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The Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Fort Smith (Sebastian County) railroad span was organized in November 1853 as the Little Rock and Fort Smith Branch of the Cairo and Fulton Railroad Company. In 1859, while it was still a company only on paper, the Arkansas General Assembly passed a proposed act allowing the Little Rock and Fort Smith Branch to merge with the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad, forming the Central Pacific Railroad. This merger never happened, but it clearly shows the manipulation of railroad markets in Arkansas.
The start of the Civil War in 1861 postponed plans for the proposed Little Rock and Fort Smith Branch. Following the war, in 1866, Congress gave the State of Arkansas ten alternating sections of land on each side of the proposed rail bed to aid in the construction of a railroad from Little Rock to Fort Smith. That same year, legislation was passed allowing for the issuance of Arkansas-backed bonds to finance railroad construction in Arkansas. The legislation allotted the land given by Congress (a total of 1,057,000 acres) to the railroad.
On April 12, 1869, this branch of the Cairo and Fulton Railroad renewed its Arkansas charter, shortening its name to the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad (LR&FS). Later that year, a freight yard and depot were built in Argenta, now North Little Rock (Pulaski County), and by August, the LR&FS began laying track, founding the rail yard that would soon be called the “Fort Smith Crossing” when the Cairo and Fulton Railroad laid tracks crossing the LR&FS’s tracks. The Fort Smith Crossing later became the Missouri Pacific rail yard, the largest rail yard in Arkansas.
The LR&FS first laid track to the Arkansas River so that riverboats could deliver rails, engines, and freight cars. In 1870, the LR&FS laid its first twenty-four miles of track, following the north bank of the Arkansas River westward toward Fort Smith. By 1871, eighty-two miles of track had been laid from LR&FS’s eastern terminus, Argenta, westward toward its western terminus, Fort Smith.
In March 1871, a railroad strike by unpaid workers temporarily paralyzed the LR&FS Railroad when the railroad defaulted on bonds it had sold in 1869. The collapse of the LR&FS Railroad bonds indirectly led to U.S. representative James G. Blaine losing the 1876 Republican presidential nomination. Fueled in part by articles in the Arkansas Gazette newspaper—“Report on bonds shows people of Arkansas have been robbed”—Blaine, a U.S. representative from Maine and speaker of the House of Representatives, was charged with corruption for his involvement in awarding railroad charters and for receiving LR&FS bonds for free or at low prices and then immediately selling the bonds to investors at highly inflated prices, pocketing the profits. While never convicted, Blaine did resign from the House and was thought of ever after as a corrupt politician, nicknamed “The Continental Liar from the State of Maine.”
On December 10, 1874, the LR&FS Railroad was foreclosed on, and nine days later, December 19, 1874, a new group of eastern investors reopened the company, keeping the name Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad. Six months later, on June 12, 1875, the name of the railroad was changed to the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railway.
An influx of skilled German immigrants in Arkansas allowed the LR&FS to push on across the state. These immigrants worked for the railroad and settled on land grants given by LR&FS and in towns along the railway, eventually forming the basis for Arkansas’s wine industry near Altus (Franklin County). The new LR&FS Railway continued to lay track westward across Arkansas, and on January 30, 1879, the LR&FS finally reached Van Buren (Crawford County).
In 1887, New York millionaire Jay Gould purchased the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railway, adding it to his 1881 purchase of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway, forming the largest railroad company in Arkansas. Gould also owned the Missouri Pacific, which would become his parent railroad and into which the LR&FS eventually merged. In April 1906, the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railway was sold to the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway (both railways were owned by Jay Gould and Missouri Pacific), effectively ending the LR&FS Railway.
For additional information:“Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad New Route.” Arkansas Gazette, October 29, 1873, p. 3.
Rolde, Neil. Continental Liar from the State of Maine: James G. Blaine. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House Publishers, 2007.
Woods, Stephen E. “The Development of Arkansas Railroads, Part I.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 7 (Summer 1948): 103–140.
———. “The Development of Arkansas Railroads, Part II.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 7 (Autumn 1948): 155–193.
Larry LeMastersLeMasters’ Antique News Service
Last Updated 1/30/2019
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