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The current debate over funding highway construction reminds me that Arkansans have a long history of struggling for better roads. From the very birth of Arkansas Territory in 1819, our roads have been the subject of much criticism and derision.

Part of the problem in Arkansas was a lack of planning and the failure of state and local governments to make transportation a priority. As historian Michael B. Dougan has written, "America used waterways, roads, canals, and railroads. No canals ever were constructed in Arkansas, and the state ranked last in miles of railroad track in 1860. Instead, water and roads constituted the basic units of antebellum transportation."

While Arkansans did not wish to tax themselves for transportation, they did not hesitate to petition the federal government for roads. In 1827, the U.S. Army, the federal agency in charge of building roads on the frontier, signed the first of several contracts to build a road from Memphis to Little Rock.

The contract provided for clearing a roadway of at least 24 feet in width, with "all timber, brush wood, and all rubbish and impediments of every kind to be removed ... and all holes within its limits to be filled with earth." It would be considered little more than a wide path today.

All tree stumps were to be cut "as low to the ground as practicable, their height in no instance to exceed two thirds of their diameter ..." Creeks and other waterways not more than 10 feet wide were to be bridged, while larger ones would have to be forded or crossed in a ferry.

From territorial times, laws demanded that all free white males and male slaves between the ages of 16 and 45 work on the roads in Arkansas, though it was unevenly enforced. Citizens of Little Rock were exempted by state law from county road work but were required to labor on city streets. As late as 1914, Clarksville (Johnson County) required its male citizens to work five days yearly maintaining the streets--or pay a $3 fee.

When British traveler and geologist George W. Featherstonhaugh traveled across Arkansas in 1834, he had nothing good to say about the roads. In late November he set out from Little Rock to "the hot springs on the Washita." He wrote that for the first eight miles "the road was very bad, full of rocks, stumps, and deep mud holes ..."

The sharp-tongued Englishman was especially critical of the failure to remove fallen trees from the roadway. "We frequently came upon trees that had fallen across the road and had lain there many years," Featherstonhaugh wrote, observing "an indifference on the part of the settlers unknown in the more industrious northern states."

Travelers merely rode around the fallen trees, creating what became known as "turn-outs." Featherstonhaugh wrote that "if you are inquiring towards evening how many miles it is to the next settlement, you perhaps will be told, '16 miles and a heap of turn-outs.' We once made a calculation that these turn-outs had added at least five miles to our journey to Missouri and Arkansas."

In the lowlands of eastern Arkansas, roadways were often underwater. In 1837 one newspaperman ranted that travelers from Memphis to Little Rock encountered "the most disgraceful bogs, wilderness, and swamps that can be found." Humorist C.F.M. Noland suggested that "life preservers and diving bells should occupy the coaches."

At certain times of the year early travelers had to endure swarms of insects. One man who traveled across the Grand Prairie from Arkansas Post to Little Rock in 1820 remembered "in the months of June, July, and August--when the whole of the prairies are infested with a single species of the tabanus or green headed horse fly; which incommode both horse and rider to a degree almost insufferable."

Traveling across the uplands of western and northern Arkansas was equally challenging. Male riders on stagecoaches were often called upon to get out and help push the wagon up especially steep hills. As late as 1860 an English traveler on the Butterfield Overland Stage described the rough trip through the Boston Mountains between Fort Smith and Fayetteville: "The worst of our ascent we had to walk, which was more comfortable than when inside, as there was bright moonlight. The scenery of the deep gorge was very romantic, and fireflies were swarming around us in every direction. When riding, our night was anything but favourable to sleep, being a continuous succession of unmitigated jolts, knocking our faces, shoulders, knees, and backs against the wagon, or one another."

In addition to a rough ride, stagecoach passengers could expect long trips. In 1836, a newly arrived lawyer wrote of the troubles he encountered in traveling between Little Rock and Washington, the county seat of Hempstead County: "The roads in this country are the damnedest bad ones I ever traveled. We left Little Rock on Friday and arrived within seven miles of this place on Monday night, four days constant riding, sometimes in mud up to the horses' bellies."

Poor transportation added greatly to Arkansas' reputation as a backward state, causing one antebellum newspaper editor to proclaim that of the waves of immigrant wagons filtering through Arkansas "not one out of 20 stops this side of Texas."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at An earlier version of this column was published Nov. 27, 2005.

Editorial on 09/09/2018

Print Headline: The many roads less traveled

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