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History of Arkansas Transportation


State’s Fine Transportation Facilities

Plane, Truck, and Rail Services Succeed Keel Boat and Stage Coach of the Early Pioneer Days 

J.C. Murray, traffic manager of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, prepared the appended history of the Arkansas’s transportation system.  Beginning with the stage coach and river packet, he has brought the article down through history to the present day, when high speed trains, trucks, and the airplane have taken the spotlight.

 By J.C. Murray

Arkansas Democrat – 1936

 Transportation within and to and from Arkansas commenced with the establishment of Arkansas Post by Henri de Tonti as the first white settlement, in 1686.  DeTonti sailed from France with Rene Robert Cavalier de la Salle for the purpose of exploring the territory which was finally purchased by this country from France in the proceedings known as the Louisiana Purchase. LaSalle returned to France after exploring the Mississippi river and it was on a trip from Fort St. Louis to the gulf for the purpose of meeting LaSalle, who was returning from France, that DeToni diverted to the Arkansas River and established Arkansas Post.

 Arkansas Post was located so as to command the use of the Mississippi River and the Arkansas and other tributaries, and a study of the location of the early settlements shows clearly the importance of the rivers as the natural highways of the people.  These natural highways were supplemented by trails leading from Arkansas Post by way of Grand Prairie to points in Conway county.  Other trails were those leading from Hot Springs to St. Louis by way of Little Rock, and from Hot Springs to Natchitoches on the Red River, and another branch running from Hot Springs to Monroe, La.

 As early as 1820 settlements existed at Helena, Arkansas Post, Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Benton, Cadron, Davidsonville, Fort Smith, Hot Springs, Mound Prairie, Maribrook, Crystal Hill, and Biscoeville.  Between these settlements the lonely pioneers lived in cabins scattered at long intervals. Great dangers confronted the traveler as there were few roads cut through the forests and no bridges over the rivers. The horse and covered wagon furnished the transportation by land while the canoe, keel-boat, and rafts were used on the water.  These pioneers have left us with rugged courage, self-denial, and industry that is so large a share of our present civilizations.  The self-sacrifice made in their conquest of the wilderness places an obligation on the present and future generations to hold with reverence the memory of these pioneers.

 First Roads Proposed

A road from Memphis to Fort Smith by way of Little Rock was authorized by act of Congress in 1821 and by similar act in 1822 from Jackson via Little Rock, Washington, and Fort Towson.  These were and still are known as military roads.  Using Little Rock as a center, other roads were opened leading to Batesville. 

The first mail route established between Little Rock and Memphis commenced operation in 1824 over practically the exact route of the present U.S. Highway 70.  This route, known as the “Trail of Tears”’ is the route used in moving the Cherokee Indians from their lands east of the Mississippi River to those in the West.  The name “Trail of Tears” originates from the fact that hundreds of Indians died along that trail from the ravages of cholera, while they were being moved under military escort.

As settlers moved northward, transportation on the rivers was accentuated but even as late as 1826 the most popular mode of connection with Arkansas Post was by means of stage coach.  The first stage route in the state was established by Wright Daniels, between Little Rock and Arkansas Post in the fall of 1826, with contract for carrying the mail between the two points and coaches were arranged for the conveyance of passengers.  The coach left Little Rock every Tuesday at noon and arrived at Arkansas Post the following Thursday evening; returning, it departed from Arkansas Post at 8 o’clock Friday morning, arriving in Little Rock Monday about 10 a.m.  The fare was $8 one way and each passenger was allowed to carry 14 pounds of baggage.

 An interesting boat trip combined with stage coach was the route of travel between Little Rock and Memphis, in conjunction with rail service between Memphis and Madison, Ark.  This trip was finally made more pleasant by construction of the Memphis and Little Rock railroad, now a part of Rock Island.  On February 20, 1862, that company advertised that trains were operating between the west bank of the Mississippi River at Memphis and Madison, Ark.  The mode of travel then became by train from Little Rock to DeVall’s Bluff, thence via Hanger, Rapley and Gains’ side-wheel steamer “Charm,” from DeVall’s Bluff to Clarendon, thence via stage coach from Clarendon to Madison, thence rail to the Mississippi River.  This shortened the service by 24 hours as compared with the previous service using stage and boat without rail.

 A regular line of packets from Memphis connected with the road at DeVall’s Bluff, offering excellent facilities for the shipment of freight at all seasons and without the risk and delay attending navigation at that time on the Arkansas river.  This schedule provided for leaving Little Rock about 8:40 a.m. arriving Memphis the following day at 4 p.m. and returning, leaving Memphis 7:30 a.m. arriving in Little Rock 4:30 p.m. the next day.

 One of the advertisements of the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad at that time showed as an attraction: “Only twelve hours staging between Little Rock and Memphis”

 The railroad called attention of the public to this service providing relief from fatigue because of the night ride on the boat.  The fare between Memphis and Little Rock, one way, at that time, was $10.

 The general conduct of freight business on the river was through the establishment of storage, forwarding, and commission warehouses at strategic points, coupled with the boat service which gradually reached the point of permanent maintenance between New Orleans, Memphis, DeVall’s Bluff on the White River and Fort Smith on the Arkansas River. 

First River Steamboat

The earliest commercial navigation on the Arkansas River was in March 1820, about 10 years after the first steamboat had descended the Mississippi River to New Orleans.  The “Comet” commanded by Captain Byrne, arrived at the Arkansas Post at 10 p.m. March 31, 1820, the trip from New Orleans having been made in eight days.

 The steamboat “Eagle” commanded by Captain Morris, was the first steamboat that ascended the Arkansas River as far as Little Rock.  It arrived March 16, 1822, after 17 days’ passage from new Orleans.  The boat reached Little Rock at an early hour in the morning and Captain Morris, in order to arouse the town, fired a salute of several guns.  After a short stop at Little Rock it proceeded to Dwight Mission and returned to Little Rock March 19, on the trip back to New Orleans.  Dwight Mission was founded by the Presbyterian Church in the Cherokee settlement located in what is now Pope county near the mouth of the Illinois Creek.

 At the present time there is no commercial navigation on the Arkansas river open to the public, because the channel has been permitted, during the past few decades, to fill to the extent that at present the ruling depth is four feet for eight and one-half months and less than three feet for three and one-half months of the year, from the mouth to a point near Fort Smith.  The White River is available for navigation as far as Newport, with a controlling depth of five feet or more for 10 months and three feet for two months of the year.  There is on the Ouachita River commercial navigation throughout the year, moving tonnage between New Orleans and the Arkansas points principally.  The Ouachita is navigable far north as Camden.  Of course, during all of this period eastern Arkansas points were served by means of the Mississippi and St. Francis Rivers. 

Highway Transportation

From the time of the stage coach and the use of dirt roads to the present, there has been great development in this state.  This development, as in other states, has been gradual until at the present time the highway mileage, by types, within the boundaries of the state are as follows:

 Concrete Pavement: 1,061.88 complete

Asphaltic Pavement: 577.95 complete

Asphaltic Retread: 413.83 complete

Gravel: 5,267.93 complete

Graded: 756.22 complete

Unimproved: 526.70

Through towns and cities over 2,500 population: 177.72

Total: 8,794.84

 These highways are of such construction that transportation via motor carrier has become a great factor in the movement of passengers and commerce, thousands of tons moving annually for long and short hauls to, from, and between points in Arkansas.

 Before any motor transport line or individual truck line may operate on the highways of Arkansas, it is necessary that a permit be secured from the Arkansas Corporation Commission.  To show the extent of this mode of transport, there has been issued to date by the Corporation Commission, 167 permits to freight lines and 31 permits to passenger bus lines.  Practically the entire state is served with passenger bus lines, some of which operate over the principal highways as portions of transcontinental lines.  Some of the bus lines are subsidiary corporations of railroads; others are independent.  Truck lines are handling freight under contract or as common carriers into Arkansas, consisting principally of manufactured products, secure return loads of agricultural or forest products.

 No doubt the time will come when all of these services will be coordinated with the rail and barge services into a system of transportation with a result of stabilizing charges, services and giving the public a coordinated service necessary in the development of the county.

 Railroad Transportation

Thirty-three railroads serve the state of Arkansas with a combined mileage of 4,960 miles and including eight lines classified by the Interstate Commerce Commission as “Class One” railroads.  Railroads of this class are those reporting gross earnings of one million dollars or more per year.  The balance of 25 lines are short lines operating in various sections of the state and while of great importance in the development of the territory that they serve, act as feeders to the Class One roads.  The Class One railroads and their mileages operated within the state are:

 Missouri Pacific Railroad – 1,784 miles

St. Louis Southwestern Railway – 712 miles

St. Louis, San Francisco Railway – 707 miles

Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway – 701 miles

Kansas City Southern Railway – 154 miles

Missouri and Arkansas Railway – 296 miles

Louisiana and Arkansas Railway  48 miles

Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad (serves Helena, Arkansas only)

 There is a great deal of romance in the history of the principal line and great engineering feats were performed in overcoming the natural obstacles to their construction.  Many miles were constructed in territories which were subject to extreme hazard due to overflows of the Mississippi, Arkansas, White, Red, and Ouachita Rivers and their tributaries and in the mountainous sections expensive tunnels and trestles were necessary.  Eastern Arkansas was at times covered with waters from the Mississippi and St. Francis Rivers for 50 miles into the interior and it was necessary to actually tie the rails in place for protection against periods of flood.

 While the highways are fast being developed for the transportation of commerce, the railroads still remain the backbone of transportation.  Most of the lines are temporarily in financial difficulties due to the results of the depression era through which we are passing and through competition by transport on the highways and water.

Missouri Pacific Lines

This great transcontinental system of railroads operating a total mileage of 10,147 miles, leading from the Mississippi River at St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans and the Missouri River at Kansas City and Omaha, serves all of the Southwestern states and forms two routes to the Pacific coast, one via Denver and its connection the Denver & Rio Grande Western and the Western Pacific and the other through Texas, connecting with the Southern Pacific at El Paso.  It also provides through routes to Mexico via El Paso, Laredo, and Brownsville and serves the gulf coast at New Orleans and Lake Charles, La.; Houston, Galveston, Brownsville, and other Texas ports.

 The construction of this road southwesterly dates back to the formation of the Cairo & Fulton Railroad Company, which had as its first president, Roswell Beebe, whose remains rest in Mount Holly cemetery at Little Rock, Ark., after and exceedingly aggressive life devoted to the welfare of Arkansas.  It was for him that the town of Beebe, Ark. Was named.

 The Cairo & Fulton Railroad was incorporated April 1852, to construct a railroad from the vicinity of Cairo, Illinois to Fulton, Arkansas, on the Red River near Texarkana.  Surveys were commenced and in 1871 the first train arrived at Argenta, Ark., across the river from Little Rock.  The line was completed into Texarkana in 1874, after completion of the Red River bridge, March 20th of that year.  The Barring Cross Bridge Company was organized April 8, 1873, with James M. Loughborough as commissioner and this company constructed the bridge across the Arkansas River from Argenta (now North Little Rock) to Little Rock.  The bridge was named for Baring Brothers, bankers of London, England, who agreed to finance the construction of the bridge.

 In April 1874, the Cairo and Fulton railroad was merged with the St. Louis, Iron Mountain, & Southern Railroad and the merger provided through train service between St. Louis, Cairo, and Texarkana.   The St. Louis, Iron Mountain, & Southern Railroad constructed additional lines as follows, in the years above:


Gurdon to Camden 1881

Forrest City to Helena 1881

Camden to El Dorado 1882

Knobel to Forrest City 1882

Diaz to Batesville 1883

Batesville to Cushman 1886

Little Rock to Arkansas City 1887

Bald Knob to Memphis 1887

Little Rock to Fort Smith 1906

Pine Bluff to Benton 1909

Little Rock to Hot Springs 1909

 All of the properties were included in the present Missouri Pacific system, which was incorporated in 1907 with John G. Drew as president.  Lewis Warrington Baldwin was elected to the presidency in April 1923, and the properties have been operated since that time under his excellent leadership, with headquarters at St. Louis, Missouri.

 The Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific, known to everyone as the “Rock Island,” is a present under the supervision of Frank O. Lowden, James E. Gorman, and Joseph B. Fleming, as trustees, with E.M. Durham Jr. chief executive officer, headquarters Chicago, Illinois.  It consists of properties constructed under the organization of railroads earlier in corporate history, so far as Arkansas is concerned.  The Little Rock and Memphis Railroad Company, incorporated by act of the general assembly, approved January 10, 1853, was formed for the purpose of building a railroad from Memphis to Little Rock.  The idea started in 1845 and was forecast by Gen. Edmond P. Gaines in a convention called the “Pacific Railway Convention” assembled in Little Rock in 1849.

 By 1857 the road was completed for a few miles from a point opposite Memphis to Hopefield and to Madison on the St. Francis River early in 1858.  Trains began running over that part of the line from DeVall’s Bluff to Little Rock in 1862.  Construction was stopped during the Civil War and a section between Madison and DeVall’s Bluff was not completed until nearly 10 years later.

 By the act of July 31, 1868, entitling the company to state aid, the railroad was encouraged to complete the entire line, Little Rock to Memphis, the last spike being driven April 11, 1871.  Construction of this line, which was the second railroad incorporated under the laws of Arkansas, encountered many difficulties.  Before the close of 1854, Bacchus Ford, chief engineer, had completed the survey for the entire distance of 133 miles to Little Rock.  The rails weight 52 pounds to the yard, were brought from France to New Orleans and up the Mississippi river.  The St. Francis levee had not been constructed and the Mississippi river frequently covered the territory for 40 miles west, with moving water from two to eight feet deep.  Many miles of the rails and ties were held to the embankment by means of chain, wire and rope, fastened to trees on the upstream side of the track, for a considerable section of the road.

 The Memphis and Little Rock railroad was headed by R.C. Brinkley, as president, for whom the town of Brinkley is named.  The rehabilitation and completion of the entire line was arranged by Mr. Brinkley and his associates, Messrs. Worsham, Goodloe, and Williams in the latter part of 1865.

 Early in 1866 on the west bank of the White River the town of DeVall’s Bluff was laid out, the railroad owning the town site and it was then the general opinion that DeVall’s Bluff would develop into one of the principal cities of the state.

 The Memphis and the Little Rock railroad properties, after several reorganizations, was sold to the Choctaw and Memphis Railroad Company October 25, 1898, which in turn was sold to the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad, June 30, 1900, and this company extended construction westwardly into Oklahoma.  It still has its corporate existence but the properties are operated by the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railway company.

 At the present time the Rock Island handles passengers from Little Rock to Memphis in two hours  and forty-five minutes, whereas with a combination stage, boat, and rail trip, 20 hours were consumed.

 The engines used in the early days were small eight-wheel wood burning locomotives with cylinders 14 inches in diameter and 24 inches long, whereas the present engines are the most modern available, with super-heated freight engines handling 2,750 tons.

 The St. Louis Southwestern Railway Company

The St. Louis Southwestern Railway Company, commonly known as the Cotton Belt route, is under the supervision of Daniel Upthegrove, president, with headquarters at St. Louis, Mo.  This road operates in the state of Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, a total mileage of 1,811 miles serving St. Louis and Memphis gateways with direct connections to the gulf, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. 

 Mere mention of the Cotton Belt brings before us two outstanding citizens, Col. Samuel W. Fordyce, for whom Fordyce, Ark. Is named, and J.W. Paramore, for whom Paragould is named.  The name Paragould is a combination of a portion of the name Paramore and the name Edwin Gould, who was also one of the outstanding builders and developers.  These two Arkansans stand out conspicuously as builders and developers of this transportation facility. 

The Cotton Belt began with a line twenty-one and one-half miles long, Tyler to Big Sandy, Tex.., October 1, 1877.  The northern section had its inception in the Little River and Arkansas Valley Railroad Company, which was organized September 6, 1876, and completed as a three-foot gauge line in Missouri, connecting New Madrid and Maiden, a distance of twenty-six and one-half miles in January 1878.

 The builders of the Cotton Belt planned a narrow-gauge route from St. Louis to Eagle Pass, Tex.  In 1879 the name of the road was changed from Tyler Tap railroad to the Texas and St. Louis Railway Company and in 1881 the Texas and St. Louis Railway Company of Arkansas was organized to construct the line from Bird’s Point to Maiden.  On July 1, 1881, the two companies consolidated as the Texas & St. Louis Railway Company and in 1882 the road was completed from Pine Bluff, Ar. To Gatesville, Tex.  In the same year the road was completed from Bird’s Point on the Mississippi River to Clarendon.  The bridges across the White and the Arkansas Rivers were opened to traffic between Clarendon and Pine Bluff on  August 12, 1883.

 A re-organization was effected and in January, 1891 the present names of the system, viz., St. Louis Southwestern Railway Company and the St. Louis Southwestern Railway company of Texas were given to the properties.

 The change from narrow to standard gauge was completed in January, 1887.  In 1901 contractual arrangements were made for freight and passenger service over the St. Louis, Iron Mountain, and Southern tracks into St. Louis and in 1912, with the Rock Island for use of its line from Brinkley to Memphis.

 The Cotton belt operates through the alluvial St. Francis basin in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas with main line and branches into Shreveport, La. From Lewisville, Ark.  It operates through the rice and cotton belts of the state.

 Control of the properties of the Cotton Belt was purchased several years ago by the Southern Pacific lines, thus giving Arkansas another transcontinental line and giving the Southern Pacific entry into the Mississippi river at St. Louis and Memphis.

 The Cotton Belt also operates through its subsidiary, the Southwestern Transportation Company, organized in 1928 with headquarters in Texarkana, truck service on the highways of Arkansas in the territory served by the Cotton Belt and thus co-ordinates train and truck service.

 St. Louis, San Francisco Railway Company

The construction of the various small railroads which finally were consolidated into the present operating company commenced in 1882, extending to the early years of this century.  The line operates from St. Louis through Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma to Texas.  It also has a line from Kansas City to Memphis through Arkansas.

 The Texas route reaches Arkansas near Rogers and enters Oklahoma near Fort Smith, while the Kansas City – Memphis line reaches Arkansas near Thayer and crosses the river at West Memphis.

 This company also operates a line from St. Louis to Memphis, serving northeast Arkansas in the Wilson – Blytheville, Leachville district.

 It has made a very great contribution to the development of northwestern and eastern returns to that property.

 The properties are operated under the supervision of J.M. Kurn as president, with headquarters at St. Louis, Mo.

 Louisiana & Arkansas Railway

This property was originally conceived as a logging road, built by William Buchanan, one of the most prominent lumber men in the south.  He had a lumber mill at Stamps, Ark., and built a logging road into the timber, extending to Spring Hill, La., and then incorporated the Louisiana & Arkansas Railway in March 1898.

 Through purchase of the Arkansas, Louisiana, & Southern Railway, it was extended to Sibley, La., and further extended from time to time both though construction and purchase to Alexandria, La.  In October 1906, the Louisiana Railway & Navigation Company completed its line into the city of New Orleans from the Shreveport territory, and in 1928 this line was purchased from its trustees and consolidated with the Louisiana and Arkansas Railway.

 These properties are under the control of Harvey C. Couch, chairman of the board, with headquarters at Pine Bluff, Ark., and the properties are operated with C.P. Couch as president, with headquarters at Shreveport, La.

 Harvey Couch has meant much to the development of our state and is constantly studying the development possibilities, in his endeavors to develop the state, not only along the rails of the Louisiana & Arkansas Railway, but elsewhere in the state.

 The line now extends from Hope, Ark., to New Orleans and to Vidalia, La., also from McKinney, Texas where it has immediate connections for Dallas and Fort Worth to New Orleans via Shreveport.

 Connecting with the Frisco at Hope, it provides a short route from Oklahoma to the Gulf at New Orleans.

 Kansas City Southern Railway Company

About 44 years ago, the Texarkana and Northern, a lumber road, organized in 1885 and operating for 10 miles north from Texarkana became the nucleus of the Kansas City Southern Railway.  Extensions both north and south under various corporate organizations were made until in 1900 the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf became the Kansas City Southern Railway, possessing a line from Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico, operating throughout the western section of Arkansas near the Oklahoma line.

 This line has contributed very greatly to the development of western Arkansas, and is a direct line between the Missouri River at Kansas City and the gulf at Port Arthur, Texas, where during 1899 a canal sufficiently deep to accommodate ocean-going craft was completed, along with necessary terminals, wharves, etc.

 This property is under the supervision of C.E. Johnston as president, with headquarters at Kansas City, Mo.

 Missouri & Arkansas Railway

The corporate history of this property started with the Eureka Springs Railway Company in June 1880.  The St. Louis and North Arkansas Railway Company commenced operating between Seligman, Mo., and Eureka Springs, Arkansas in August 1906.  This company extended the line to Leslie by 1903, and together with trackage rights in Missouri and its own lines in Arkansas, completed operation from Joplin, Mo., to Helena, Ark., in 1909, with a total of 335 miles.

Both of these properties were then combined or consolidated under the name of the Missouri and its own lines in Arkansas, in 1909, with a total of 335 miles.  Both of these properties were then combined or consolidated under the name of the Missouri & North Arkansas Railway Company, which now is the Missouri & Arkansas Railway. 

 This property was originally projected for the development of Eureka Springs as a health resort, and was patronized very greatly by St. Louis citizens.  The extensions were largely for the purpose of developing timber and mineral resources, but it has become an important avenue of transportation to that section of the state, and has mean a great deal to its development.

 The property is in charge of Joe A. Kell, president with headquarters at Harrison, Ark.

Air Transportation

In June 1931, the American Airways established the first regular air service across the state of Arkansas, with landing field at Little Rock.  

These properties are now operated by American Airlines, Inc., and provide two transcontinental services daily, including schedules between Little Rock and Los Angeles vis El Paso Little Rock, and New York, the latter being served over two routes, one via Columbus, Ohio and the other direct through Nashville, Knoxville, and Lynchburg to Washington.

 These lines offer fast air service for passengers mail and express which is a great convenience to the state.

 The time from Little Rock to Memphis is 43 minutes as compared to the 20 hours consumed prior to the complete construction of the Memphis and Little Rock railroad.  The time from Little Rock to Washington to Little Rock is six hours and 16 minutes.  This is illustrative of the progress made in transportation since the early days of our history.

 This chronological history of transportation in Arkansas covering more than a century shows great progress in the transport of people and commodities, resulting in the great development of this state.

 Within a 24-hour period a resident of Arkansas may now reach almost any city between the Allegheny and the Rocky Mountains, with slightly longer to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts by rail, and should more prompt dispatch be necessary almost any important city in the country may be reached through airway connections.

 Thus from 1822 when we consumed 17 days from New Orleans to Little Rock, we now use 16 hours by rail, and where in 1826 we used 54 hours from Little Rock to Memphis, we now have two hours and 45 minutes by rail or 43 minutes by air.

 The state is very completely served by transportation upon its railroads and highways.  Certain portions are advantageously served by water, and while the air service is now limited to east and west service across the center of the state, it may not be long before this service also will be more general in scope.

 Transportation has indeed progressed and only as transportation progresses may any territory likewise be developed.

 Arkansas had unexcelled transportation facilities.  Rail lines, of course, form the backbone of the system.  The main lines of the Missouri Pacific, Rock Island, and Cotton Belt cross the state from border to border.  The Frisco, Kansas City Southern and Louisiana & Arkansas serve important territories.  Arkansas’s elaborate highway program has thrust ribbons of concrete and asphalt to all sections.  Little Rock is a regular stop for transcontinental plane of the American Airways.

 The heavy black lines on the attached map show the through highways.  The rail lines are shown, as in the American Airways route, indicated by the crossed lines from Memphis to Texarkana.

 Arkansas Transportation History Map

Click on the map to go to a larger readable version.