SPRINGDALE -- U.S. Sen. John Boozman has filed a bill to make the 3,000-mile Butterfield Overland Trail a national historic trail.
The effort began about 16 years ago, but the wagon wheels of federal bureaucracy turn slowly.
"We can be very proud of the fact that we're moving in the right direction," the Arkansas Republican said after a news conference Monday in front of the historic barn at Fitzgerald Station -- which was a stop along the Butterfield Trail near Springdale.
Marilyn Heifner, treasurer of Heritage Trail Partners, said she proposed the national trail idea to Boozman when he was a congressman in 2004.
Boozman filed a bill in 2007 to study the trail's feasibility. It passed in 2009, and the National Park Service completed the study in 2018, approving the Butterfield for national trail status.
"National historic trails are extended trails that follow as closely as possible and practicable the original routes of travel that are of national significance," according to the study.
The Butterfield Overland Mail Co., also known as the Butterfield Stage, held a contract with the federal government to transport mail and passengers from St. Louis and Memphis west to San Francisco, according to the study.
This postal route and stagecoach service operated from 1858 to 1861.
The trail followed the "ox-bow route," according to Boozman's bill, which was filed in the Senate on Aug. 3.
Stagecoaches didn't go all the way to St. Louis and Memphis. Passengers and mail left St. Louis by rail to Tipton, Mo., where they were transferred to Butterfield stagecoaches.
On the southern route, roads in eastern Arkansas were often flooded. Passengers had to take a ferry across the Mississippi River from Memphis, then catch a train to Madison, just east of Forrest City, according to the study.
About 337 miles of the Butterfield Trail was in Arkansas.
The two Butterfield routes converged at Fort Smith before heading southwest through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Some Butterfield stagecoach structures still exist along the way, including Potts Inn at Pottsville and the barn at Fitzgerald Station in Springdale.
Boozman said there could be economic opportunities with the Butterfield Trail designation.
Motorists could drive across the country, from Arkansas to San Francisco, following the trail.
The senator envisions the Butterfield as being on par with Route 66 or the Trail of Tears.
During the news conference, Boozman said he hoped the bill would soon become law. But afterward, the senator said he couldn't predict when that might happen.
"The biggest problem in getting a bill like this passed is making people understand what you're trying to do and the fact that the federal government is really in a position to coordinate this," he said.
Boozman said people out west, in particular, are sensitive about what they perceive as "land grabs" by the federal government.
So that is addressed in his bill: "The United States shall not acquire for the trail ... any land or interest in land outside of the exterior boundary of any federally administered area without the consent of the owner of the land or interest in land.''
"As you go out west, so much of the land in many of our states is owned by the federal government," Boozman said. "Because of that, you know, at times they can be very heavy-handed. So as a result there is a concern that we're not trying to somehow take people's property away from them in order to get this designation done.
"So this is all about marking the trail. It's all voluntary. Most of it will be done on public entities -- roadways, thoroughfares."
For the most part, the Butterfield route connected several known roads, according to the 2018 study. Researchers analyzed 3,292 miles of trail routes considered nationally significant, which included two Butterfield routes in Texas and Arizona.
The Butterfield Overland Trail intersects or runs alongside short sections of three existing national historic trails -- the Trail of Tears, El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro and the Old Spanish Trail. The Butterfield trail also runs for as much as 400 miles along portions of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, according to the study.