Those studying Arkansas history sometimes find combinations of the beautiful and ugly in the same place. The ugliness often comes in the form of Arkansas' sad history of race relations.
The now-peaceful town of Cotter on the banks of the White River provides such a contrast. In 1906, white residents of Cotter expelled all of the town's Black residents except for a family of three.
"Although the precipitating event was a fight between two Black men, local newspapers had been predicting, and even advocating for, such an expulsion long before that fracas occurred," writes Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster, who has done so much through the years to shed a light on this state's history of racial violence. "Afterward, Cotter remained a sundown town. The area that's now Baxter County had Black residents before the Civil War. Orrin L. Dodd, who lived in what's now Mountain Home, owned 30 slaves by the 1860 census. Too, there was a small free Black population nearby in Marion County.
"In 1880, the first census conducted after Baxter County's creation showed 45 Black residents, including Jacob Dillard, who had purchased 160 acres of land five years previous. Their numbers declined in the following decades so that only five African Americans lived in the county by 1900."
Cotter was established in 1902 as the White River Railway was being built. The railroad placed its division headquarters at Cotter, and the town boomed.
"Railroad work and emerging industries attracted a number of outside laborers, including African Americans," Lancaster writes.
In June 1904, the Cotter Courier noted: "Negro labor was employed to a large extent in the building of the road, and the completion of the enterprise as far as Cotter left many of them in our county, where they remain."
In August 1905, the same newspaper reported: "There's a strong feeling against the Negro in Cotter and the county, and the feeling is growing. It's quite likely there will not be a colored people in Baxter County within a year. They are not wanted."
Gov. Jeff Davis, who often railed against the state's Black residents, visited Cotter and further inflamed sentiments. An April 1906 Courier editorial was headlined "Too Many Negroes" and said that "the Negroes should move on" while noting "rumors of resorting to drastic measures to keep the colored men out of town."
On Aug. 24, 1906, white civic leaders told Black residents to leave following a fight between John Wilson and Reuben Johnson. The newspaper said that white residents had "decided to make a clean sweep and notified the rest of the darkeys that it would be best if they left also."
The Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock reported that seven Blacks had been run out of Cotter several weeks before the fight.
"Although the warning to depart covered all Black residents, one family was allowed to remain," Lancaster writes. "That was the Mason family, consisting of Sam and Alice and their son Charley. The Masons were described in local newspapers as 'good Negroes,' but as James W. Loewen observed in his 2005 book 'Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,' 'publicizing the African American as an exception reminds the community that this is the only African American allowed in the area,' thus reinforcing the banishment of Black people.
"Sam Mason was one of only four Black residents in the county by the time of the 1920 census. By 1940, the census listed no Black residents. A pamphlet promoting Cotter to the wider world, likely published in the 1950s, contained the line: 'Cotter's population is 100 percent white, and the community offers ideal living conditions.'"
In addition to the area's natural beauty, part of the contrasting beauty at Cotter came with the 1930 completion of the R.M. Ruthven Bridge over the White River. It's among the state's iconic bridges and has been designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
"East-west travelers through northern Arkansas often encountered problems crossing the White River," Rebecca Nighswonger writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Although ferries operated at several places along the river, the White River had a tendency to flood rapidly, grounding the ferries and hindering traffic, sometimes for days. The fastest detour was to cross 100 miles north in Branson, Mo."
Two companies--Henderson Bridge Co. and Denton Bridge Co.--were granted franchises in 1927 for three privately owned toll bridges. Nothing was ever built. A feasibility study conducted by the state in June 1928 said construction of a bridge at Cotter with taxpayer dollars couldn't be justified.
Baxter County Judge R.M. Ruthven took office in 1929, and legend has it that the Arkansas Highway Commission approved the study after Ruthven stole the report and took it back to Mountain Home.
"The Marsh Engineering Co. of Des Moines, Iowa, designed the bridge with its patented Rainbow Arch," Nighswonger writes. "Frank Marsh came to Cotter in May 1929 to survey the area where the bridge would be constructed. Bids were made for construction, and one was accepted. All were later rejected when plans changed, starting the process again. The final contract went to Bateman Construction Co. of Nashville, Tenn."
Construction began in November 1929 and was completed a year later. The bridge was named for Ruthven on the final day of 1976 and received National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark status in October 1986. It was renovated in 2004.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.