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Home / Browse / Little Rock (Pulaski County)
Latitude and Longitude:
119.20 square miles (2010 Census)
193,524 (2010 Census)
November 7, 1831
Historical Population as per the U.S. Census:
Little Rock, Arkansas’s capital city, is situated on the south bank of the Arkansas River near the geographic center of the state, making it a natural hub for commerce. In addition, the state’s three major landforms join within the city limits: the foothills that rise northwest to the Ozark Plateau, the Delta lands that extend east to the bank of the Mississippi River, and the rolling plains that stretch southwest into Texas. This confluence makes Little Rock a natural political center.
The Arkansas River Valley, including the location of “the little rock,” was claimed by the Quapaw when Europeans first explored the region. The Quapaw, members of a group of Dhegiha-Siouan-speaking tribes which also includes the Osage, resided in southeast Arkansas in the late seventeenth century and continued to live primarily along the Arkansas River until they were forced to leave in 1824. (Their designation as “Arkansea,” or“people of the south,” by Illinois tribes led to the name of the river and, ultimately,of the state.) Although no settlement or trading post is known to have existed precisely at “the little rock,” a community of mixed Quapaw-French families did live nearby from about 1790 to 1820, resulting in the designation of one of Little Rock’s oldest neighborhoods as the Quapaw Quarter.
European Exploration and Settlement
One of the first European explorers in the region, Jean-Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe, observed geological changes at the water's edge in 1722. On April 9, he made note of "rocks sticking out of the ground," referencing the first rock up the river, but he did not name it. La Harpe was more enthusiastic when it came to what he called the French Rock—"le Rocher Français"—the "bluff of mountainous rock" up the bend and north of the river, now called the Big Rock. The French called the smaller outcropping on the south bank "le Petit Rocher" (the little rock), with the name first showing up on a map in 1799.
Louisiana Purchase through Early Statehood
"The Rock" was included in the Lousiana Purchase of 1803, but the first settlement near the landmark was not made until the spring of 1812 when a trapper named William Lewis built a cabin on the bank of the river about 100 yards north from where the Old Statehouse stands today. Lewis left that October but filed a pre-emption claim on the land at the Federal Land Office in Nashville, Tennessee. According to the British naturalist Thomas Nuttall, no one permanently settled at "The Rock" until the spring of 1820, when a group of men established a town at the site. In March of that year, a U.S. post office with the name "Little Rock" was established.
Land speculators, armed with Lewis’s pre-emption claims and New Madrid Certificates (from the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811–1812), soon arrived on the scene to stake claims. New Madrid claimants renamed the town “Arkopolis” and began selling lots. In the midst of the chaos, the Arkansas territorial capital was scheduled to move to Little Rock on June 1, 1821. Disgruntled settlers disguised themselves as Indians to move buildings at night in support of their claims. In the end, the claims were ruled invalid as the Quapaw had not ceded the land at “The Rock” until 1818, and a compromise was reached. The name changed back to Little Rock, and in the fall of 1821, the Arkansas territorial capital was moved there. Little Rock was incorporated as a town in 1831 and as a city in 1835.
The Old Statehouse at Markham and Center was started in 1833 and completed in 1842. In the meantime, Arkansas was admitted to the Union as a slave state on June 15, 1836. Free schools for white boys and girls started in Little Rock in the 1853. Gas lighting came to Little Rock in 1860, followed by the telegraph in 1861, just in time to report the early battles of the Civil War. Arkansas reacted to the news and seceded from the Union on May 6, 1861.
Civil War through Reconstruction
During the war, activity in Little Rock ground to a halt. When the Confederate army departed Arkansas and went across the Mississippi River in April 1862, the state was left undefended. Union troops feinted as close to Little Rock as Searcy (White County), fifty miles away, and the state government was hastily removed to Hot Springs (Garland County) for a few weeks.
In 1863, Union troops skirmished along the north side of the Arkansas River as a diversion but put up a pontoon bridge nine miles south of the city on the morning of September 10 and, after a few shots, occupied Little Rock by 4:30 that afternoon. The Confederate capital was permanently removed to Washington (Hempstead County), while a provisional Unionist government was set up at Little Rock. At the end of the war, Little Rock, which had a population of 3,727 in 1860, built a cemetery on Confederate Boulevard (now Springer Street) to inter the remains of 2,000 Confederate and 2,000 Union soldiers.
In 1873, during Reconstruction, the railroad finally reached Little Rock with the building of the Baring Cross Bridge at the foot of Cross Street.
In 1874, the city experienced a local war known as the Brooks-Baxter War when Republican Joseph Brooks seized the Old State House as governor after the courts declared him elected over Elisha Baxter. A cannon named “Lady Baxter” was placed on the lawn of the Old Statehouse, and both sides called up troops. Governor Baxter appealed to President Ulysses S. Grant. U.S. troops were moved from the Little Rock Arsenal to downtown on April 20, 1874. A special session of the legislature was called for May 11, 1874, which confirmed Baxter as governor, and Brooks withdrew. There were about 200 men killed in the confrontation.
Post Reconstruction through the Gilded Age
Both the University of Arkansas School of Medicine (now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) and the first telephone exchange opened in Little Rock in 1879. Electric service was introduced in 1883, and in 1887, the first streets in Little Rock were paved with cobblestone. This is also the year the first sewer lines were laid. The Little Rock Fire Department started in 1892.
In 1893, in exchange for property atop Big Rock, the U.S. government deeded the arsenal at 9th and Ferry to the city. This building was the birthplace of General Douglas MacArthur, and it and the surrounding grounds have been named MacArthur Park in his honor. In 1897, the “Free Bridge,” the first non-railroad bridge, was built across the Arkansas River connecting Little Rock with its Eighth Ward, modern-day North Little Rock (Pulaski County).
Early Twentieth Century
Construction of the Arkansas State Capitol, at the head of Capitol Avenue, was started in 1899 and finished in 1914. In 1903, the city decreed segregation on city streetcars (Jim Crow segregation lasted into the 1960s), and the 3rd Street viaduct was built across railroad tracks west of the city, opening the way westward to the town of Pulaski Heights, which was annexed in 1916. Also in 1903, Little Rock’s Eighth Ward on the north side of the Arkansas River, in a legal maneuver, voted to secede from Little Rock by annexing itself to the newly formed town of North Little Rock. The present City Hall at Markham and Broadway was completed in 1908. Municipal garbage collection started in 1912.
Little Rock’s airport had its beginning in 1917, during World War I, when the federal government acquired forty acres for a field. In 1930, Little Rock purchased the field and, in 1942, named it Adams Field for Captain George Adams of the Air National Guard, who was killed there when his airplane’s propeller assembly exploded.
Little Rock’s first skyscraper, a ten-story building known as the Southern Trust building opened in 1907. The city’s first radio station, WSV, began broadcasting in April 1922.
The Little Rock Zoo started by chance. After the 1926 state fair closed at Fair Park (now War Memorial Park at Markham and Fair Park), city officials found a number of abandoned animals left on the grounds. Pens were built to keep the creatures and then, in the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) erected the rock buildings that are still a part of today’s zoo.
The Flood of 1927 washed away part of the Baring Cross Bridge. That same year, the new Little Rock Senior High School at 14th and Park (now Central High School) opened in time for the fall semester. College classes that were offered on the second floor of the new high school later moved to a site at State Street between 13th and present-day Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive, which was named Little Rock Junior College.
For the first half of the twentieth century, West 9th Street was an African-American city within a city, with black businesses, churches, banks, and social halls located along the street. It was anchored at 9th and Broadway by the three-story national headquarters of the Mosaic Templars of America (MTA), a black fraternal organization dating from 1883 that provided insurance and other services to African Americans in twenty-six states during an era when few aids were available to minorities. The Mosaic Templars ended in receivership in 1930 due to a sharp decline in premium revenue at the start of the Great Depression. Though much of 9th Street no longer resembles what it had once been, the Mosaic Templars has been reconstructed as a museum of African-American history.
World War II through the Faubus Era
Because of war in Europe, Camp Robinson, located northwest of North Little Rock and called Camp Pike during World War I, was reactivated in September 1940 as a cantonment for 50,000 soldiers. Its presence resulted in a severe housing shortage in Little Rock, which was rectified by the building of Cammack Village as a suburb during 1941–1943 to provide homes for the families of army officers based at the camp.
Shortly after the war, Timex and Westinghouse opened factories in Little Rock.
Little Rock’s first TV station, the 100-watt UHF Channel 17 KRTV, began telecasting in April 1953. KATV started operation in December of that year. The first modern shopping center in Little Rock, the Town and Country Center at Asher and University, was built in 1956.
In 1957, the curriculum at Little Rock Junior College was expanded to four years, and the school operated on a new campus at 28th and University Avenue as Little Rock University until 1969, when it merged with the University of Arkansas system as the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR).
In the fall of 1957, the Little Rock School District started an approved integration plan at Central High School. There was local opposition, and Governor Orval Faubus “interposed” himself between federal decrees and Central High School by calling out Arkansas National Guard units to prevent integration of the school. The federal government ordered the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, and under the guard of federal troops, integration at Central proceeded. However, in a vote held the next spring, Little Rock voters chose to close Little Rock high schools for the 1958–59 school year. This was soon perceived as a mistake, and all the city high schools were reopened in 1959 as integrated schools, though many white families, as a result, moved their children to private or suburban schools.
In November 1957, citizens of Little Rock voted to change from a mayor-alderman city government to a city manager–board of directors form of governance.
Water for Little Rock was originally drawn from sources such as the Arkansas River, wells, and a lake in Saline County. In 1958, construction of Lake Maumelle on Arkansas Highway 10 was completed, and the city had a source of clean water. However, as the city expanded westward, residential developers began buying land around the lake, and there is now a contentious debate about residential developments near the lake because of possible pollution caused by lawn fertilizers and other factors related to developed land.
In 1962, an urban renewal program in Little Rock did away with many of the stores on Main Street, and in 1964, the Quapaw Quarter Historic District was formed to save the old homes on the east side of town. In 1977, in an effort to save downtown, Main Street was closed to vehicular traffic and made into a pedestrian mall. A half-block shopping mall, the Main Street Mall, opened in 1987, but continuing efforts to popularize a traffic-free downtown failed, and a redesigned Main Street was opened again to vehicular traffic in 1991.
Interstate 630, Little Rock’s major east-west expressway, was started in the 1960s as the 8th Street Expressway but was later added to the interstate system as I-630. It was completed in 1977 and, in 1990, opened the way to Chenal Valley, 7,000 acres of land recently annexed to the western edge of Little Rock. Chenal Valley contains some of the city’s newest and most exclusive suburbs.
Little Rock’s modern port, with its own 1,500-acre industrial park and shortline railroad, went into operation in 1969, only months after the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System made the Arkansas River navigable up to Little Rock. Also in 1969, Little Rock voters approved restaurants serving mixed drinks to the public, opening the door to increased convention business.
The present terminal at the Little Rock National Airport was built in 1972. In 1973, a small company named Federal Express (FedEx), located at the airport, requested an increase in the length of a landing strip and construction of a second. The airport commission refused, so FedEx moved to Memphis that year. The airport has since been greatly expanded and now covers 1,350 acres.
Meanwhile, the city purchased railroad land along the south bank of the river from the Baring Cross Bridge to the Junction Bridge and cleared tracks. In May 1983, the Julius Breckling Riverfront Park was opened just in time for that summer’s Riverfest. Buildings along East Markham (now President Clinton Avenue) were cleared, and the River Market District came into being in 1996.
In 2004, a “River Rail” streetcar line was put into operation to connect Little Rock’s River Market District with North Little Rock’s downtown. In 2007, River Rail service was extended to the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park and the Heifer International world headquarters.
In recent years, Little Rock has become more diverse. Besides two Spanish-language newspapers, El Latino and ¡Hoy! Arkansas, and a Spanish-language radio station, the city has a Buddhist Center, an Islamic Center, two Korean churches, and two Orthodox churches.
Little Rock School District boundaries are not contiguous with city limits, especially to the west. The district has been completely out from under federal court supervision relating to the 1957 desegregation crisis since February 2007. Little Rock is home to the Arkansas School for the Deaf and the Arkansas School for the Blind. Numerous private schools, both primary and secondary, are located within the city.
One of the earliest colleges in Little Rock, long defunct, was St. Johns' College, which operated from 1859 to 1861 and then, after serving as a hospital during the Civil War era, was open again from 1867 to 1882. Institutions of higher learning in Little Rock include historically black Philander Smith College (founded in 1877), the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (1879), Arkansas Baptist College (1884), the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (1969), the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law (1975), and the University of Arkansas Clinton School for Public Service (2005).
A number of nationally known companies are headquartered in Little Rock. Dillard’s, Inc., the nationally known department store chain that started in 1938 with William T. Dillard’s purchase of a small store in Nashville (Howard County), moved its corporate headquarters to Little Rock in 1964. The future Alltel, Inc., began in 1943 in Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood shopping center, installing poles and equipment. In January 2009 Alltel merged with Verizon Wireless, based in New Jersey, which chose to make the Little Rock offices a regional headquarters. Acxiom, Inc., which was founded in 1969 in Conway (Faulkner County), moved its headquarters to Little Rock in 1999.
Heifer Project International was founded in 1944 by Dan West. The project long had an animal holding center in Perry County and, in 1971, moved its headquarters from St. Louis, Missouri, to Little Rock to be closer to the holding center. A new world headquarters for Heifer International was opened in downtown Little Rock in 2006 at 1 World Avenue, and a global village and education center opened in 2009.
Although located in Pulaski County north of Jacksonville, the Little Rock Air Force Base is generally associated with Little Rock. The site was chosen in 1952 after the citizens of Arkansas donated 6,000 acres. The base was activated on August 1, 1955, and, after serving many missions, including acting as a base for Titan II missile operations during the 1960s, is today America’s only C-130 training base.
The Historic Arkansas Museum at 200 East 3rd Street was completed in 1941. It houses a museum and many restored buildings from Arkansas’s territorial days. Across town, Mount Holly Cemetery, dating to 1843, is located on the west side of Broadway between 11th and 13th streets.
Little Rock Central High School, located at 1500 Park Street and the scene of the 1957 desegregation crisis, was built in 1927 as Little Rock Senior High School. Until 1940, this school was the largest high school building in the nation. In 1954, it was renamed Little Rock Central High School when Hall Senior High was built in the western part of the city.
The forty-story Metropolitan National Bank Building at Broadway and Capitol, erected in 1986, is the tallest building in Arkansas. The building was known as the TCBY Tower until 2004.
The William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Library, named for William Jefferson Clinton, the forty-second president of the United States, opened in November 2004 at 1200 President Clinton Avenue. The Pulaski County Pedestrian/Bicycle Bridge, popularly known as the Big Dam Bridge, opened in September 2006, crossing the Arkansas River atop the Murray Lock and Dam west of Little Rock; it is the second-longest bridge built for pedestrians in North America.
For additional information:
Bell, James W. Little Rock Handbook. Little Rock: James W. Bell, 1980.
City of Little Rock. http://www.littlerock.org/ (accessed April 30, 2014).
Hanley, Ray. Little Rock Then and Now. Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.
Herndon, Dallas. T. Why Little Rock Was Born. Little Rock: Central Printing Company, 1933.
Jennings, Jay. Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City. New York: Rodale, 2010.
Lester, Jim, and Judy Lester. Greater Little Rock. Norfork, VA: The Donning Company, 1986.
Mills, Letha, and H. K. Stewart. Little Rock: A Contemporary Portrait. Windson Publications: Chatsworth, CA, 1990.
Richards, Ira Don. Story of a Rivertown: Little Rock in the Nineteenth Century. Benton, AR: 1969.
Roy, F. Hampton, Charles Witsell Jr., and Cheryl Griffith Nichols. How We Lived: Little Rock as an American City. Little Rock: August House, 1984.
Williams, C. Fred. Historic Little Rock: An Illustrated History. San Antonio, TX: Historical Pub. Network, 2008.
Witsell, Charles, and Gordon Wittenberg. Architects of Little Rock: 1833–1950. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2014.
James W. Bell
Pulaski County Historical Society
Last Updated 2/22/2016
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