Rivers were natural "highways" for early traders to travel into this region. They floated the smaller streams by canoe or pirogue, but the White River was their main artery to the rest of the world.
The White River twisted and turned, meandering southeast across the Missouri border to be joined by the Black River near Jacksonport. It then turned southward and continued through delta land on its journey to the Mississippi. The Little Red River twisted through Cleburne and White counties and emptied into the White River below Augusta.
Settlers used flatboats and keelboats to bring their families, tools, and household items up and down the river.
The river grew shallower in the hill country. Steamboats made their way up the lower White River in the late 1820s, but the first one to reach Batesville was in the winter of 1831. Buffalo Shoals was such a difficult river section that it wasn't until 1851 that a steamboat made it through them. After that date, however, smaller steamboats were built which drew only a foot of water, making it easier to navigate on the upper White.
In 1852 one wrote that it seems "incredible that the 120 feet steamboat could have climbed the shoals and swift rapids of the extreme upper White River to Forsythe, Missouri, some 300 river miles above Batesville."
During the Civil War the number of steamers on the White dwindled to only a few because of guerrilla attacks along the river. At the end of the war, regular boat travel on the upper White and Black Rivers opened. Navigation was made possible from Batesville to Buffalo City. However, captains had to be constantly aware of changes in the river bed and debris during flood seasons, and of dangerous shoals and sand bars in dry seasons.
Around most bends in the river, ferry landings were constructed. Originally farmers needed them to get to their fields, or to their neighbors, on the opposite side of the river. Later these ferry landings became steamboat stops as well.
At the turn of the century work began on a series of locks and dams on the White River. In 1903 Lock One at Batesville was placed into service, in 1905 Lock Two opened, and in 1908 Lock Three was fully operational. Soon afterward, however, railroads took most of the freight, and by 1930 only a few steam workboats plied the White and Black Rivers.
In recent times, in 1985, a navigational channel was dredged to maintain a depth of 5 feet, to run the 270 miles up from the mouth of the White River to Newport.
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