In Arkansas, like the rest of the nation, trains have played an important role in how the state developed, with freight transport and passenger service playing an important part of the economy from the waning years of the 19th Century right up to the present day. Although passenger service declined after World War II with the development of the Interstate Highway System, railroads remain a vital link as freight trains move Arkansas goods to a global market and bring products from around the world back to Arkansas.
But railroads, and the trains that crisscross the nation, are more than an economic force. The railroad enjoys its own mystic, with legends, tall tales and ballads that intermingle with history in a unique tapestry that remains as American as the Wild West the railroads helped tame.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, plans for railroad construction in what would become the state of Arkansas began taking shape as early as 1835, but the first railroad tracks weren’t laid until 1858, as a 38-mile section between Hopefield (now West Memphis) and Madison was completed. That section was the first portion of what became the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad, one of numerous short line rail companies that sprang to life in the state. A second section, from Little Rock to the White River at DeValls Bluff, was completed in 1862, before Civil War hostilities ended rail construction until after the war.
In 1866, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest contracted to build the last leg of the Missouri and Little Rock Railroad from the White River to the St. Francis River, at the site that would become Forrest City, named after the general.
Interest in railroads was high after the war, with 86 railroads being chartered in the state by 1871. Track construction, however, lagged behind, and by then only 271 miles of track had been laid, and financial difficulties were making both investors and rail workers restless, prompting the legislature to step in with a law mandating construction milestone requirements in exchange for state funding.
Among the many railroads that were started in Arkansas, or that impacted the state’s growth and economy, the St. Louis Southwestern Railway, known as the Cotton Belt, experienced much of its growth in Arkansas, and is memorialized in an old locomotive shop in Pine Bluff where its most famous alumnus, SSW 819, the last of the 800 Class locomotives built in Pine Bluff during World War II.
Chartered in 1871, the Tyler Tap Railroad went broke by 1879 and was acquired by a group of St. Louis investors who wished to make St. Louis the gateway for southwestern cotton to be transported to eastern markets. Renamed the Texas and St. Louis railway, the new railroad began construction near Texarkana, intending to connect with the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad, but were derailed when Jay Gould, owner of the Missouri Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads, blocked the move by purchasing the Texas and St. Louis Railroad’s intended partner rail line.
The owners then teamed up with Samuel W. Fordyce to survey a route across Arkansas, and the 723-mile-long narrow gauge rail line, stretching from Bird’s Point, Mo., to Gatesville, Texas, was finally completed in 1883.
The financial strain of completing the line proved too much for the company, and the Cotton Belt was foreclosed in 1884, emerging as the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railway and the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railway of Texas, with Fordyce placed in charge of both companies. In 1891, Gould gained control of the railroad, which he renamed the St. Louis Southwestern Railway, to be known as the Cotton Belt Railway.
Over the next four decades, the Cotton Belt experienced growth and change, as it alternately bought up smaller rail lines and was purchased by larger ones, until it was acquired in 1932 by Southern Pacific, which ran the Cotton Belt as a separate unit until the 1980s, maintaining a large maintenance facility in Pine Bluff.
In 1983, a group of Pine Bluff businessmen approached Robert McClanahan, then the superintendent of the Cotton Belt, about restoring SSW 819, a Class 800 steam engine built in the Pine Bluff shop in 1942 and retired from service in 1955 when steam engines were phased out. The engine had been donated to the city of Pine Bluff, where it had been on outdoor display in a city park for nearly 30 years.
That restoration effort was the beginning of what is now known as the Arkansas Railway Museum, located inside the former locomotive shop that was operated by the Cotton Belt until Union Pacific bought out the railway in 1996. Union Pacific owns the building that houses the museum and leases it to the city of Pine Bluff.
McClanahan, a native of Mount Pleasant, Texas, started his career with the Cotton Belt in 1945 at the age of 16, as a student telegrapher, on May 1.
“I was a student telegrapher until June 1, 1945, when I worked my first job,” McClanahan remembered. “That’s when my seniority started. I worked all over the Cotton Belt in Texas, working on nearly all the stations.”
In 1951, McClanahan became a train dispatcher, and over the next 30 years worked his way up through the hierarchy at stations around the country, until being named superintendent over the Cotton Belt, the position he held until he retired at the age of 59, in 1988.
“I took an early buyout because of all the mergers that were taking place,” said McClanahan, who, at the age of 88, is among a number of former Cotton Belt alumni who volunteer at the Arkansas Railway Museum.
Of the many railway companies that once forged paths from one end of the country to the other, mergers and buyouts have changed the landscape considerably in recent years. Just over 700 railroad companies still operate in the U.S., the vast majority being short line operators that service the larger railroads, and excursion trains. The five major rail companies today are Union Pacific (the largest and oldest Class I operator in the U.S.), Burlington Northern Santa Fe, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern.
The legends and lore that have grown up around trains since their earliest days bear the lion’s share of credit for the mystique and romance that is personified by the sound of a lonesome train whistle calling across vast expanses of prairie. People tell ghost stories about trains (such as the story of the Gurdon Lights or the Crossett Lights in Arkansas), legends about trains, tall tales about trains, and even write songs about trains. Young children (and some not so young) dream of life as an engineer, or riding the rails as a hobo (arguably more romantic in fantasy than in fact), such is the power of the locomotive to change the landscape, propel the economy, and to stimulate the imagination.
Trains hold such esteem in American folklore that music writers Steve Goodman and John Prine mentioned them second in a list of clichés the two famously included as requirements to penning the “perfect country and western song,” those requirements being, “mama, trains, trucks, prison and getting drunk.” These were listed in a spoken epilogue before the last verse of the 1975 Country/Western hit song, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” recorded by David Alan Coe, becoming his first top 10 hit.
“I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick'er up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
She got runned over by a damned ol' train”