The River and the Railroad

by | Sep 1, 2020 | Features

Photo by Liz Chrisman

The growth of Russellville and the River Valley was directly linked to the paths of commerce

Just south of Russellville, the warm olive currents of the Arkansas River curl through a channel chiseled by eons of water that is still slowly grinding at the river bed, altering the course millimeters at a time. Those waters have shaped the land and shaped the communities surrounding it. The river brought people to this region. The river is why Russellville, the city, is here today.

As Russellville celebrates its 150th anniversary, it’s important to remember the community didn’t just spring up on its own. The gradual progression of Euro-American settlers who travelled into what is now Arkansas first crossed the Mississippi River, many near Arkansas Post, and followed the Arkansas River northwest.

The Arkansas River was the first path to commerce in Arkansas, and every community in every county through which the river coursed benefited from it. None in the five-county region we consider the Arkansas River Valley benefitted more than Russellville, but the economies of surrounding small towns — especially in Pope, Yell, and Johnson counties — were integral to the Russellville economy as well.

When the railroad came to Russellville, the city’s status as commercial hub of the Arkansas River Valley was solidified. And as Russellville grew, so did opportunity throughout the region.

The history of commerce in Russellville could never be contained within its city limits or even the county borders. Commerce in Russellville has always encompassed more than the town and its citizens. The economic history of Russellville is, in many ways, the economic history of the River Valley.

A half-century ago, the Pope County Historical Society rallied the town together in celebration, culminating in the publication of one collective narrative entitled Russellville Centennial, 1870-1970: Arrows to Atoms. As a whole it is a story of hearty pride and collective hope. The various articles cite an abundance of what we today refer to as “wins,” from the robustness of local fiduciary entities to multiple Fortune 500 companies manufacturing their products nearby. The general tone and photos of grinning supporters tells of their faith in several newly implemented decisions – difficult decisions – which continued the trajectory of growth in the River Valley.

Thanks to both the Pope and Yell County historical societies, we have a wealth of other reports from a variety of no-less enthusiastic residents down through history. From on-the-scene reporters to aging settlers’ children, all were anxious to speak of the abundance they had discovered within Arkansas’ boundaries.

A Tamed Country
According to this narrative published in Dardanelle on July 4th, 1876, pioneers arrived to find some parts of the land already tamed by their Native American predecessors.

In about the year 1790 the natives had “cleared little patches of land in common, which they cultivated separately – each one’s share or cut, being designated by cornerstones, some of which are to be seen in their places in the neighborhood of Danville…The principal meat used by them was wild game, which existed here then in great abundance, including the elk and buffalo, long since driven from this part of the country. The writer has seen many of their skulls and horns lying in the hills and mountains where they were slain. Peaches and plums appear to have been their favorite fruits, and many of their old plum orchards are yet to be seen in this country. They also raised a few hogs in and about Dardanelle, and in the summer months they had great abundance of melons.”

Little Rock News
Another voice of the time comes to us from early publications that labored mostly at their own cost to report the local news and opinion. The first of these was in Little Rock, a village which quickly gained in popularity after the creation of the Arkansas Territory in 1819.

Although the first capital was at the Arkansas Post – east of what is today Pine Bluff – pioneers quickly swarmed across the land, including many a soldier who took the government up on an offer to claim a piece of the territory for themselves, in recognition of their service in the War of 1812.

According to the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, “settlers moved into regions north, west, and southwest of the Post” so much so that just two years on, the capital moved up-river. Tidbits from the Arkansas Gazette provide a glimpse into what sorts of commercial activities merited column space in those early days, along with the seasonal challenges with which the pioneers contended.

1822, March 19th: The citizens of Little Rock were very agreeably surprised, on Saturday morning last, by a salute from the Steam-boat Eagle, Capt. Morris, which arrived here in 51 running hours from Arkansas, and 17 days from New-Orleans, bound to Dwight the Cherokee Missionary establishment on the Arkansas. She stopped here about an hour, then proceeded on her voyage.

This is the first steam-boat that has ever ascended the Arkansas to this place, and reflects much credit on Capt. Morris, for his enterprise. We are happy to learn from Capt. M that he encountered no material difficulty on his passage thus far, although the river is very low; at a higher stage, he thinks this river will be as well adapted to steam-boat navigation as any in the world. The arrival of the Eagle opens a new and interesting era in the navigation and commerce of the Arkansas. Judging from the increasing industry of our citizens, and the efforts at present making for the raising of cotton, and other staple commodities, it needs no inspiration to predict, that the time is not far distant, when steam-boats will be no less a novelty on this noble river, than they are at this time on the other principal tributaries of the Mississippi.

April 16th: Between 250 and 400 bales of Cotton were shipped from Hemstead (SIC) county to New-Orleans during last season. Commerce on the Red river is becoming so important that citizens of Hemstead county have commenced the building of a steam-boat there to employ in the trade of that county.

November 19th: On account of heavy rains mails are long delayed. One post-rider carried a heavy mail on his shoulders for thirty miles because he could not get his horse through. There is probably not a post-route in the United States more difficult to perform than that from the Post of Arkansas to the Chickasaw Bluffs, at Memphis, and yet it is the most important mail we have. Emigration to various parts of this Territory, appears to be pouring in at this time, with greater rapidity than at any former period.

December 3rd: The first snow of the season. On Sunday morning the mercury fell to 9°.

1823, February 4th: The present winter has been by far the most severe of any we have experienced in this Territory. The thermometer reached 11° below zero.

February 25th: We hear from almost every quarter of vast numbers of cattle that have died during the late extreme cold weather.

May 13th: One of the most violent tornadoes we ever witnessed, passed over this place Wednesday night last. The rain fell in torrents, accompanied by heavy peals of thunder, and a constant blaze of lightning. The wind blew a hurricane, tearing up by the roots an almost incredible number of the largest trees of the forest.

A boat belonging to the Dwight Mission (Cherokee Nation) arrived at Little Rock on Saturday last with supplies.

Early Pioneer Days
Mr. Boles, who declined to give his own name in this story, tells of his arrival in Dardanelle, then a part of Pope County.
My father, John Boles, moved into this country in February, 1842, and though I was quite a small boy then, my recollection of the condition of the country is quite fresh on my mind. The roads were few, crooked and narrow, so narrow the branches of the undergrowth would lap over them and brush you in the face as you passed…There were no bridges until 1850, (and) when the small streams were swollen, travel was suspended.

Arkansas’ Industrial Revolution
Water may have controlled the community at the time, but the community quickly learned how to control the water. Boles tells us the first water mill was built in 1839 on Spring Creek, six miles north of Danville. Another on Dutch Creek in 1843, a third on Gaffords Creek the following year and a fourth in Chickalah in 1845. These were followed by many more as technology was shared across homesteads.

There were just three steam mills in existence up to the Civil War, the first two built in 1858 in Delaware township (now Logan County), and the third in Chickalah in 1859 or ’60.

The cotton gin transformed cotton production across the south, and Arkansas wasn’t to be left behind in this innovation either. The first in the county was built in 1838, then a second just three miles west of Dardanelle in 1840, and a third the same year. Another was built east of Bluffton in 1843, and the fourth in Dardanelle not long after.

The opportunities were here, and the increased regularity of river travel enabled visits to work awhile and sample the territory before making the more arduous and expensive journey with cattle and possessions in tow. Then with the Civil War tearing up the country like a monster storm, many of the younger generation were already uprooted and open to visiting a variety of destinations before putting down roots. An 1869 visit from John T. Torrence’s nephew for just this reason offered the opportunity to send this message back home to Gaston, North Carolina:

Uncle John says, why dont Edwin leave that old, poor, sickly Country. He says You could live a great deal easier, enjoy better health, and in every respect be benefited by the move. Our Country is looking up very fast. Our Rail Road is progressing finely, and in 18 months, it will be completed from L.R. this far (75 miles) and in two years the whole distance from the Rock to Ft Smith. The Company are offering $2.oo per day for hands to work on the road, hands can get from $15 to $20 per month for common farm work, and $1.00 per cwt for picking cotton and their board, or $1.25 if they furnish themselves, and a great many can pick 200 lbs per day.

Railroad Days
The coming of the railroad was long-planned but interrupted by the Civil War. When peace returned, the railroad would not be stopped, but continued along previously-discussed lines…with one exception. A member of the Shinn family provides this memory in his book, Pioneers and Makers of Arkansas.

Dover in 1853 was the most prominent town between Little Rock and Fort Smith, and in that little town was held in that year the first railroad meeting ever held in the State bearing on the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad. Men from all parts of the State attended that meeting, and out of it came the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railway.

The belief at the time was that Dover, then the seat of Pope County, would become the next railroad stop after Atkins. Yet around the same time as that first meeting, Jacob Shinn was situating himself as an influencer, being considered a hero of the Mexican War and having taken over the first store in Russellville from his uncles Silas and Madison. After the Civil War, he campaigned against the hated Federal militia that had been sent to restore peace, but which instead contributed to the murderous wrath that tainted the county. Shinn gained much popularity after railing publicly against them, bringing threats upon himself to the point that he was forced to escape for a time to Little Rock. When the dust cleared and the railroad once again pushed its way into the river valley, it was toward Shinn’s donated land a block north of his store.

No matter where they lived or which side they were on politically, the community enthusiastically welcomed the first trains churning through the valley. This was the technology that opened wide the gates of civilization. Russellville grew by leaps and bounds, and the nearby cities gleaned riches of their own. This bit of prose testifies to local enthusiasm for the technology of that age.

The Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad came to Pope County in 1872-73. It has stations in this county at Atkins, Russellville, and several other convenient points. This railway has done much to develop the county and advance its best interests. It has had an influence upon settlements, the growth of towns, and in removing the center of trade and the seat of justice from the interior of the county to the Arkansas Valley. Russellville is on this line of railroad and has one of the largest and most fertile districts in Arkansas or any other State tributary to her, which promises shortly to be further opened up by a line of railway from Kansas City to Hot Sprints, thus crossing the State transversely to the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad, and making Russellville the distributing point for an immense area of as rich and fertile territory as presents its upturned face to the beams of Phoebus.

In 1895, a mere twenty years after the first steam locomotive whistled its arrival, we have this fly-on-the-wall description from a reporter at the Russellville Democrat:

Our little city assumed quite a metropolitan air on Saturday last. Our streets were not only crowded but fairly jammed with wagons and people…The stores of the city, with their four to twenty clerks were crowded to their utmost, and everything and everybody seemed to be full of the rush and bustle which characterizes city life. The reporter, while taking in this sight, invariably looked around for the passing trolley car, and up for the electric light wires (which were not there.) All Russellville lacks is water works, electric lights and street cars, then where will you find a city like us. Truly this is a great and growing town.

Let everybody open their hearts and pocket books…and we need not be afraid but what the lights, waterworks and the people will come. Everybody put a shoulder to the wheel and push.

Yes, the transport, cotton, manufacturing, lights, water, and various sources of energy arrived in their time. They came by the grace of location, technology, and a persistent passion. We owe a debt of gratitude not only to Jacob Shinn, but others like him who brought about the developments that made us what we are today. There are more stories to come; we only need people to tell them.

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