History of the Park
Much like today’s uses, the river has had a long history of recreational appeal with locations such as Shady Grove Camp at Pruitt established before World War II. Construction of the Buffalo River State Park began in 1938 and in 1945 National Geographic ran an article on the river with a photo of the Ark. 65 bridge area. In 1945, a writer who thought the area should be preserved wrote about it and in an effort to make it seem even more extraordinary called it the “Lost Valley.”
But the river’s continued recreational use was uncertain for a time. While its wonders were being extolled by some, the Corps of Engineers was looking at it for a different reason. In 1937, the Corps determined that only five lock and dams were needed in order for it to be navigable year round. In 1938, the Corps surveyed the river and made a plan for the Arkansas-White-Red River Basins. President Eisenhower vetoed the plans several times. However, the plans and proponents for the dam continued pushing forward.
Harold Alexander, a biologist looking at dam construction across the state became concerned that some streams needed to remain free flowing. He became one of the earliest voices for preserving the Buffalo as Mother Nature had intended. In his preservation efforts, Alexander wrote, “I would observe that a stream is a living thing. It moves, dances and shimmers in the sun. It furnishes opportunities for enjoyment and its beauty moves men’s souls.”
Another big voice came on board, Dr. Neil Compton of Bentonville. After asking Alexander to speak at a Rotary Club meeting and hearing of the Corp plan, Compton realized opponents of the dam could not wait to take action.
In favor of the dam were Jim Tudor, a businessman and newspaper man from Marshall who allied with Judge James W. Trimble of Berryville, a Congressman for the 3rd Congressional District who remained steadfast in his support of damming the Buffalo.
Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright arranged funding for the first National Park Service survey of the river. The NPS in 1961 designated the Buffalo River as “worthy of preservation” and this was the first involvement of the NPS into the Buffalo River issue. On July 14 this same year, Time Magazine printed an article on camping using a photo of the Ozark Wilderness Waterways Camp on the Buffalo River. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas saw it and wanted to visit this place. He floated from Ponca to Erbie in the spring of 1962 with Harold and Margaret Hodges, who were members of The Ozark Society. Douglas then wrote an opinion piece in favor of preservation.
The Ozark Society to save the Buffalo River was formed in May of 1962 with Neil Compton serving as president. The group formed after a Jan. 30, 1962 Corps meeting in Marshall where the opponents of any dam on the Buffalo River were able to finally meet and join forces and those for the dam found they were pushed to the back.
The fight continued over the next several years. The NPS recommendation in April 1963 deemed the river “nationally significant.” The Corps in ’64-’65 received funding for a study of damming the river. It was a rare occurrence to have two governmental agencies with funding for two opposing uses for the same land.
Scaling back plans, the Corps held another public hearing in November 1964 and proposed a single dam and a park to be located around the Tyler Bend area. Dam opponents didn’t like this idea even though it included a park. NPS attended to say no.
Newspapers across the region began covering the controversy. Arkansas’s political cartoonist George Fisher created several cartoons and Thomas Hart Benton painted a piece for preservation of the Buffalo River.
Preservationists gained momentum but still had a lot going against them. While dam proponents pushed for their cause, in December of 1965 Gov. Orval Faubus, who had decided not to run for re-election, wrote a letter to the Corps saying he thought the national park was a good idea.
In April, the Corps withdrew its recommendation for damming the river. However, some of the plans were still in motion. In fact, plans for the Gilbert Reservoir on the Buffalo did not officially get de-authorized until 1974, two years after the Buffalo was designated a national river.
In 1966, Trimble got a majority of Arkansas congressmen to sign in favor of the dam. But, things began to change when Trimble was defeated by John Paul Hammerschmidt. In January of 1967 Senators Fulbright and McClellan introduced the first Buffalo National River legislation, but it didn’t go anywhere. However, the NPS continued to prepare for a park and began discussing preservation, development and private-use zones. There was talk of life estates for current landowners.
In 1969 the bill was re-introduced during the 91st Congress. George Hartzog, director of NPS, wanted to see the Buffalo River become a park and he advocated for it. In 1971, the legislation was introduced again. It passed the Senate but sat in the House. Hartzog took the subcommittee members on a Buffalo River float trip. In October public hearings were held and the subcommittee approved the legislation. On March 1, 1972, it was finally approved by President Richard Nixon.
Staff arrived in May 1972. The NPS assumed management, began some land acquisition, and took donation of the Buffalo River State Park from Arkansas. The first park superintendent Donald Spalding arrived in July of that year. Elberta Russell, secretary, started in September. Chief Ranger Harry Grafe took his position in November.
There are 410 parks in the national park system, which is celebrating its centennial this year. Thankfully, Arkansas and the nation get to celebrate the national treasure of the Buffalo River. Over the years, millions of people have taken advantage of this landscape that is still free, wild, natural.