Arkansas Properties on the National Register of Historic Places: Marked Tree Lock and Siphons, Marked Tree, Poinsett County

Arkansas Historic Preservation Program - Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Marked Tree Lock and Siphons at Marked Tree in Poinsett County was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 2, 1988.


The Marked Tree Lock and Siphons are nominated under Criteria A and C. Under Criterion A, the lock and siphons were essential elements in local and national efforts to maintain navigability of the St. Francis River, as well as to protect productive resources and expanding settlements in the river basin. They also represent the increasing involvement of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the design and maintenance of flood control structures in the Mississippi Valley. From 1936, the St. Francis River Basin Flood Control Project was part of an attempt to standardize local drainage and levee systems and to formalize a consistent, unified national flood control project. Although less than fifty years old [at the time of nomination], the Marked Tree Siphons are also significant under Criterion C. According to Corps of Engineers Memphis District Office records, the siphons are an unexampled engineering structure and possibly the only siphons of their type in the United States. Project engineers continually referred to the “pioneer nature” of the project and to “an engineering design which is unique in application” — lifting a river across a levee. In addition to their significance, the siphons were also astonishingly successful. According to a 1983 Corps of Engineers justification report on the repair of the siphons, their operating efficiency of 97.1 percent was “not thought to have been achievable under conditions other than those of laboratory models. . . . (F)or any siphon over an earth embankment, of the size and capacity of these barrels if such exist, this refinement of design has produced an efficiency which is believed unique.”


In the traditional flow of westward movement, the St. Francis River Basin was shunned by settlers and regarded as an obstacle to progress and development. Scoured by the errant wanderings of the Mississippi River in prehistoric times, the area remained sparsely populated into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Early travelers found a maze of swamps, shallow lakes, and seemingly aimless rivers and streams which defied meager, unorganized efforts to reclaim the fertile land. The Basin’s drainage problems were intensified by the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812, as caved banks and felled trees along the St. Francis and other rivers created vast rafts which inundated large portions of the area and convinced observers of the disaster’s aftermath that the region had subsided.

In 1836, a report to the Senate Committee on Commerce described the course of the St. Francis River from Cape Girardeau to Helena: “The greater part of the area … is covered by an immense morass, inundated by the overflowing of the ‘Father of Waters,’ or submerged by the rushing torrents from the neighboring hills…. These streams … spread over the country, giving it the appearance of a vast Lake over which magnificent forests of Cypress and other gigantic trees wave their branches in gloomy solitude.” Only the “lost hills” of Crowley’s Ridge dominated a region “annually covered by water, and at all seasons by a heavy growth or timber [and] thick cane-breaks closely interwoven by many plants …”

In 1840 and 1842, original surveyors of these lowlands encountered broad expanses submerged under three to four feet of water much of the year. In addition, timber and other growth often extended from one to one-and-a-half miles into the flooded areas. Confounded in their attempts to establish section lines, the surveyors instead meandered along the edges of the impassable reaches and listed large portions of the St. Francis Basin as lakes or “Sunk Lands” on survey plats. The largest such area in Poinsett County was Lake St. Francis, which reached depths of up to fifteen feet as the river bed was neared. The lake, which began six miles north of Marked Tree, extended a distance of twenty-four miles and broadened to a width of twelve miles.

Most of the St. Francis River Basin was patented under the 1850 Swamp Land Act. Designed to help Arkansas and other states retrieve their lowlands from flood waters and impaired drainage, the act granted the states all unsold federal lands judged “swamp and overflowed lands, unfit thereby for cultivation.” The intent of the legislation was to allow the states, by sale of the swamp lands, to raise revenue exclusively for the construction of levees and drains to reclaim the lands. The Surveyor-General initially approved 428,620 acres of swamp lands in Poinsett County, the fifth largest amount in any Arkansas county. Land patented as swamp land was sold and auctioned for fifty cents to $1.25 per acre.

Early efforts at flood and drainage control were sporadic and largely futile. The fragile levees, derided as “mud pies,” were virtually useless during Mississippi River floods which occurred with relentless frequency in 1858, 1862, 1867, 1882, 1884, and 1890. Organized levee construction in the Basin began in 1893 with the formation of the St. Francis Levee District, which was unable to control an equally disastrous flood only four years later. The 1897 flood prompted some engineers to suggest to the Senate Committee on Commerce that the still largely unsurveyed St. Francis Basin be depopulated and divided into a series of reservoirs. In the justification for this suggestion, Mississippi River Commission Engineer J. A. Ockerson explained: “We know, in a general way, that (the Basin) is filled with sloughs, swamps, and ridges, and that only about 15 per cent of it is cleared land.”

The Commerce Committee rejected Ockerson’s plan as impractical and continued to rely on the inconstant system of levees. Floods continued to occur, also, most notably in 1903, 1912, 1913, 1915, and 1916. With the accumulation of disaster, Congress finally responded. The Ransdell-Humphreys Flood Control Act of 1917 reaffirmed the Federal government’s commitment to flood prevention and control, although the $45 million appropriation was insufficient. Local interests were encouraged by a provision of the act which reduced their contribution to one-half the cost of flood prevention works in their area, from the two-thirds previously required.

Efforts to control the river upstream only intensified the severity of floods in the unprotected areas downstream. In 1917, Senator Thaddeus R. Caraway warned the “prominent men in Eastern Arkansas” that Missouri intended to divert the overflow from the Ozarks and “turn the entire column loose on Arkansas.” Caraway counseled Arkansans to seek an injunction against the Missouri improvement districts until the United States government canalized or dredged the St. Francis River to control the increased volume of water. A solemn editorialist for the Marked Tree Tribune agreed and warned that, if the Missouri projects were completed, “the entire St. Francis basin will become a wilderness of water …”

In the same year, with the renewed interest in flood prevention, the Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 193, which created Drainage District Number Seven in Poinsett County. The District boundaries, which originally encompassed the lands between Crowley’s Ridge and the St. Francis River and Lake, were amended in 1919 to eventually include 140,000 acres in eastern Poinsett County. In 1919, the District, one of the largest in the country, began a series of ambitious, interrelated projects designed to reclaim “the lands therein by drainage ditches and levees.” The first concern was management of waters which entered Poinsett County from adjacent counties. On the north boundary of the county, levees which enclosed Lake St. Francis were continued from Craighead County, and, in the northeast, Mississippi County’s Drainage District Number Seventeen floodway was extended into the Lake St. Francis floodway. Even before this influx of additional water, in flood periods the St. Francis River left its channel near the foot of Lake St. Francis and flowed unchecked through Sand, Willow, and Flag Sloughs, periodically flooding much valuable agricultural land before it reentered its channel near Wittsburg.

District Engineer Pride and Fairley of Blytheville, Arkansas, and Consulting Engineers Elliott and Harmon Engineering Company of Memphis, Tennessee, were instructed to draft a comprehensive drainage plan for the district. To stabilize and control the tortuous St. Francis, Drainage District Number Seven planned to strictly regulate the river’s flow north of Marked Tree and divert overflow water to the Steep Gut Floodway, a one mile wide artificial, 20,000 acre channel which would be constructed from the foot of Lake St. Francis to the Poinsett-Cross county Line. The district proposed to dam the river about nine miles north of Marked Tree and preserve a normal flow — 2,600 c. f. s. — in the original channel. A second channel and a lock would maintain navigability at the point a closing levee was established. Finally, a sill would be constructed across the floodway entrance at a height of 210.25 feet above Mean Gulf Level. The only outlet for waters below that level was the sluiceway, while levees channeled waters in excess of that level down the floodway.

The St. Francis River was designated navigable to Wappapello, Missouri, and carried a considerable traffic of lumber, log rafts, and boats. On January 4, 1924, the War Department granted a permit to construct sluices, a lock and its approaches, and a floodway sill on the condition that Drainage District Number Seven maintain the normal flow of the river in the original channel. On September 21, 1923, the McWilliams Construction Company of Memphis was awarded a contract to build Improvement Number 89 — a sluiceway, or gated concrete box which contained four barrels eight feet by six feet in diameter, two hundred feet long. The sluiceway, which cost approximately $50,000, regulated the volume of river flow through the closing levee. On March 25, 1924, McWilliams also received the contract for Improvement Number 88, a lock which would allow river traffic to continue around the sluiceway. The Steep Gut Floodway, lock, and sluiceway were completed in1926, just prior to the flood of 1927, which destroyed many of the Drainage District’s levees.

In 1928, in response to the previous year’s devastating overflow, Congress approved the Flood Control Act, which formalized the Jadwin Plan for flood control in the Mississippi Valley. The plan, espoused by Edgar Jadwin, Chief of the Corps of Engineers, again rejected the revived scheme for converting the St. Francis Basin into a reservoir. Instead, Jadwin recommended raising the Basin’s levees an average of three-and-one-half feet above their current grade and increasing the width of the Steep Gut Floodway to two miles. The improvements were completed by 1934 and enabled the floodway to carry twice its previous flow at the same stage.

Satisfaction with the new improvements was tempered by fatal problems experienced with the sluiceway in the previous year. In 1933, forty feet of the outlet end of the sluiceway broke and dropped to a thirty degree angle, which caused a portion of the levee to collapse. A row of piles constructed to protect the levee from further caving permitted the continued operation of the damaged sluiceway until 1935. In that year, the Flood Control Act was amended to include the St. Francis and Little Rivers in its protection, and an inspection of the sluiceway by the Corps of Engineers in October revealed the levee had seriously eroded. Flow was stopped and navigation of sixty-four miles of the St. Francis River from Marked Tree to Wittsburg was effectively halted.

The District’s levees and other projects sustained damage in the 1937 flood and, in April 1938, the Jadwin Plan was amended to include the $21,700,000 St. Francis River Basin Flood Control Project in Missouri and Arkansas. The project, under the direction of U. S. District Engineer Major Daniel Noce, was designed to protect one million acres in Arkansas, and in Poinsett County included repair and strengthening of existing levees and construction of new levees on the St. Francis and Little Rivers.

Flow of the St. Francis River between Marked Tree and Wittsburg remained interrupted and river traffic disrupted, however. Before the damage to the sluiceway, lockings through the companion lock averaged 750 per month. Logging interests threatened a lawsuit if navigation, halted since October 1936, was not restored. In December 1937, the Corps of Engineers began what were intended to be permanent repairs to the sluiceway. On May 7, 1938, as Corps and Drainage District personnel worked to repair the sluiceway, high waters crevassed the levee and washed out a ninety foot gap. The sluiceway settled and was damaged beyond repair, the District’ s hydroelectric plant was destroyed, and nearly 2000 acres were flooded. Over the next two weeks, up to eight hundred men, many from the National Re-employment Service, worked desperately to stabilize the levee and prevent further damage. By October, the break was finally repaired, the remains of the sluiceway removed, and the river dammed, its flow again diverted down the floodway.

According to Corps Engineers, the sluiceway and levee failed because they were constructed on an underlying strata of fine sands which tended to become “quick” when saturated. The only satisfactory sluiceway replacement employed cellular sheet piling in the foundation, which was judged prohibitively expensive. Because of the cost, as well as concern for the safety of the levee and any structure on the uncertain foundation, the Memphis District Corps of Engineers Office announced it would permanently dam the levee gap, but, “instead of passing water under or through the dam, water will be siphoned over it.”

From December 1938 to June 1939, Memphis District Engineers Noce, Major James D. Andrews Jr., Capt. F. J. Wilson, George C. Ross, and Lt. C. L. Evans designed and installed the Marked Tree Siphons. In addition, A. B. Wood and Wade Barnett of the Sewerage and Water Board of the City of New Orleans served as consulting engineers. Constructed in the Memphis District shops under the supervision of Ross, the three, nine foot diameter, 228 feet long, electronically welded steel tubes were among “the largest in the world.” At a cost of $215,000, the siphons were $72,000 cheaper than a satisfactory culvert. Because of the size of the siphons, there was little existing data on their probable action or effectiveness. According to Andrews, “the hydraulic design became one of a pioneer nature largely based on sound reasoning rather than precedent.” At least one engineer expressed reservations about the Corps’ seasoning. At a meeting of the Board of Directors of Drainage District Number Seven, L. L. Ridinger, Chief Engineer for the District stated his past experience with siphons had proven they were not satisfactory.

On June 7, 1939, the siphons were placed in operation. On June 8, hundreds of spectators, including engineers from Washington, D. C., and Vicksburg, Mississippi, attended the dedication barbecue and fish fry. As Peggy Wilson, daughter of Capt. Wilson, christened the Marked Tree Siphons with champagne, Curtis Dewey, president of the board of directors of the drainage district, pulled the switch to start the flow. A correspondent for the Marked Tree Tribune who witnessed the dedication incredulously reported: “A whole river was lifted 30 feet across a dam and deposited on the other side.” In his address, Noce described the project as the only siphons of their type in the world and as “unique in the annals of engineering.”

In July and August 1939, tests of the new siphons proved all reservations about their operation were groundless. The tests, conducted by the Memphis District Office and the U.S. Waterways Experiment Station, revealed the siphons operated 20 percent more efficiently than anticipated. Model tests of the “pioneer” project were not conducted until 1941, by Richard A. Markey Jr. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Constructed by the Corps of Engineers for Drainage District Number Seven, the siphons have been operated and maintained by the District since 1939. Emphasizing the experimental nature of the siphons, operating and maintenance procedures were never formalized and have been the subject of some controversy. The lock is no longer used. In 1971, its old channel was filled and the levee extended across the lock.

The St. Francis River is no longer navigated by log rafts and steamboats and the original justification for the lock and siphons is no longer valid. In 1983, however, a Corps of Engineers justification report on the repair of the siphons recognized a number of additional benefits provided by their continuance. Because abandonment of the siphons would permanently divert the St. Francis River down its floodway, they provide for preservation of the old channel. The siphons also facilitate control of the St. Francis Lake for recreational purposes, such as sport fishing and hunting, and for commercial fishing. They also have a role in flood control, providing some “flood fight capability” in emergency operations for relief of the floodway, and benefit “lake farming” in the floodway, delaying the lake rise and prolonging the short crop season in the affected area.

The Marked Tree Lock and Siphons were essential elements in the St. Francis River Basin Flood Control Project, a major component in the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control plan for the Mississippi River Valley. The Marked Tree Siphons are also a unique engineering achievement and, according to Corps engineers, the only siphons of their type in the United States.


“An act to enable the State of Arkansas and other States to reclaim the ‘Swamp Lands’ Within their limits,” Chapter 84, 9 Stat. at L. 519.

Andrews, James D., “Lifting a River Over a Levee,” Engineering News Record, July 4, 1940, pp. 67-70.

Bloompot, Henry. St. Francis River Proiect–The Marked Tree Siphon: Hypothesis of Design. (Revised.) U. S. Engineer Office, Memphis, Tenn. n. d.

Carter, Clarence Edwin, ed. Territorial Papers of the United States. 26 vols. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1934-1951. Vol. 21: Territory of Arkansas, 1829-1836.

“Chapman and Dewey Lumber Company v. St. Francis Levee District,” 232 U. S. 186. 1914.

Correlation of Model and Prototype Data, Marked Tree Siphon, Arkansas. Locks and Siphon File. Drainage District No. 7, Marked Tree, Arkansas.

Daniel, Pete. Deep’n as It Comes: The 1927 Mississippi River Flood. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Faulkner, G.D. “Conservation in Poinsett County.” Poinsett County. W. P. A. Place File. Arkansas History Commission.

Flood Control, Mississippi River and Tributaries, St. Francis Basin Project: Justification Report, Repair of Marked Tree Siphons. U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District. April 1983.

Harrisburg, Arkansas, Modern News, May 27, 1938; June 17, 1938; and June 16, 1939.

Harrison, Robert W., and Kollmorgen, Walter M., “Land Reclamation in Arkansas under the Swamp Land Grant of 1850,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 6 (Winter 1947): 366-418.

History of the Organization and Operations of the Board of Directors, St. Francis Levee District of Arkansas, 1893-1945. West Memphis, Arkansas: n. p., n.d.

Inspection Report No. 4, Marked Tree Siphons, Marked Tree, Arkansas. U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District. October 24, 1979.

Marked Tree, Arkansas, Tribune, April 11, 1938; May 12, 1938; October 13, 1938; June 8, 1939; and Thirty-fifth Anniversary Edition, July 1939.

Marked Tree Siphon. File 1520-03. Correspondence-Permanent-Continuing Evaluation of Completed Civil Works-Retire or Removal of Structure, Abandonment of Project or When Control Passes from COE. File #1 of 2. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District Office, Memphis, Tennessee.

Marked Tree Siphon: A Study of Well Points and Ground-Water Conditions at the Marked Tree Siphons, St. Francis Basin Project. War Department, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, U. S. Engineer Office, Memphis, Tenn. 1940.

Mills, Gary B. Of Men and Rivers: The Story of the Vicksburg District. Vicksburg, Miss.: U. S. Army Engineer District, Vicksburg, Corps of Engineers, 1978.

Minutes of the Meeting of the Board of Commissioners of Drainage District No. Seven of Poinsett County. Books 2 and 4. Marked Tree, Arkansas.

Noce, Daniel, and Andrews, James D., “Design and Construction of Siphons at Marked Tree, Arkansas,” Military Engineer 30 (March-April 1940): 117-123.

Public and Private Acts and Joint and Concurrent Resolutions and Memorials of the Forty-first General Assembly of the State of Arkansas. 1917.

Ritter, Anna, “Marked Tree from 1883-1936,” Craighead County Historical Quarterly 5 (Winter 1967): 24-27.

St. Francis River Basin Flood Control Project, Missouri-Arkansas. Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, Mississippi River Commission, Memphis District, Memphis, Tenn. 1949.

St. Francis River Project—Marked Tree Siphon, General Hydraulic Study. Corps of Engineers, U. S. Army, U. S. Engineer Office, Memphis, Tenn. 1939.

St. Francis River Project—Marked Tree Siphon: Hypothesis of Design. Corps of Engineers, U. S. Army, U. S. Engineer Office, Memphis, Tenn. 1939.

Siphon, St. Francis River Project, Marked Tree, Ark., Drainage District No. 7, Poinsett County. Specification for Construction of Masonry Work. War Department–Corps of Engineers, U. S. Army, U. S. Engineer Office, Memphis, Tenn. 1938.

Siphon: St. Francis River Project, Marked Tree, Ark., Drainage District No. 7, Poinsett County. Specifications for Hired Labor on Pipe Work. War Department–Corps of Engineers, U. S. Army, U. S. Engineer Office, Memphis, Tenn. 1938.

U. S. Congress. House of Representatives. Flood Control in the Mississippi Valley. House Document No. 90. 70th Cong., 1st sess. 1928.

U. S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Commerce. Report on the Mississippi River Floods. Report No. 1433. 55th Cong., 3rd sess. 1898.

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