Tom Dillard: Depots, bridges and tunnels remain landmarks to railroad era

I have previously discussed efforts to bring railroads to antebellum Arkansas, as well as the scores of rail lines — some remarkably short in length — which made their way through the state in the decades following the Civil War.

Today, in my third and final column in a series about railroads in the state’s history, we look at railroad architecture, in particular bridges, depots, and tunnels.

Arkansas railroads, especially in the uplands, cause me to marvel at the amount of sheer labor involved in preparing the roadbed and laying the track. Building railroads in the low-lying lands of eastern Arkansas was a challenge due to frequent flooding, as was the rough terrain and large rock formations were challenges in the Ouachitas and Ozarks.

Railroad companies used contractors to build the roadways. The Lebanon Construction Co. of Pierce City, Mo., was hired by St. Louis & San Francisco Railway, through a subsidiary, to construct segments of a 55-mile rail line from Fayetteville to Fort Smith.

The contractor employed a racially integrated workforce of hundreds to build the line, none too many considering that the route ran directly through the rugged Boston Mountains. At a tiny village known as Summit Home, elevation 1,700 feet, it became necessary to build a tunnel through one especially difficult mountain. Three months after work began, the grateful residents of Summit Home changed the name of the place to Winslow in honor of Edward F. Winslow, president of the railroad. Some 300 men worked on the tunnel, which stretched for 1,693 feet. The white and Black employees worked in segregated teams, though race relations were tense.

Tom Duggan, author of the entry on the Winslow Tunnel in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, notes that digging began from both ends and “progressed at a combined rate of 75 feet per week in optimum conditions.”

The project, including the building of 30-foot brick portals at each entrance, was completed in June 1882 and took less than four months. Several years later, the tunnel was lined with thick brick walls.

In 1967, the tunnel was enlarged to a height of 24 feet and a width of 19 feet, enabling use by large modern trains. It’s still in use by the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad. Before the pandemic, tourists and rail buffs rode the Arkansas & Missouri on excursions between Springdale and Van Buren.

The first large bridges in Arkansas were built by railroad companies, including the first to span the Arkansas River. In 1872, the Cairo & Fulton Railroad secured funding from Baring & Co. Bank of London for a bridge from Little Rock to North Little Rock to replace the ferries used to transport engines and cars across the muddy river. In gratitude, the company named the bridge for the bank, with the addition of the word “Cross” from the family crest of the C&F president.

For financial reasons, C&F spun off the project to a separate corporation, Baring Cross Bridge Co.

Baring Cross Bridge opened a few days before Christmas 1873, with a large crowd in attendance. It consisted of five truss spans, one being a swing span to enable steamboats to pass. It cost almost $350,000, a huge amount of money at that time.

As historian Bryan McDade has noted, Baring Cross Bridge has gone through many transformations, almost from the beginning. In 1877, after being open for four years, the bridge was expanded by adding a highway deck on top. Booths were opened at each end to collect tolls. In 1886, the bridge was rebuilt, and the highway deck was lowered to the same level as the railroad.

Baring Cross Bridge was destroyed during the great flood of 1927. Carloads filled with coal were parked on the bridge in a failed effort to save it. Crowds gathered to watch as the waters grew higher, and the bridge shuddered and groaned before crashing into the furiously roiling river.

It was rebuilt, opening to a giant community celebration on Feb. 2, 1929. Additional updating has resulted in the bridge becoming, in the words of Bryan McDade, “a modern steel double-track bridge with a lift navigational span. It remains one of the busiest railroad bridges in the country.”

To many people, our railroad heritage is symbolized by train depots which could be found in Arkansas cities large and small. Many of these depots survive, often as museums, but sometimes as functioning passenger depots.

One of my favorite depot museums is in the middle of Morrilton in Conway County. The Morrilton Depot was built in 1907 in a Mediterranean style, including a red tile roof. The city of Hope in Hempstead County is home to another fine depot. Built in 1912, it houses a local history museum and is a functioning passenger depot on the Amtrak rail system.

Malvern, county seat of Hot Spring County, was a railroad town from its inception in 1870 as a stop on the Cairo & Fulton line. The settlement really took off in 1874 when wealthy entrepreneur Joseph “Diamond Jo” Reynolds constructed the Hot Springs Railroad from Malvern to Hot Springs.

Today Malvern is an Amtrak stop and home to what is believed to be the best surviving railroad roundhouse in the state.

Railway roundhouses are usually semicircular in shape and were used to service or store locomotives. A turntable, which allowed locomotives to reverse direction, was usually part of the roundhouse. The Malvern roundhouse is not open to the public.

The best place to get a good hands-on feel for our railroad heritage is the Arkansas Railroad Museum in Pine Bluff. Located in the old Cotton Belt shops, it offers two display galleries and 17 tracks in a 70,000-square-foot facility. The Cotton Belt Rail Historical Society hopes to re-open the museum as soon as the covid pandemic ends.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]

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