Little River (Southwestern Arkansas)

The Little River rises in the Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, from which point it cuts west and then south before turning in a southeasterly direction and eventually entering Arkansas between Sevier and Little River counties. The river flows through Arkansas for ninety-two of its total 220 miles before emptying into the Red River near Fulton (Hempstead County). The Little River—not to be confused with a waterway of the same name in northeastern Arkansas—is impounded at Millwood Dam; the resulting reservoir, Millwood Lake, spreads across the corners of four southwestern Arkansas counties. One of its tributaries, the Mountain Fork of the Little River, is sometimes called the Mountain Fork River.

The Little River has been the site of human habitation since approximately 10,000 BC. In historic times, the Caddo Indians controlled the region of southwestern Arkansas that covers the Little River valley, though they were coerced into forfeiting their homeland in Arkansas in 1835. Early American settlers may have used the waterway locally as a transportation corridor, but the Red River, of which the Little River is a tributary, was for many years impeded by the Great Raft, or Red River Raft, which was an enormous logjam that blocked all water traffic. It was first cleared by 1838, though it later re-formed and was only cleared away permanently in the 1870s. When the river was high, though, steamboats could make it up the stream as far as Millwood Landing.

During the territorial period, several saline springs along the Little River were important for the area’s salt industry; an 1832 congressional act authorizing Arkansas’s territorial governor to lease salt springs in the territory specifically mentioned a “Little River Lick,” then in Sevier County.

Many farmers along the river bottoms grew cotton; the river often overflowed onto lower areas, providing rich farmland. What later became the Kansas City Southern Railroad crossed the Little River in 1895 and opened up the area to large-scale timber harvesting and processing operations. One of the largest of these companies was Dierks Lumber and Coal, which for a while was the largest producer of pine lumber in the South.

In 1913, a bridge was built over the Little River at a place called Mills Ferry. This was replaced in April 1935 by a new bridge north of Wilton (Little River County) on Highway 71.

The Flood Control Act of 1946 authorized the construction of a dam on the Little River to help prevent floods on the Red River. However, opposition to the project delayed it many years. The Dierks company, for example, held title to valuable timberlands that would be inundated by the proposed reservoir, and others were concerned that farmland would also be flooded and that the dam would leave too little free-flowing water to aid in industrial development. After a compromise was reached, construction on Millwood Dam began in 1961 and was completed in 1966. The Little River was also dammed in Oklahoma in 1969, forming the reservoir Pine Creek Lake.

Millwood Lake is popular among hunters and fishers. A large portion of the river in Arkansas, upstream from the lake, forms the southern boundary of the Pond Creek National Wildlife Refuge. These attractions bring numerous visitors to the Little River each year.

For additional information:
Beasley, Bill. Little River County. Ashdown, AR: Little River County Historical Society, 1975.

Millwood Lake. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Little Rock District. (accessed February 16, 2022).

Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas


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