A Brief History
A section of the current Arkansas River Trail runs alongside the active railroad grade of the short line, Little Rock & Western (LR&W), situated along the south bank of the waterway somewhat west of town. The history of this right-of-way dates back to the early 1870s. The route was eventually acquired by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (Rock Island or CRI&P) during the early 20th century, providing an important main line between Memphis and New Mexico, long known as the “Choctaw Route” or “Sunbelt Line.” This corridor also once hosted long-distance named passenger trains and provided a transcontinental connection with the Southern Pacific. After the Rock Island shutdown, the LR&W acquired the segment to Little Rock, while others have since been abandoned.
The history of the Sunbelt Line begins with the organization of the Little Rock & Memphis Railroad by the Arkansas General Assembly on January 11, 1853. As its name implied, the system set out to connect its namesake cities, with grading initiated a year later in 1854. After a few years of construction, service was opened between Memphis, Tennessee, and Madison, Arkansas, in 1858. It wasn’t until late 1871 that rails reached the state capital at Little Rock, providing the LR&M a system stretching 133 miles. Following a few decades of service, it was acquired by the growing Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad in 1898. By the end of the 19th century, the CO&G comprised an impressive system between Weatherford, Indiana Territory (present-day Oklahoma), to Memphis—564 miles.
The legacy of the CO&G began in 1894 when it was created through the reorganization of the Choctaw Coal & Railway Company. The CC&R was incorporated in 1887, opening 65 miles between Wister and McAlester in 1890 to serve area coal mines. Following its reorganization, the CO&G work continued westward toward Oklahoma City, reaching there in October 1895. Three years later, service was opened to Weatherford. Following the CO&G’s takeover of the LR&M, it closed the gap between the two carriers and initiated through-service between Memphis and Weatherford in late 1899. Further expansion continued a few years later when the CO&G reached Yarnall, Texas, in summer 1902. That same year the growing Rock Island acquired control of the “Choctaw Route” and furthered its westward construction. On May 9, 1910, the 113-mile route was finished to Tucumcari, New Mexico (via Amarillo), providing the CRI&P with a through main line running 874 miles via Memphis. At Tucumcari, the Rock Island interchanged with the Southern Pacific, thus offering the railroad an important transcontinental link to the West Coast.
The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific was one of the Midwest’s best known systems, first created on May 26, 1866. It steadily expanded its empire throughout the 19th, century sprawling westward from Chicago to reach such cities as Omaha, Minneapolis–St. Paul, St. Louis, Dallas–Fort Worth, Denver, Kansas City, Galveston, and parts of Louisiana. While it is often considered one of the great “Granger Railroads” (i.e., it derived a large portion of its profits by moving agricultural products), it also operated several key routes serving the above-mentioned cities. Within the public realm it was immortalized in a popular folk song called the “Rock Island Line.” It also operated several streamlined passenger trains known as “rockets,”clad in a striking livery of two-tone crimson and stainless steel. As regional runs, they debuted in 1937, but the company’s first long-distance service—the Rocky Mountain Rocket—launched between Chicago and Denver in 1939. Others within the fleet included the Corn Belt Rocket (Chicago – Omaha), Des Moines Rocket (Chicago – Des Moines), Kansas City Rocket (Minneapolis – Kanas City), Peoria Rocket (Chicago – Peoria), Texas Rocket (Fort Worth – Houston, later Kansas City – Dallas), Twin Star Rocket (Minneapolis – Houston), Quad City Rocket (Chicago – Rock Island), and Zephyr Rocket (Minneapolis – St. Louis in conjunction with the Burlington).
There was also the Choctaw Rocket, which operated nearly the entire length of the “Choctaw Route” between Amarillo and Memphis, 762 miles. According to Joseph Schwieterman’s book When The Railroad Leaves Town, Western United States, the train was inaugurated on November 17, 1940, as train #51 westbound and #52 eastbound and as the first diesel-powered streamliner operating in Arkansas. While the train provided fine accommodations, including reclining seat coaches, sleepers, and a dining-parlor-observation, it was an early victim of cutbacks. In 1953, it lost its “rocket” designation, becoming the Choctaw Rockette, while conventional equipment was replaced with self-propelled rail diesel cars. When the Rock Island fell on hard times during the 1960s, it dropped the “Rockette” name in 1964, leaving a single, nameless run between Memphis and Tucumcari that operated primarily to handle mail. It, too, was discontinued in late 1967.
Despite the strategic importance of the Sunbelt Line as the only direct rail route between New Mexico and Memphis, the precarious financial position of the Rock Island left it with an uncertain future; it entered bankruptcy for a final time on March 17, 1975. The road shut down later in the decade when a strike doomed its prospects. The company was formally liquated in January 1980. As late as 1982, there was interest in preserving the old Choctaw Route, when the Santa Fe eyed the corridor. However, the company ultimately decided against purchasing the line because of its deteriorated condition. As a result, the entire route could not be saved, although a number of sections were preserved, including the section to Little Rock. In June 1980, the Little Rock & Western acquired the segment between Perry and Pulaski. In 1986, it also began operating the Perry to Danville section, then owned by a local grain company. Today, the short line operates 79 miles in all.
Railroad attractions in Arkansas include the Arkansas & Missouri in Springdale; Arkansas Railroad Museum in Pine Bluff; Fort Smith Trolley Museum in Fort Smith; Eureka Springs Model Railroad Company and Eureka Springs & North Arkansas Railway, both in Eureka Springs; and Frisco Depot Museum in Mammoth Spring.Do you have Historical Photos of the Arkansas River Trail?
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