Officials push for trail along former railroad route

By Wayne Bryan Published November 10, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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Arkansas Democrat Gazette

When county and municipal officials from across Saline County come together for a quarterly meeting on Tuesday, one of the topics several members want to discuss is the proposed Southwest Trail project, the concept of creating a 56-mile bike trail linking Little Rock to Hot Springs, including a long path through Saline County.

“I have requested that the trail be on the agenda of our intergovernmental meeting next Tuesday,” Bauxite Mayor Johnny McMahan said. “I understand that County Judge [Lanny] Fite has a list of all the property owners along the railroad line, and I want to see who we should contact about the possibility of donating or granting right-of-way for the trail.”

The proposed trail would follow the old Rock Island Line railroad right-of-way and that of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, linking Little Rock’s River Market with historic downtown Hot Springs, said Mason Ellis, vice president of Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas.

The proposed route from Pulaski County through Saline County and into Garland County would roughly follow the Southwest Trail that settlers used to travel from the eastern states to Texas. In Hot Springs, the city is already creating a trail from downtown to Lake Hamilton called the Greenway Trail.

Sections of that trail are already open and could be linked in with the Southwest Trail, said Jean Wallace, director of the Hot Springs Parks and Recreation Department, during the opening of a segment of the Greenway Trail.

The bike-trail proposal has been a pet project for Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines for several years. He made the first official announcement about the proposed trail on Oct. 3 in Little Rock.

“We would like to develop a multiuse trail to accommodate walkers, joggers and cyclists and to connect the communities of the three counties,” he said. “This would be a great asset for our citizens in terms of recreation and transportation, and would attract thousands of visitors who would enhance our economy.”

Villines said the plan, when completed, would be second to none in the country. The project would take around $20 million and include opening the trail in sections over a period of five to 10 years.

Judge Villines said he will stay involved in the project, even though he has announced that he will not seek re-election next year.

“I want to assure you that I am committed to do everything I can during the rest of the term, and if needed, I will stay engaged,” he said in a letter

to other government officials involved in the project. “I believe we all understand the tremendous benefits the Southwest Trail will have for our citizens.”

The project has the support of Saline County Judge Fite and Garland County Judge Rick Davis.

“I don’t believe we can sit by and do nothing and just coast along, and then expect our tourism standings to remain where they are,” Davis said. “I think this is a great thing for all three counties involved. We now have to figure out how we take this good idea and make it a reality.”

Mayor McMahan said the trail could have a big impact on economic development in Bauxite as visitors hike and cycle through town.

“People from Dallas will drive up to cycle this trail, and I can see bed-and-breakfasts opening up along the path, and other places for food and equipment,” he said. “The trail comes close to the Bauxite Museum, and I can see people riding up to the community hall and visiting and learning the history of Bauxite.”

The mayor said the railroad right-of-way parallels Arkansas 183 through Bauxite.

“This is a big deal, and I enthusiastically support the project,” McMahan said.

Another area that could receive a major boost from the trail would be where the proposed path crosses the Saline River in south Benton. At the site stands an ironwork bridge built in 1889, but that is only part of the importance of the location.

“It is the birthplace of the entire area,” said Lynn Moore, a former mayor of Benton and founder of the Saline Crossing Regional Park and Recreational Area Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the bridge and the state. “The first

European-American settler [to the area], William Lockhart, brought his family there at the crossing in the spring of 1815. It is where Benton began.”

The site, which is in the woods, crosses the river where it could have been easily forded. Moore said some historians speculate that the Spanish soldiers of Hernando DeSoto may have crossed the Saline there in 1541 as they explored what would become the Southern states; however, Moore is more sure the area deserves recognition as part of the history of America’s westward expansion.

After the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States in 1803, people began to move west on the Southwest Trail through the Arkansas Territory, which was established in 1812.

“People from Georgia, the Carolinas and other states would take the Arkansas River to Little Rock and head down the trail to Texas,” Moore said. “The site is 27 miles from the Arkansas River, about what a day’s journey would be for a man on horseback. Lockhart’s place was a rest stop where people could stay before they crossed the Saline.”

Lockhart is believed to have operated a ferry on the site, and the territorial legislature gave him clearance to build a toll bridge in 1831. There was even a post office at the site, Moore said.

Moore said his organization would like to see the bridge, with park and recreational facilities on both sides of the river, become a major point along the trail.

“It would be at about the halfway point of the trail,” he said. “That opens a whole new aspect to what the park could be for so many people.”

Brett Budolfson of Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas met with the Saline Crossing group in October and talked about the possibilities coming

from the trail and Moore’s dream of having a park at the site of the bridge.

“We got in on the tail end of the announcement, but we are excited and hope that some of the funding for the path can be used here,” Moore said. “Right now we are talking with the [Arkansas] Archeological Survey to do a dig at the site to document the area’s historic significance.”

While the crossing might have had the beginnings of a village at the site, no signs of the village remain. Moore said the area often floods, and that drove the residents on to higher grounds that became Benton.

“With all the flooding, nothing remains, but I have documents that describe what was there,” he said.

Studies, fundraising and applications for grants from both Saline Crossings advocates and the cities and counties involved will take a lot of time, but Judge Villines said there is one major factor that will mean success for the project.

“This is the first time, I believe, in central Arkansas where we’ve had a project with the county judges and mayors and chambers lining up in support,” he said. “I think that’s good for this project as we work for economic growth and development. It gives us a place where we can show we can work together.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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