Last week I wrote about the major railroads that came to Arkansas in the aftermath of the Civil War and opened the state, providing a means for local commerce to integrate more fully into the national economy. This week I am taking a look at a few of the scores of shortline railroads--the "Lilliput Lines," as some sneered--which served many of the towns and communities bypassed by the major railroads.
According to the late Clifton Hull, author of the richly detailed book "Shortline Railroads of Arkansas," the state was home to 84 of these small rail lines in 1912 alone. The names often include the towns on the line--the Doniphan, Kensett & Searcy, for example--but sometimes seem puzzling to modern readers, such as the Ultima Thule, Arkadelphia, & Mississippi.
Some of the shortline railroads were not so short. The Little Rock, Maumelle, and Western, known as the Neimeyer Line, stretched from the Neimeyer Lumber Co. sawmill on what is today Asher Avenue in Little Rock westward across the vast pine forests of western Pulaski County, Saline, and Perry counties. By contrast, the Augusta Tramway & Transfer Co. was only one mile in length.
The need to build a rail line to connect Augusta with a major railroad demonstrates how the coming of the railroad could have a catastrophic impact on old riverboat towns. At first, residents of Augusta, a major steamboat shipping point on the White River, seemed indifferent to the St. Louis & Iron Mountain Railroad while the route was being determined, but soon the Woodruff County town was petitioning the Iron Mountain to build a one-mile-long spur to Augusta.
Clifton Hull waxes almost biblical in describing the situation when the Iron Mountain said no to building a spur: "So it came to pass in 1887 that the people of Augusta, Arkansas constructed their own little railroad, one mile long, and called the Augusta Tramway & Transfer Company. Its construction was not quite up to the specifications of the Iron Mountain, but it was their very own and cost only $4,500."
For the first decade of its existence, the Augusta line consisted of one tiny passenger car and a handful of small boxcars--all pulled by mules. While the progress might be slow, at least the passengers traveled in some degree of comfort, sitting on upholstered seats in the brightly painted canary-yellow passenger car. By 1900 the line was using small steam locomotives.
For some years the line was remarkably profitable, paying a 16 percent dividend in 1897. In 1917, the line was sold to a group of local investors operating under the name Augusta Railroad Co. As late as 1952, more than 7,500 bales of cotton were shipped on the mile-long railroad; it ceased operation in 1958.
While the Augusta line was the product of a literal community of investors, the first railroad to reach Hot Springs was created by one visionary, Joseph "Diamond Jo" Reynolds. A New Yorker by birth, Reynolds moved to Chicago before the Civil War and made a fortune in tanning hides.
Reynolds' reputation as a shrewd and hardworking businessman was further enhanced when he expanded into steamboat shipping on the Mississippi and its tributaries. The nickname Diamond Jo came from the diamond-shaped logo painted on his steamboats.
Reynolds suffered from severe arthritis, and in 1874 he set out from Chicago to visit Hot Springs intent on "taking the cure" offered by the area's multitude of medicinal thermal springs. After a relatively comfortable journey by rail, Reynolds was forced to make the final 25 miles of the journey from the new city of Malvern on the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad to Hot Springs via stagecoach.
Although mobile, unlike some passengers who had to be carried off the train on stretchers, Reynolds and seven others climbed aboard a large stagecoach bearing the name of the El Paso Stage Co. The journey was rough as the stage lurched northward through the Ouachita Mountains, and grew immensely worse when after sundown the stage broke down and passengers were forced to walk the final mile or so in darkness. Reynolds vowed to build a railroad from Malvern to Hot Springs--and Diamond Jo always followed through.
He moved to Malvern to oversee construction of his new Hot Springs Railroad line. Considering the difficulty of the terrain, it is remarkable that Reynolds completed his railroad in fewer than 12 months, the last spikes being driven on Jan. 25, 1876. To cut expenses, Reynolds decided to build a narrow gauge track--only three feet between the rails rather than the standard gauge of four feet, 8.5 inches. The track changed to standard gauge in 1889.
The change enabled disabled or sick visitors to travel to Hot Springs in the comfort of Pullman sleeping cars. A growing number of visitors came to the spa city to rest and relax, such as U.S. Navy Admiral George Dewey, hero of the Battle of Manila. Athletes were attracted to Hot Springs, including pugilists John L. Sullivan and James J. Corbett, and the White Stockings baseball team from Chicago.
Many Arkansans will remember the Reader Railroad located in Nevada and Ouachita counties. Originally established in 1889 as the Sayre Narrow Gauge Railroad, the line was intended to facilitate harvesting the vast pine forests covering the area along the Nevada-Ouachita county boundary.
This shortline railroad would have many owners over the next eight decades. The discovery of oil near Waterloo, the southern terminus of the Reader, increased the company's freight business and inaugurated a crude oil transport business. The Reader never converted from steam to diesel.
By the mid-1950s it became apparent that the future of the Reader Railroad was limited and the company was dissolved. However, train enthusiasts refused to accept the demise of the Reader. It was reborn as a tourist attraction, the Possum Trot Line, but that effort failed too.
The Reader was featured in the 1985 ABC/Warner Bros. miniseries "North & South." It was also featured in the 2007 movies "3:10 to Yuma" and "There Will be Blood."
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.firstname.lastname@example.org.