As soon as I began this series of articles back in May, my wife assigned me to do one on the old Rock Island depot, so I shall sally forth. The shell of the building still stands west of the post office in downtown Booneville, a reminder of a different era. It is a factor in our history that definitely does not need to be forgotten. Thankfully, there are a number of pictures that show what it looked like in its prime.
It is a nostalgic experience to walk the length of the structure and imagine what it must have been like in its heyday. From all indications, the depot was at one time a very attractive building. Its design was sturdy-looking and had its own uniqueness in what was called the Spanish Mission style.
Immediately beside the depot was the hotel. One picture, apparently from the early 1900s, shows the hotel staff lined up for a formal photograph, with the depot in the background. Downtown Booneville evidently was a very fashionable location back in those days.
In order to generate additional revenues and to be able to control the level of service at the eating houses, the Rock Island railroad began acquiring control of various restaurants as early as 1905. In 1908, John J. Grier got the franchise to construct and operate eating houses at different points along the line, eventually 34 locations in eight states. The building which served as the last Rock Island depot in Booneville (the one still standing) was actually constructed as an eating house. It ceased to be used for that purpose in 1936 as meals began to be served on the trains themselves.
In 1946, all railroad operations were moved from the old wooden depot into the idle eating house. It served as Booneville’s passenger station from then until 1967, when the passenger trains were discontinued. (Among the many passengers who rode the Rock Island were some of the multitude of patients who were treated at the Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanitorium.) After 1967 the depot served as the office for freight trains, finally closing with the death of the line in 1980.
Mr. Danny Aldridge of Fort Smith is a railroad aficionado. His father, James Henry Aldridge, was a conductor on the Rock Island until the late 1950s. He worked on both the “doodlebug” passenger trains and the regular freight trains. In fact, he was the conductor on the first Choctaw Rocket passenger train after it went to diesel engines.
As a child, Danny rode the rails a lot because their family got free passes through his father’s employment. They would load a baby carriage on the train, ride to Little Rock, spend the day shopping or visiting and then ride home. When they got old enough, their mother would send the children by themselves to Little Rock to visit their grandparents.
While she had lived in Booneville, his grandmother had a garden in the area that is now the parking lot for the old Bearcat Restaurant. What had originally been the outhouse at the depot was eventually converted to a tool shed, and finally moved into the area where her garden was.
There was a boarding house maintained by Rock Island for their crews. It was located on the northeast corner of the depot.
There is something romantic and exciting about a railroad. I remember as a child watching the doodlebugs from my grandparents’ house east of Magazine on Highway 10 and wondering what it must be like actually to ride on one. I never did find out.
I also remember vividly the closing of the Rock Island line through Booneville in 1980. I had just started working in the Order Entry department at Wolverine Toy. Glenn Shipley was the Supervisor of our department, and Larry Lowder was the Shipping Supervisor. The way in which they had to approach their jobs changed significantly when the railroad shut down and everything had to be shipped on trucks. It was the end of an era, and a sad chapter in the history of South Logan County.