviving communities are visible miles away because of their grain elevators, reinforced concrete skyscrapers for winter wheat and other crops. The other hallmark tower of a living town is the classic, round-bottom water tank on huge metal stilts. These elevated tanks often carry a town's name and its Christmas star.

Once the Arkansas was bordered by short-grass prairie that could support buffalo, cattle, and sheep. Indeed, large ranches preceded the influx of homesteaders arriving with the Santa Fe and Missouri Pacific railroads in the 1880s. Homesteaders found it difficult to coax a crop from the dry land, and, once broken, the soil blew away with spring winds. Yet high crop and live-stock prices, especially during World War I, created flush times until the 1920s and 1930s. Many sodbusters gave up during the “dirty thirties,” when the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression depopulated much of rural southeastern Colorado. Tumbleweed and sneezeweed reclaimed many homesteads and even whole towns. This part of the valley is now a land of porcupine grass and rattlesnake grass, which rustles and rattles as you walk through it.

Arkansas River architecture, like the river itself, straddles Yankee and Hispanic cultures. Spanish Southwestern styles in stucco and adobe are seen along with the more conventional brick, frame, and pre-fabricated built environment. Some of the valley's best buildings are made with the sandstones native to the lower Arkansas and the fine granite quarried near the headwaters of a major tributary, the South Arkansas River, on Monarch Pass.

During the 1860s and 1870s the first generation of U.S. settlers on the eastern plains employed simple building types reflecting their determination to survive. Besides wood, which had to be hauled in, builders used sod, or dug into the ground. Roofs were sometimes just sod laid over wood sheathing covered with tarpaper. Doorways were on the south or east, away from the prevailing winter winds. Animals needed shelter as well. Barns and outbuildings were usually of the same material as the houses but were also built of more innovative materials, including baled Russian thistle or straw covered with chicken wire.

Although less intensely developed than the South Platte River valley, the Arkansas too is scarred. Leadvillites and other settlers on the Arkansas headwaters deforested much of the valley. When the federal government prohibited cutting live trees, fires blamed on the Ute Indians produced “dead trees” that could be used as charcoal for smelters. The deforestation of the upper Arkansas, which has never recovered its rich spruce and fir forests, caused floods. The 1921 flood of Pueblo, the second worst in Colorado history, resulted in the uninspired solution of a huge dam and a monstrous concrete canal to channel the river through downtown Pueblo.

In the lower Arkansas Valley, the federal government bought back land from bankrupt farmers and ranchers between 1938 and 1942. The Soil Conservation Service planted shelter belts of cottonwoods, elms, and osage orange trees to keep more soil from blowing away. Much of this abandoned acreage has been set aside as part of the Comanche National Grassland. Scattered through Baca, Las Animas, and Otero counties, this 419,000-acre tract of noncontiguous parcels is administered by the U.S. Forest Service, which is allowing native flora and fauna to repossess ghostly prairie homesteads with tattered windmills.

In 1989 the state of Colorado designated the river from Granite to Lake Pueblo State Park as the 148-mile-long Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. Waters that once helped miners wash silver and gold out of the high Rockies are now used by whitewater rafters and fishermen. Below the Royal Gorge and Cañon City, the Arkansas is still a working river, the lifeblood of farmers in southeastern Colorado.

Leadville, Buena Vista, Cañon City, Florence, Pueblo, and Lamar, the major towns of the valley, all peaked before World War II, and their architecture reflects their fortunes. They are railroad towns of red brick with stone trim, spared the post–World War II boom that transformed many northern Colorado communities. In both the farm communities of the lower Arkansas and the mining towns of the upper Arkansas, life was precarious. The Arkansas Valley has more dead towns than live ones and is haunted by architectural ruins.

Writing Credits

Thomas J. Noel

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