An awards banquet held Tuesday night (Sept. 23) in Fort Smith honored the legacy of a man some say is single-handedly responsible for Fort Smith becoming the heart of manufacturing in Arkansas through his work with regional chambers of commerce and the development of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.
The Arkansas River Historical Society inducted three men into its hall of fame, including Tony Thomas of Clinton, Miss., Steve Taylor of Eucha, Okla., and the late Paul Latture Sr. of Fort Smith.
Paul Revis, president of the ARHS, said the "development of a multipurpose project of this magnitude requires the commitment of multiple talents and efforts over a span of decades.”
"These honorees represent not only different generational ages but also different areas of expertise and contributions to the development of the Arkansas River," he added.
Paul Latture Jr. was on hand Tuesday to accept the honor on behalf of his late father and spoke of his father's involvement in the development of the river channel, dating back to his work in 1948 with the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, where he focused his efforts on agriculture issues.
"The river was authorized at that point and they hadn't started the work on it. But one of the challenges he had was to try to determine the impact that it's going to have on the agricultural community in Oklahoma at the time and Tulsa. So he was involved with how the river's going to affect the economy and how it's going to affect the movement of goods.”
In 1956, Latture Sr.'s efforts shifted to Fort Smith where he took over as executive director of the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce and shared a vision with the community, members of the region's congressional delegation and just about anyone else who would listen about the movement of goods up and down the river and the potential floating right by the city's downtown.
Latture Jr. recalled a photo from 1956 that showed the Arkansas River in Fort Smith as basically "a sand bar," much like parts of the river appear in Tulsa today beyond the navigation system. He said his father's work in Tulsa that continued well into his tenure in Fort Smith was about bringing commerce to the region.
"The same impact it's going to have on Tulsa, it's going to have on Fort Smith. So he came in with that background and he was one of the ones who promoted the funding, worked real close with the congressional delegation in Washington to make sure funding continued and he was very involved with it until the day it opened," with a portion to Little Rock opening in 1969 and another stretch to Catoosa, Okla., opening in 1971.
Marty Shell, the operator of the Ports of Fort Smith and Van Buren, grew up with Latture as a neighbor and a role model and said his involvement on the river as a port operator and president of Five Rivers Distribution could be tied to Latture, part of the reason he asked to be able to present the award to Latture's son.
Shell said most of the manufacturing community in Fort Smith and the region could thank Latture – who lead the chamber until his death in 1986 – for their jobs, due to his leadership in the Arkansas River navigation system and bringing additional industry to the region.
"Everyone that's employed in the manufacturing sector, they might not know who Paul Latture Sr. is, but they ought to be able to thank him because he's probably the reason they've had a job or currently have a job in the manufacturing sector. He was a very influential man for the city of Fort Smith in the 60s, 70s, and 80s," Shell said.
Latture Jr. said his father was able to identify the unique attributes along the inland river – access to the Gulf of Mexico, major interstates, and rail. And tying all three together was a large part of why his father is being posthumously awarded inducted into the Arkansas River Historical Society's Hall of Fame.
And while Latture Sr. has been gone for many years now, his legacy has lived on with his son having been involved in work at various chambers of commerce throughout the region and capping his career with the executive directorship of the Port of Little Rock, a position he retired from during the summer. Latture Jr. said while his father played a part in accomplishing what some perceived to be the impossible by turning sand bars into a river of commerce and opportunity, the work is not over.
He said maintenance funding is needed to keep the navigation system running and commerce flowing. Latture Jr. said dredging the river to 12 feet could also add more industry to the region, allowing it to compete with the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers for business.
But the most important thing, he said, was conducting the Three Rivers Study to prevent a potentially catastrophic situation should a breach occur at the convergence of the Arkansas, Mississippi, and White Rivers in eastern Arkansas.
"You know, you can stub your toe and break your finger. But if you break your neck, it's over. And that's exactly the problem. That's the very start or end of the system and we think that needs to be reinforced to make sure the two rivers (the Arkansas and White) don't change course. If one of them gets into the other one, then you can't get up the river.”