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History of the Buffalo National River

How the Buffalo Became the Country's First National River


America's first national river has a history as wild and colorful as the scenic wonders found along its 132-mile winding course through the heart of the Ozarks.  According to legends, the Buffalo was sacred to the Native American Indians who maintained a claim on the land until 1828. Pioneers were slow to settle along the bluffs and bottoms where floods could wipe out crops, water mills, and homes overnight.

However, logging and mining industries brought thousands of residents into the river valley by the turn of the century.  While the population fluctuated with the national economy, permanent residents along the Buffalo generally supported any plan to help control flooding.  The first solid plan to dam the river was authorized by Congress in 1938.  World War II intervened and the so-called Lone Rock Dam project was dropped.

In 1938, Buffalo River State Park was established and developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1939.  It remained in the state system until being absorbed into the national park in 1972.  The area is now known as Buffalo Point.  The CCC structures are still there and now comprise a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Another state park, Lost Valley, became a part of the National Park Service as well.

The early 1950s brought a resumption in dam building and new studies proposed two dams on the Buffalo.  In 1956 and again in 1957, President Eisenhower vetoed attempts to impound the river, not because he opposed dams, but due to his belief that insufficient planning and public comment had gone into the large number of requested projects across the nation.

Meanwhile, feature articles started appearing in state and national publications with high praise for the natural beauty and grandeur of the Buffalo.  Efforts to save the Buffalo slowly gained momentum during the late 1950s and grew stronger during the sixties.  Battle lines were drawn as conservationists formed organizations to fight the damming of the river and proponents worked in support of the Corps of Engineers's project.

A major breakthrough for keeping the river free-flowing came in mid-1961 when Sen. J. William Fulbright informed the Arkansas Nature Conservancy that he was interested in "getting the Buffalo River area included in the National Park Service."  The year 1961 also brought the creation of the Ozark Society, which quickly assumed a major role in the preservation effort, with Dr. Neil Compton as its president.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas brought national media attention to the river during a canoe trip in April, 1962.  "You cannot let this river die," Douglas said.  "The Buffalo River is a national treasure worth fighting to the death to preserve."

The controversy took a new turn in 1965 when Gov. Orval Faubus, after years of no official position on the Buffalo River, notified the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that he was opposed to any dam on the stream and, instead, favored a national park.  The project was promptly shelved by the Secretary of the Army.

The tide was turning in favor of a free-flowing stream.  John Paul Hammerschmidt and Winthrop Rockefeller won key election victories in 1966 to Congress and the Governorship respectively, and both were supporters of the park proposal.  After another series of hearings and studies, Congress approved Public Law 92-237 and on March 1, 1972, President Nixon approved the creation of the Buffalo National River.  It came 100 years to the day after the establishment of America's first national park at Yellowstone.

Photo and caption courtesy National Park Service