History of the Buffalo River

The Buffalo River is one of the great beauties of Northwest Arkansas — and one of our great playgrounds, too. One of the only rivers left undammed in the lower 48, it flows freely along its 150 miles from its origin in the Boston Mountains, through scenery that is unique to Arkansas.

The prehistoric Bluff Dwellers lived on the banks of the river and sheltered in its limestone bluffs. The Osage hunted in the forests around it. Settlers in the 1820s used it for transportation, and you can see some of their homesteads still. Elk still live in its meadows. And now more than 800,000 visitors come each year to float, fish, hike, camp, and play in and around the Buffalo. In all, there are 94,293 acres of National River Park Service land to enjoy.

Even though it’s one of the most visited tourist sites in the state, only about 30% of the river is really popular as a tourist destination. That leaves a whole lot of river and surrounding wilderness that offer pristine spots for getting outdoors undisturbed.

The formation of the park was a long, drawn-out process. The Buffalo River State Park began in 1938 as a project for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) managed by the National Park Service. When the Flood Control Act was passed in 1938 the Buffalo was on the list of rivers proposed as sources of hydroelectric power for the surrounding communities. Plans to dam the river were in the works for decades, with preservationists fighting against those who hoped that river development would bring prosperity. One of the opposition groups, the Ozark Society, still meets locally on a regular basis.

National Geographic published a photograph in 1945, and Thomas Benton Hart painted a picture. People across the country began to become aware of  the beauty of the area and the discussion became a national one.

In 1961, a team from the National Park Service surveyed the river and, with the help of photos from local photographer Tim Ernst, were convinced to recommend that a park be created – the first “National River”. It took another four years of media coverage, political favors being called in, and even a canoe trip made by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, until Governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus told the Corps of Engineers that he wouldn’t support the plan to put a dam on the Buffalo River. Other Arkansas notables that were involved included John Hammerschmidt, J. William Fulbright and John L. McClellan.

Lost Valley State Park, still a great hiking spot, was created in 1966. In 1972, the Buffalo was named the first National River. Three Wilderness Areas were designated within the park land, and the natural beauty of the river has been preserved for all to enjoy.

The result of decades of opposition and local support is just a short drive away. Come in and pick up one of our National Geographic maps of the river, and get out of town.

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