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OPINION | HISTORY UNDERFOOT: Motoring into the past on good old U.S. 70, Arkansas’ highway of dreams

by SONNY RHODES Special to the Democrat-Gazette | January 9, 2023 at 8:28 a.m.
A roadside mural, welcoming visitors to Lonoke, salutes U.S. 70 with a reflection of an earlier era. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Sonny Rhodes)


Our destination today is U.S. 70, aka Highway 70, but Arkansas has many scenic and historic highways, and I could write fondly about any number of them.

For instance, there's U.S. 65, which courses 313 miles through Arkansas, entering in Chicot County, snaking its way north through farmland bordered by oxbows and bayous. It curves around part of Lake Chicot to give travelers a good look at what, at nearly 22 miles long, is the largest oxbow lake in North America and Arkansas' largest natural lake.

Later, 65 runs co-terminously with Interstates 530, 30 and 40, before exiting I-40 at Conway and meandering through the Ozarks until it crosses into Missouri just south of Branson.

I have beaucoups memories of traveling 65 as the first leg of fun trips to New Orleans or various points along the Redneck Riviera. But the most deeply etched memory is of a white-knuckle ride during a January 1974 ice storm that hit just about the time a friend, my Volkswagen Beetle and I reached Lake Village on the way from Florida to my parents' home in Pine Bluff. I was ready to fall on my knees and kiss the frozen ground when we arrived.

Then there's Arkansas Scenic Byway 7, the state's first state-designated scenic byway, which runs some 208 miles from the Louisiana border south of El Dorado to just beyond Harrison in the north. It winds through thick forests, then into the Ouachitas and the Ozarks, connecting such places as Smackover, Camden, Arkadelphia, Hot Springs, Russellville, Jasper and Dogpatch.

I've had many pleasant drives along this highway, but there was that especially unpleasant trek early one cold morning in January 1979 when, as a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat, I was dispatched to cover a natural gas explosion that destroyed the telephone company building in Harrison. Ice and snow storms had left some roads treacherous, and while I could have taken U.S. 65 out of Conway, I reasoned that I-40 was likely clear to Russellville and from there it would be a shorter drive up 7 to Harrison.

Bad decision. It was another white-knuckle ride in a Volkswagen once I got off the interstate. Icy patches. Steep hills. Sharp curves.

Shortly after parking, I ran into another reporter and told him about my ride. "Should've taken 65," was his reply. "Clear all the way."

Today, though, folks, we are traveling U.S. 70, and there is no snow and ice.

THE OPEN ROAD

One reason I like this highway so much is because it's a nice alternative to the heavily traveled I-40 between North Little Rock and Memphis; seems no matter which interstate lane I drive in there's someone tailgating me.

I also take 70 to see some of the historic places and walking paths in towns the interstate system bypassed. This also is a great way to discover wildlife, especially birds. In the last of at least four trips I took along 70 between Thanksgiving and Christmastime, I saw roughly a gazillion geese browsing a cut-over rice field. Breathtaking.

I'll get to that personal connection with the highway momentarily, but first let's detour through a little history and geography.

U.S. 70, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, begins in Globe, Ariz., and ends some 2,385 miles later in Atlantic, N.C. (see arkansasonline.com/0109ride). It enters Arkansas west of De Queen and continues for about 280 miles, leaving the state at West Memphis. In De Queen it is known as Collin Raye Drive in honor of the country music star born there in 1960.

BROADWAY

While the interstate system has diminished 70 as a major route, it continues to serve as access to Hot Springs and many communities to the southwest. I take this route often, whether it's to the Spa City, where history virtually bubbles up from beneath the sidewalks, or to towns like Glenwood, which has a great swimming hole and a place to pull a canoe ashore.

In at least four of the cities it runs through -- Little Rock, North Little Rock, Forrest City and West Memphis — the highway is called Broadway.

East Broadway in North Little Rock is where we'll begin today's excursion, heading first toward Lonoke County and a segment of century-old pavement known as Old U.S. 70, Union Valley Segment — roughly four miles of deteriorating roadway that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

ON ELVIS' LAP

Cruising east on East Broadway, I pass the building that once housed Roy Fisher's Steak House, 1919 E. Broadway, one of those destination restaurants for nearly 60 years before its closing in 2005. In its heyday, Fisher's customers came from far and wide — vacationers passing through, politicians crossing the Arkansas River from the capital city, sports teams, you name it.

One especially notable customer was rock 'n' roll royalty, The King himself, Elvis Presley, who was aboard a Greyhound bus that stopped there on a March night in 1958. Presley and 16 other new Army inductees were bound for Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith.

So, here's that personal connection: My dad, the late Carlton Rhodes, drove that Greyhound bus.

I was a wee lad. As Dad recalled things many years later, he picked up Presley and the other inductees in Memphis and drove over the Mississippi River to West Memphis for a brief stop at another restaurant. He called Mom at home in Pine Bluff, collect, and told her that the bus would be stopping again, at Fisher's. If we wanted to meet Elvis, we needed to head that way.

Shortly thereafter, a mob scene broke out in the first restaurant and, as Dad told it, fans were all over Elvis, so much so that the other inductees had to hoist him over their heads so he could body-surf back to the bus.

Things were a bit more dignified at Fisher's, where the bus rolled up at 7:45 p.m., as reporter Ray Moseley described it in a front-page article in the next day's Arkansas Gazette:

"Presley, whose appearance anywhere normally is greeted by shrieks of hysteria, got off the bus almost unnoticed and went into a private dining room."

Sitting at the head of a long table, Elvis told those around him that he had slept much of the way between Memphis and North Little Rock, about two hours. Otherwise, he had not slept for two nights, having been up for an open house at Memphis for friends and the press.

After mentioning Mom, here's how Moseley reported my first great brush with fame: "Her 5-year-old son, Carlton Jr., walked over to Elvis and with some prompting sang a few bars of 'Hound Dog,' one of Presley's biggest hit records."

Moseley put it nicely. I choked. I knew "Hound Dog" by heart, but when Elvis sat me on his lap I sang one line, maybe two, before bashfully saying, "I don't remember the rest." Then he politely put me back on my feet and resumed eating a doughnut and sipping coffee.

Returning to this century, I switch the satellite radio station in my car from one featuring classic rock to one playing Elvis music. Elvis is singing "Such a Night." I try to imagine how the street looked on that March night and what the King might have seen, groggily. Back then, East Broadway had tourist courts, mom-and-pop operations popular from the 1930s to the 1960s, offering weary travelers cottages with parking right outside the door. In North Little Rock, they had names like The Parkway, Neon Courts, Grande Court, Blue Bird and Poplar.

In the midst of them was the Broadway Drive-In Theatre. Rest and recreation within blocks of each other. Could travel get any better?

DISTRIBUTION HUB

As I cross over Interstate 440, traffic increases significantly, mostly big trucks. Soon, approaching the Galloway area, I am struck by a contrast, glimpses into part of this area's past, present and future.

On the right is Hills Lake, an ancient oxbow filled with towering cypress trees, and on the left sprawls the state-of-the-art Amazon Fulfillment Center. Just beyond that is an army of earth-moving machinery and cement trucks, workers scurrying to prepare two more distribution centers, one for Dollar General, the other for Lowe's. The three centers are projected to bring some 3,000 jobs to the area.

[Gallery not showing? Click here to see photos: arkansasonline.com/0109route]

Farther east, just inside the Lonoke County line, I come to a segment of the original roadway about 20 feet north of the current thoroughfare. I stop the car next to a harvested cottonfield and go for a brisk walk of about a mile.

Utility poles line the original blacktop. The cold, northerly wind is really making the wires hum. Bits of cotton look like snow beside the highway.

Soon, the flat expanse beside me gives way to the levee of a minnow pond. Minnow farming is a huge business along U.S. 70. I pull out my phone, Google "Minnows Lonoke County" and find this insight courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "I.F. Anderson's Farms, Inc., is located just west of Lonoke (Lonoke County). The farm includes about 322 kilometers (200 miles) of levees that impound 3,400 acres of ponds accessed via a 'checkerboard' pattern of levee roads. It boasts as the world's largest minnow (baitfish) farm, providing a bounty of golden shiners (Notemigonus crysoleucas). As the premier fish farm in the nation, it produces over one billion shiners each year."

Now that's a mess of shiners.

HIGHWAY A-1

Returning to the car after about 30 minutes, I review the nomination form that led to the old road's placement on the National Register (see arkansasonline.com/0109union).

Built around 1913, the road was known early on as Highway A-1. "The importance of the highway was ... noted when the U.S. highway system was created in 1925, and it received the designation U.S. 70."

The form adds that by the 1930s, "U.S. 70 was a transcontinental highway sometimes referred to as the 'Broadway of America' and the Union Valley segment, with its pavement width of 10 feet, would have been inadequate to deal with the ever-increasing traffic loads, especially heavy truck traffic, which its bituminous surfacing was not designed to withstand. In addition, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Arkansas State Highway Commission started making a concerted effort to pave many of the major highways in Arkansas with concrete, a much more durable material, and U.S. 70 in Lonoke County was one of the highways that they targeted."

By early 1933, the new highway was ready. "Once the new highway opened," the nomination form states, "the old road quickly fell by the wayside, and today it is either used as farm access roads or has been slowly reclaimed by nature, becoming a grass-covered path."

HIGHWAY OF DREAMS

I pull back onto the newer highway and head to Lonoke, where I pick up my friend Jim von Tungeln, who, among many other things, is a prolific writer and voracious reader of history. We've made many road trips to historic sites.

As we drive on eastward toward Carlisle and lunch at Nick's Bar-B-Q & Catfish, Jim muses about U.S. 70 being what he would call the Highway of Dreams. As I drive, I listen intently, but of course cannot take notes. I asked him later to summarize his thoughts in an email. This is the gist:

"When you consider the folks that have traveled this road that connects Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock ... not to mention points beyond and between, it is truly a path of dreams. Some were heading to seek dreams unfulfilled, and some were trying to manage dreams fulfilled. A person can still almost feel their spirits."

After we each consume a catfish plate, we continue on to DeValls Bluff, which had strategic importance to the Union Army during the Civil War. I'd like to report more about this part of the ride, but I'll have to save that for another day.

After dropping Jim back at his place, I walk a segment of a well-maintained rails-to-trails path through downtown Lonoke. The paved path starts near a testament to Lonoke's 1873 beginnings as a railroad town — a boxcar and a caboose — and proceeds flat and straight for about a mile to the east.

Another segment starts just west of a refurbished railroad depot that houses the Chamber of Commerce and also goes for about a mile.

It was a pleasant walk, giving me some time to ponder Jim's Highway of Dreams musings, which I considered further as I passed all that construction near the Amazon center on the way home.

There is no overstating the importance of I-40, but I feel certain that U.S. 70 will serve as a handy conduit for many years to come as workers travel to those distribution centers with dreams of better jobs and better lives.

Sonny Rhodes is a (mostly) retired journalism professor and avid student of history. He spends a lot of time walking.



 Gallery: U.S. 70



Print Headline: Highway of Dreams

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