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Traffic on Arkansas 44 is light behind me as I read the interpretive markers at the Delta Heritage Trail State Park trailhead in downtown Elaine. This part of the state has been losing population for decades--I'm in Phillips County, which lost 17.3 percent of its population from 2010-18--but the Delta Heritage Trail is an attraction that could attract bikers and hikers from across the country if it's ever finished.

In early 1991, Union Pacific Railroad officials notified the state Department of Parks and Tourism that the company would be abandoning its tracks in this once-prosperous part of east Arkansas. Under the provisions of the National Trails System Act, railroad companies can transfer all rights and liabilities connected to a rail corridor to a public agency. The Parks and Tourism Department joined what's now the Arkansas Department of Transportation in notifying Union Pacific that the state was interested in the property. In December 1992, the corridor was acquired by the state.

It was a decade later when the first hiking and biking segment was opened from near Lexa to Barton along Arkansas 85. Now hikers and bikers can access the trail at the north end (there's a visitors' center adjacent to U.S. 49) and take it all the way to this trailhead at Elaine. Once the state can find the money to renovate abandoned railroad bridges over the lower White and Arkansas rivers, those using the trail will be able to follow the railroad corridor to a spot near Rohwer in Desha County.

Beginning at that point, the southern leg of the trail has been completed atop the Mississippi River levee to Arkansas City. Former Arkansas House Speaker Robert Moore Jr., who's now a member of the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission, took the southern portion of the trail on as a personal project. An attractive trailhead recently was completed at Arkansas City, the Desha County seat.

When the entire railroad right of way is connected to the levee, visitors will be able to travel along 85 miles of designated trail. They'll see some of the largest remaining tracts of the vast bottomland hardwood forests that once covered millions of acres. I'm not deluding myself into thinking that completion of the trail will reverse a population decline that has been going on since the 1940s. It will, however, allow people to experience the haunting beauty of the Delta and learn about its colorful and sometimes tragic history.

The railroad right of way originally was acquired by the St. Louis & Iron Mountain Railroad at a time when virgin timber was being harvested and the land was being drained for cotton production.

"State geologist John Casper Branner predicted to Fort Smith investor Harry Kelley that the swampland of Phillips County would become the richest part of the state," Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "This prediction noted that silt from river flooding created fertile farmland. ... Branner said that three things were needed to develop the land--effective flood control through the building of levees, railroad transportation and clearing of timber. Beginning in 1892, Kelley purchased land in the promising area. Eventually he came to own--alone or through partners--about 35,000 acres."

Kelley told railroad officials that he would give them the right of way if he could choose where the depot would go. The railroad arrived in 1906, and Kelley placed the depot at what's now Elaine. When it was determined that the name Kelley already was being used for a depot, the name Elaine was chosen. It was first thought to be named for one of Kelley's daughters, though a business partner later said it was named for an actress. In 1911, Kelley began laying out streets and lots.

"Within a few years, the growing settlement would boast of paved streets, concrete sidewalks, electric lights, brick store buildings, a brick school and a well 1,600 feet deep that provided water," Teske writes. "Plantations were established as timber was cleared."

The Howe Lumber Co. and Chicago Mill & Lumber Co. employed hundreds of people at sawmills. The New Madrid Hoop Co. and the Acme Cooperage Co. also took advantage of the timber resources. The interpretive markers at the Elaine trailhead outline this history. And those markers don't ignore the thing for which Elaine is best known, the Elaine Massacre, the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history.

Things went downhill quickly following a September 1919 shooting after a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union at Hoop Spur, three miles north of Elaine. It's not known how many black people were killed in the mob violence that followed. Some historians think the number could top 100. Five white people were killed.

"The Great Flood of 1927 was one of many that damaged the city," Teske writes. "This flood resulted in the closing of the Bank of Elaine. The city remained without a bank until the Delta State Bank opened in 1948. A tornado damaged the black neighborhood in Elaine in 1930, killing many people and destroying property. ... The Great Depression created significant hardship for agriculture and the timber industry."

Elaine's population has dropped from 1,210 in the 1970 census to about 500 residents these days. There's little left in the way of businesses. In 2006, the Elaine School District was consolidated with Marvell. There appears to be nothing on the horizon that will reverse the outmigration. These are dreary days in this part of the Arkansas Delta.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

Editorial on 05/11/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Dreary Delta days


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  • Jfish
    May 11, 2019 at 6:51 a.m.

    Rex, this is pretty much the story for the entire Delta, even for towns like Wilson which are trying but struggling still. There is one priority in the Delta and that is farming. Until other jobs and quality of life things are ranked higher, I'm afraid little will change. The biggest asset is the obvious, the Mississippi River, but nobody seems to care about it much these days either. Cities like Memphis, Helena and Osceola love to put the River on their brochures, etc., but in reality what do they do to protect it or exploit it for opportunities?