We’re in the heart of north Arkansas at Alpena, on the line between Carroll and Boone counties. I’ve fished for smallmouth bass here on Long Creek. It was a wonderful float, and I tell my traveling companions about how many fish we caught that day. This is the second part of a trip that spans the northern portion of the state from the Oklahoma border at Siloam Springs to the Missouri Bootheel east of Paragould.
This leg will also take us from the Ozarks into the Delta.
Accompanying me are noted Arkansas historian Tom DeBlack of Conway and Paul Austin of Fayetteville, the former head of the Arkansas Humanities Council. Like me, they relish the idea of going all the way across the state on only one road, U.S. 412.
Alpena was a product of the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad. The railroad’s route spelled the end of a once thriving community known as Carrollton. The tracks were placed three miles from there. Alpena, which had been established as a camp for railroad workers, grew.
Steven Teske writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Businesses began to relocate to the camp, sometimes disassembling their buildings in Carroll-ton to reassemble them at the camp. A post office was approved in 1901. It was briefly known as Estes before it was renamed Alpena Pass. When the town was incorporated in 1913, the name was shortened to Alpena. The town’s website claims that the name was that of one of the railroad cooks. Local farmers cut timber to sell ties to the railroad.”
Teske says Alpena soon had “three general stores, two hotels, a drugstore, a poultry house, a livery stable, a school with 50 pupils, a lumber yard, two churches, three real estate agents, a restaurant, a barbershop, two blacksmith shops, a physician, a printing office and a population estimated at 450. By 1908, it had six general stores, a millinery shop, a bank and a flour mill as well as retaining most of the earlier features. A tomato-canning factory opened in 1910.”
By 1920, Alpena was a center for the timber operations that were clearing virgin hardwood forests in the area. Timber and farm products were loaded onto trains that stopped there. There was severe flooding along Long Creek in 1927, and many businesses closed during the Great Depression. The bank closed in 1931, and the railroad went out of business in 1961. Alpena’s official population hasn’t topped 400 since the 1920 census. It had 392 residents in the 2010 census.
Our next stop is Harrison, which has long been the center of commerce for this part of the state. While surrounding rural areas were losing population, Harrison saw its population triple from 4,238 in the 1940 census to 12,943 in 2010. What was known as the Crooked Creek post office was established in 1836, the year Arkansas became a state. A nearby settlement was named Stiffler Spring after owner Albert Stiffler. The two communities were part of Carroll County until Boone County was carved out of the eastern section in 1869. Crooked Creek’s post office was renamed Harrison in 1870 after Col. Marcus LaRue Harrison, who had laid out the town.
The year 1901 was a big one for Harrison, when Harrison Electric & Ice Co. brought electricity to the city. It was also the year the railroad arrived. By 1912, the M&NA had its headquarters at Harrison. J.E. Dunlap, longtime publisher of the Harrison Daily Times, proclaimed the town to be “the hub of the Ozarks,” and the name stuck.
Harrison native John Paul Hammerschmidt was elected to Congress in 1966 and worked during his 26 years in office to bring federal projects to the area. A vote by Boone County residents in 1973 led to the creation of a community college now known as North Arkansas College. Harrison also benefited from the designation of nearby Buffalo River as the nation’s first national river, with large parts now overseen by the National Park Service.
We cross Crooked Creek as we leave Harrison, continuing our trek east. The stream, well known among those who fish for smallmouth bass, begins south of Harrison in Newton County. It flows into Boone County and under the highway here before turning east. We’ll cross the creek again at Pyatt in Marion County. Crooked Creek empties into the White River.
The late Jerry McKinnis made it famous with numerous episodes about Crooked Creek on his nationally televised fishing show. The website Fishing the Arkansas Ozarks describes Crooked Creek as flowing almost 80 miles “through oak-hickory hardwood forests, cedar glades and pastureland until it converges with the White River below Cotter. Its stream bed is composed primarily of limestone gravel, boulders, bedrock and sand. In few places does the stream exceed more than 80 feet in width. Influenced by numerous springs, the water is clear and cool. … The gradient isn’t steep, and flows are usually mild.”
The most popular floating area is the 20-mile stretch from Pyatt to Yell-ville. The downside for fishermen has been the fact that Crooked Creek has also been a prime source for sand and gravel for decades. That at times has created serious threats to the quality of the stream.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission operates the Fred Berry Conservation Education Center along Crooked Creek near Yellville. Berry, a local teacher, gave stock in a Yellville bank worth almost $2 million to the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation and Nature Conservancy. A 421-acre tract along the creek was purchased, removing a 2.75-mile section of the stream from the threat of gravel mining. Buildings and trails were then constructed.
The first town after leaving Harrison is Bellefonte, the first temporary county seat of Boone County. The M&NA completed its line through Bellefonte in 1901. The post office there closed in 1965, and the school district consolidated with Valley Springs. Bellefonte had a poulation of 454 in the 2010 census, up from 300 in 1970.
We continue east on U.S. 412, passing through the community of Harmon before entering Marion County, created by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature in 1835 and called Searcy County for a time. In 1836, the year Arkansas became a state, the Legislature named the county for Revolutionary War hero Gen. Francis Marion. Few Marion County residents owned slaves, and there was strong Union sentiment during the Civil War, though the county did supply some soldiers to the Confederate cause.
Marion County’s population fell during each census in the first half of the 20th century. Things turned around with the construction of Bull Shoals Dam (1947-51) along with the tourists and retirees that project later brought to the county. The population was back up to 16,653 by 2010.
We pass through or near Pyatt, Snow and Summit before stopping to walk around downtown Yellville, best known to Arkansans for its annual turkey festival and the live turkeys that once were dropped from planes as part of that event.
When this became the county seat, the settlement of Shawneetown was renamed to honor Archibald Yell, the state’s first representative to Congress and its second governor. The current courthouse at Yellville—the fifth in the county’s history—was built in 1944 on the site of a courthouse that had burned in January 1943.
Next is Cotter, once an important railroad town and now known for trout fishing on the White River. In late 1902, an attorney named Walker Powell leased land along the river to the White River Railway. The company built a depot, an engine maintenance facility and a terminal yard. Cotter was incorporated at the site on July 13, 1904, and the railroad’s division headquarters was established there in 1905.
The Great Flood of 1927 did significant damage at Cotter. Another landmark event occurred three years later when Cotter Bridge was completed across the river. The bridge, still there, is among the most photographed bridges in this part of the country. It’s now officially the R.M. Ruthven Bridge, named after a former Baxter County judge.
Legend has it that a study was done for the state in 1928 that concluded that a bridge at Cotter couldn’t be justified. Ruthven is said to have hidden the report. Construction began in November 1929 and ended a year later. National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark status was granted in 1986.
We have a meal at White Sands in Cotter, which is like stepping back in time, and then make our way to Gassville, a town of about 2,200 residents founded by P.A. Cox, a talkative sort who often referred to the place as “a real gasser.” Thus Gassville.
We continue east on U.S. 412 into Mountain Home, a place that changed dramatically with the construction of Norfork and Bull Shoals dams. The city’s population soared from 927 in the 1940 census to 12,448 in the 2010 census.
East of Mountain Home, we cross the bridge over Norfork Lake. Until 1983, those traveling the highway had to use a ferry to cross the lake. Funds were finally released in the early 1980s to construct the bridge and replace a ferry that was operated by what’s now the Arkansas Department of Transportation.
We soon find ourselves in Fulton County. The rural county had 12,245 residents in the 2010 census, but that still almost doubled the 6,657 people who lived there in 1960. We pass through the community of Gepp, then enter Viola. The Viola School District remains the heart of the town, which had a population of 337 in the 2010 census.
We make our way into Salem, the Fulton County seat, park at the courthouse downtown, and visit with county officials. Salem is one of the state’s smallest county seats, but its population has more than doubled from 713 in the 1960 census to 1,635 in 2010.
U.S. 412 veers to the southeast as we leave Salem. We drive through the communities of Glencoe and Agnos then enter Sharp County, which was established in 1868. Like a number of other counties in the state, Sharp County suffered from 1940-60 as Arkansans left home in droves to search for work in the upper Midwest. The county saw its population fall from 11,497 in 1940 to only 6,319 by 1960. The advent of tourism and the retirement industry changed things. By the 2010 census, Sharp County was at an all-time high of 17,264 residents.
In 1967, the Legislature passed a bill abolishing dual county seats at Hardy and Evening Shade. Ash Flat, which dates back to 1856 when a post office was established there, was designated as the lone county seat.
After leaving Ash Flat, we drive through Highland, Cherokee Village and Hardy, towns that became dependent on tourists and retirees beginning in the 1960s. The next county on our trek east is Lawrence County, which is really two counties within a county. The western part is in the Ozarks. When you cross the Black River at Black Rock, you have left the Ozarks and suddenly find yourself in the Delta.
When the railroads came, timber companies began moving in to cut the huge hardwoods in these Ozark foothills. Black Rock boomed for a time. In 1900, there were 1,400 residents. By the 2010 census, the population was down to 662.
From here it’s all row crops—cotton, soybean, rice, corn—as we make our way through Portia, Hoxie and Walnut Ridge. The flatlands give way to Crowley’s Ridge, where we will spend the final night of the journey at Paragould.
We return to the Delta as we exit town and cover the final few miles of U.S. 412 in Arkansas, crossing the St. Francis River into Missouri as our trip ends.
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