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Home / Browse / Pine Bluff (Jefferson County)
Latitude and Longitude:
44.576 square miles (2010 Census)
49,083 (2010 Census)
January 10, 1839
Historical Population as per the U.S. Census:
Like Jefferson County, Pine Bluff is a historical offspring of Arkansas Post (Arkansas County)—the first European foothold in Arkansas, founded in 1686 by the French and built near the mouth of the Arkansas River. The city thrived during the last part of the nineteenth century due to its status as a cotton center and river port. The city was hit hard, however, by flooding, drought, and economic depression in the early twentieth century, although World War II proved to be an economic boon to the city, which opened a munitions arsenal during the war. Despite possessing a rich history and being home to a university, the city was in decline by the beginning of the twenty-first century, facing population loss and crumbling infrastructure.
European Exploration and Settlement
After Spaniard Hernando de Soto had trekked through southeast Arkansas 145 years earlier in 1541, leaving behind death and disease, the French arrived to claim the lower Mississippi River Valley. In 1682, French Canadian René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle boated down the Mississippi with a party of fifty-four and claimed southeast Arkansas and its river. One of his lieutenants, Henri de Tonti, an Italian by birth, erected a group of crude encampments near the mouth of the Arkansas and named it Arkansas Post.
Louisiana Purchase through Early Statehood
In the autumn of 1819, Joseph Bonne, making his way upstream from Arkansas Post, built a crude cabin for his Quapaw wife and family on a “high bluff covered with pine trees” on the river’s south bank. A few years later, James Scull, also from Arkansas Post, arrived and set up an encampment on the north bank across from the future site of Pine Bluff. The encampment soon became a tavern and small inn.
On March 3, 1819, President James Monroe named Robert Crittenden territorial secretary. Crittenden quickly set about exploiting the remaining Quapaw in southeast Arkansas to relinquish their last tracts of land. At Major John Harrington’s lodge, said to be in Jefferson County on the north bank of the Arkansas, the Indians signed away the last of their tribal lands on November 15, 1824.
Steamboat travel soon opened the hamlet to expanding settlement, bringing to the area such men as French-born Napoleonic soldier Antoine Barraque (Pine Bluff’s principal east-west street was named for him) and brothers James T. and John Pullen (main thoroughfares were named for them). On November 2, 1829, Territorial Governor John Pope approved an act to establish Jefferson County, named for President Thomas Jefferson. The first county seat was at Bonne’s cabin. Becoming a fledgling cotton bale production center where steamboats could dock, Pine Bluff became the county seat in August 1832. At their first meeting in October, commissioners recommended that the town be named “Pine Bluff Town.” Pine Bluff incorporated in January 1939, and the court authorized in October 1839 the construction of a brick courthouse that would become the city’s architectural centerpiece.
The town’s first Methodist church was established in 1829; two years later, a Catholic church was founded southeast of town. Both started educating children soon after their services began. Land travel was enhanced by the July 1834 construction of the federally financed Columbia to Little Rock Military Road that ran through Pine Bluff. The city’s first newspaper was the Jeffersonian, established in 1847. In October 1844, the first of several floods of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers devastated the town’s economy. From the 1850s through the post–Civil War years, settlers from east of the Mississippi poured into the city, along with many German immigrants.
Civil War through the Gilded Age
During the war, the city sent two companies of voluntary militia—the Jefferson Guard, under the leadership of Captain Charles Carlton, and the Southern Guard, commanded by Captain Joseph W. Bocage—to fight for the Confederacy. In late 1863, Colonel Powell Clayton’s Fifth Kansas Battalion was dispatched to Pine Bluff by Little Rock-based Commander Frederick Steele at the behest of citizens who were being terrorized by bands of guerrillas. The Action at Pine Bluff occurred on October 25, 1863, when Confederate General John S. Marmaduke ordered a futile attack against Union forces under Clayton. Union forces protected Pine Bluff until the end of the war, although there were skirmishes at Pine Bluff toward the end of the war on June 17, 1864; July 22, 1864; July 30, 1864; and January 9, 1865, as well as the Affair near Pine Bluff on March 4, 1865.
Historian James Leslie has described Pine Bluff’s entering its “Golden Era” in the 1880s. Because of cotton production and river commerce, the city drew many industries and public institutions to the area. In 1890, it was the state’s third-largest city. It soon had the W. B. Ragland, Samuel Franklin, and M. L. Bell Gas Works, a public school system, and the Buck, Smart & Company Bank. Around 1881, the town’s first railroad, the Little Rock, Mississippi and Texas, (later purchased by the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern), connected the city with Little Rock (Pulaski County), and Major C. G. Newman founded the county’s most successful newspaper, The Pine Bluff Commercial. The Cotton Belt Railroad established its lines and main engine maintenance shops in Pine Bluff in 1894, making it the county’s largest industrial employer until the Pine Bluff Arsenal was built in 1942.
Early Twentieth Century through the Modern Era
The Arkansas River was a constant threat to the town, eating away land and, in 1908, lying fewer than 100 yards from the courthouse. In this case, citizens illegally destroyed a levee at Boyd’s Point to protect the downtown, but the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 destroyed tens of thousands of acres of cotton and hundreds of farms and businesses in Pine Bluff. The drought of 1930, followed by the Great Depression, hit the state and the city especially hard, forcing thousands to seek federal subsistence. More than half the population of the town sought some degree of private, church, charitable, and federal assistance during this time.
World War II brought a federal munitions arsenal to the city, the Pine Bluff Arsenal, which employed 10,000 workers drawn from the county during the war years. After the war, the arsenal became a stable employer and a permanent post for the Army’s production of munitions and chemical agents for the Cold War.
Pine Bluff began a decline in the later part of the twentieth century. Pine Bluff’s decaying downtown captured the spotlight after several buildings collapsed along the Main Street corridor, starting in 2014. On February 20, 2014, the former J. C. Penney building, over a century old, partially collapsed and had to be demolished. By March 2015, four buildings (including the former home of the Band Museum at Fifth and Main) had collapsed wholly or partially, and in July 2015, the city closed off part of Main Street out of concern that the Khan Building might also collapse; Main Street between Fourth and Fifth reopened to traffic in October 2016. Many buildings in the downtown area stand empty and in need of repair. One of the most prominent of these derelict buildings is the Hotel Pines on Main Street, which was one of the finest hotels in Arkansas when it opened in 1913.
Education and Industry
The Colored Industrial Institute, one of the first Catholic-supported schools for African-American children in Arkansas, opened in 1899; it was closed by 1913. The Richard Allen Institute was founded in 1886 as one of the earliest Presbyterian schools for African Americans in Arkansas; it operated until 1932. A notable graduate was Pine Bluff native George Edmund Haynes, who was the first African American to earn a PhD from Columbia University. He became a social worker and educator and was the first executive director of the National Urban League.
Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862, creating a school for freed African Americans. Branch Normal College eventually became Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College (AM&N), then the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB). Southeast Arkansas College (SEARK College) opened as Arkansas Vocational-Technical School on September 21, 1959. SEARK College provides comprehensive community college education and services, with an emphasis on technical education and workforce development, for the citizens of Jefferson and surrounding counties.
In 2015, the Pine Bluff School District had one high school, one alternative high school, one junior high, one middle school, four elementary schools, and one Pre-K school.
International Paper Company located its paper production facility just northeast of the city in 1957. The company employed 1,400 at its peak in 1962. Jefferson Hospital, now Jefferson Regional Medical Center, opened in 1960. It is the city’s largest employer, with 1,850 workers. The National Center for Toxicological Research operates about twenty miles north of Pine Bluff and has some 600 on-site workers, 239 of which are federal employees. In November 2016, a Highland Pellets facility in Pine Bluff was dedicated; this plant manufactures wood pellets for the European market.
Pine Bluff produced two of the state’s richest men during their time: Wiley Jones and Harvey Couch. In the 1880s, Jones owned and operated the first mule-drawn streetcar line in the city, built a fifty-five-acre park with a half mile racetrack with stands, stables, and picnic areas; he also owned several bars and dry goods stores. Couch made his fortune after the turn of the twentieth century in the newly emerging telephone exchange industry that became Southwestern Bell, and he founded Arkansas Power and Light Company (AP&L). Ferd Havis was born a slave in 1846 but became an alderman, state representative, assessor, and county clerk, and was called the “Colored Millionaire” of Pine Bluff.
One of the nation’s first female pilots was Katherine Stinson, a former resident who flew into Pine Bluff in 1913. The first silent motion picture cowboy star, Broncho Billy Anderson (Max Aronson), was raised in Pine Bluff; a friend of his, Freeman Owens, was a cinematographer for movie studios and a research assistant to broadcast pioneer Lee DeForrest when the method of producing sound on film was patented. Peggy Shannon, a film star of the early 1930s, was born in Pine Bluff. Track star Bill Carr is the state’s only Olympic double gold medal winner; he broke a world record in the 400-meter dash and won two gold medals at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. John Sorrells was the executive editor of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. Wiley Branton, born in Pine Bluff in 1923, was a civil rights leader in Arkansas who helped desegregate the University of Arkansas School of Law and later filed suit against the Little Rock School Board in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Pine Bluff–born author Peter McGehee became well known in literary circles for his first novel, Boys Like Us, published in 1991. Jimmy McKissic graduated from UAPB and went on to become a world-renowned pianist who performed at Carnegie Hall in New York twenty-eight times. Baseball star Torii Hunter recorded the most home runs by an Arkansan in major league history.
The Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, founded as the Pine Bluff Jefferson County Arts and Science Center in 1968, was commissioned by the city and preserves the Arkansas Delta’s arts and heritage. The Arkansas Railroad Museum preserves the last steam-powered locomotive built in Arkansas and includes various artifacts of Arkansas’s railroad heritage. The Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Historical Museum opened in 1980 in the restored 1907 Union Pacific train depot. The Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame is housed at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. The Pine Bluff Film Festival operated from 1995 to 2007 in the Community Theatre and the Saenger Theatre; the Community has been renovated, but the Saeger is in disrepair in the twenty-first century. The Governor Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center was established in 2001 in Pine Bluff's Regional Park.
For additional information:
Bearden, Russell E. “Pine Bluff’s Golden Era: 1890–1920.” Jefferson County Arts and Science Center Publication (July 2004): 6.
Leslie, James W. Pine Bluff and Jefferson County: A Pictorial History. Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Company, 1981.
———. Saracen’s County. Little Rock: Rose Publishing Company, 1974.
Russell E. Bearden
White Hall, Arkansas
Last Updated 1/23/2017
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