The arrival of Arkansas' automobiles

A reader from Hot Springs recently asked me when the first automobiles appeared in Arkansas. This seemingly simple question has occupied much of my time lately as I have pursued what turns out to be an elusive answer. But what a lot of fun it has been to discover how Arkansans not only accepted this revolutionary new mode of transportation--but did so enthusiastically.

Perhaps the earliest automobile to make its way to Arkansas was a Woods Electric owned by Little Rock businessman Levi Keys. According to a 1909 news article, Keys' new automobile arrived in late 1899. When Keys took his new vehicle out for its first drive, hundreds of people lined the streets to watch. The vehicle was powered by batteries, with a total of six horsepower.

One of the early car owners in Arkansas was a woman--Miss Emma Whittington of Hot Springs--who acquired a steam-powered "Locomobile" in "late 1899 or early 1900." Hot Springs historian Orval E. Allbritton described the Locomobile as "a frail, buggy looking vehicle equipped with bicycle wheels and tires, and steered with a tiller." Most of the steam-powered vehicles were fueled with kerosene.

By May 1902, the editor of the Hot Springs News wrote that "Hot Springs is rapidly becoming a city of automobiles ...There are now eight automobiles in daily use on the streets of Hot Springs ... and there will soon be nine, as a handsome machine recently ordered is already on the way."

Pine Bluff was another center of early automobile activity. A photograph of the Pine Bluff Auto Club taken about 1903 shows eight vehicles, all lined up and looking very much like carriages. One of the early auto owners was the wife of the publisher of the Pine Bluff Commercial, E.W. Freeman. Though Mrs. Freeman's electric automobile was guided by a tiller, it did have "fine gray silk" upholstery.

The early members of the Pine Bluff Auto Club did a great deal to promote auto ownership and travel. In October 1905, "a jolly crowd of automobilists" traveled in four vehicles from Pine Bluff to Little Rock. Leading the eager group was Felix Smart, a Pine Bluff grocer who drove a one-cylinder Rambler and averaged seven miles an hour over the 43-mile route for a total of nine hours. Smart would later establish Smart Ford Co., and his descendants are still in the automobile business.

The Little Rock Auto Club pioneered auto travel to Hot Springs in June 1909, with W.L. Tedford and J.J. Blakeslee making the trip in a "Cadillac Thirty" in five hours. The following month, three Fort Smith residents drove a Buck 20-horsepower "machine" from Fort Smith to Little Rock in 14 hours and 50 minutes. Notably, part of the trip was made at night, an usual occurrence at the time. The travelers reported that the roads between Atkins and Palarm were "the worst of the trip."

Not all pioneering automobile trips were successfully completed. A family attempting to drive from Fort Smith to Peekskill, N.Y., in the summer of 1909 had to give up before reaching Little Rock after being stuck in mud for more than six hours. The car was reported to be running on three tires and one rim when it finally reached the capital.

Duke Emerson, a livery stable owner in Magnolia, bought the first car in Columbia County in 1910. He parked the Cadillac for weeks at the courthouse, finding local residents were willing to pay a small fee for riding around the square. One Fayetteville businessman traded a zinc mine at Rush for a Pope-Toledo touring car, commenting happily "there was more metal in the car than in the mine."

The city of Little Rock licensed 20 automobiles in July 1904, compared to almost 3,000 buggies, wagons, and hacks. Twenty years later, the statewide auto count stood at 113,102 vehicles.

It did not take long for state and local governments to begin registering and licensing automobiles. The city of Little Rock also established its first speed limits in December 1903. Eight miles per hour was the maximum speed allowed in the downtown business district and the city park, with a limit of 15 miles per hour elsewhere in the city. In 1909, Little Rock began taxing automobiles as well as requiring the use of car "tags." The following year saw the capital city mandate that all automobiles must have lights--which at that early time were fueled by carbide, gas, or oil.

Next to poor roads, the biggest challenge facing early automobile owners in turn-of-the-century Arkansas was a lack of repair facilities and what we today call "service stations." I suspect most early auto buyers were natural tinkerers who used their mechanical skills and ingenuity to keep the cars going. Drivers always carried extra gasoline due to the scarcity of fueling stations.

Ironically, some blacksmiths became auto mechanics. Murphy Brothers Garage on Malvern Avenue in Hot Springs began as a smithery, while Dave Ward, founder of a large bus company in Conway, started life as a blacksmith. W.J. Sanders' machine and buggy shop in Fayetteville transitioned to auto work, becoming "a haven for the motorist with any kind of operating difficulty." Batesville was home to two auto repair garages by 1920.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

Editorial on 01/20/2019

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