In 1874, Cornelia Dickson, a teacher from Camden, was going to take the train to Selma, Alabama. To do this, she first had to take a 12-hour stagecoach trip to Prescott. Then it was another three hours by train to Little Rock, where she switched from the Iron Mountain line to one headed east. Getting out of Arkansas would be the hard part of the trip. Even lightly developed states like Mississippi and Alabama had a huge head start when it came to railroads in the 19th century.
Taking the train in Arkansas today isn’t too different from how it was for Dickson in 1874. Passenger service in the state today is limited to Amtrak’s Texas Eagle line, running from Walnut Ridge in the northeast to Texarkana in the southwest — going over the same route that she took. My plan was to take a round trip on this — leaving on a Friday and returning on Sunday — to see Arkansas by train and check out the areas around some of the remaining active stations in the state.
Catching the train from Fayetteville starts with a four-hour drive through the Ozarks. The hills start to taper off at Pocahontas in Randolph County, about 15 miles north of the station in Walnut Ridge. Near downtown, the old train depot is now a museum of transportation. Bill, the lifelong Pocahontas resident who runs the museum, showed me around. According to him, train travel never really took there. Pocahontas was a river town, with boats coming up the Black River to deliver goods and take out raw materials. If people went anywhere before the Civil War, it tended to be by steamboat. All that remains of the railroad there are the piers, which once held what Bill told me was the second-largest single-span turn-type bridge in the world.
This limited use of railroads was true around the state. Before the Civil War, there were only about 50 miles of tracks in the entire state. Being full of rivers and swamps, it was easier to work with the water rather than drain or build over or around it. Even after the war, when outside corporations built new rail lines, it was largely to harvest the trees and bring agricultural goods to market. The window of peak train travel between the decline of steamboats and the rise of automobiles was relatively short here. The first line built that crossed the state — the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad — followed the old Southwest Trail from northeast to southwest Arkansas and is where the Amtrak currently runs.
The landscape changes as soon as you leave Pocahontas, turning to the extreme flatness of the Delta. The town of Walnut Ridge was founded in 1880 and was platted by the railroad. It is oriented to fit along the tracks. The train brought it into being, and even though it plays a lesser role now, continues to shape it. Near the center of town is the Amtrak station. I pulled up around 2:30 in the afternoon, leaving me a bit over 10 hours to kill before the train was to arrive. Outside the door were (for some reason) hundreds of desiccated tomato and pepper seedlings. Inside was John.
John, I would quickly learn, was Australian by way of somewhere outside of Batesville. His combover was stuck with sweat to his forehead because of the lack of air conditioning in the station. John immediately began telling me about his lawsuit against “the U.S. state of Oklahoma,” which he was suing for $10 million as on “2 August, 2018,” they took his dogs (10 Chihuahua/dachshund mixes) and the Dodge Journey (a midsize crossover) that the dogs were in, and then held him in jail without charges for 14 days. All of it was outlined in a thick packet of papers, which he gave me to read through. John was the only other passenger.
Due to the heat, the company, and my wish to see the rest of the town, I left to go for a run. I followed the tracks to the connecting town of Hoxie.
Hoxie, which is named for a late 19th-century railroad executive, Jack Hoxie, exists because of trains. There’s no passenger service, but freight still comes through on the Union Pacific lines. As I ran into town, I startled Clay, who was playing guitar along the tracks. We got to talking and Clay told me about the challenges of living there. Pretty much everyone he knew, himself included, was or had been addicted to meth. He’d never taken the train anywhere, but he liked to hang out there and play guitar because the building was always open, and the acoustics were good. It was also a good place to meet new people in a town where not much was happening. Most of the people, Clay told me, were really nice and interesting. Except this one guy was showed up every couple of months and lived in the station for a few days, telling everyone about his lawsuit against Oklahoma. Something to do with some dogs.
Eventually, unable to kill any more time, I went back to the station. John was still in the stifling waiting room, but the mosquito swarms soon forced me back in. It was just us for a couple of hours, and we drank some beer and talked. Conversation moved beyond lawsuits. John told me he was waiting for a train north to Indiana to pick up another Dodge to transport back to Oklahoma. He still needed ticket money, though, and had no idea when he would be able to get out of there. Then he showed me a bunch of his favorite “Hillary 2016” videos.
Around 11 p.m. (still an hour and a half before the train was due), a small crowd started to filter in. There were a few other passengers heading back home to Texas accompanied by their friends who were there waiting with them. They’d clearly all been out having a good Friday night. The train, they told me, was so much better than the bus, which is accurate. Departure time came and went. Cars pulled up to pick up passengers coming in. A guy wearing pajama pants told me the train would get there around 1:15 a.m., and it did. About six people got off, and about six people got on. More than I expected, really, but probably not enough to turn a profit.
One of the reasons no one really takes the train within Arkansas is because, whichever direction you’re headed, you pass through the state in the middle of the night. I told myself I was going to stay awake for the trip across the state, but a few hours of drinking beer and engaging in relentless, fairly nonsensical conversation, the dark car with sleeping passengers, combined with the gentle swaying of the train put me out quickly.
I slept through Newport, which was another town created by the train, causing a shift in the county seat to there from Jacksonport when it did. I woke briefly in Little Rock, where just the bottom of the old train station is open for railroad business, then slept through Arkadelphia and Prescott. When I woke up again and for good, it was starting to get light, and we were coming into the Texas part of Arkansas, with green fields full of cows instead of soy.
The station in Texarkana is large and mostly abandoned. Only one small corner of it is still usable. There is an empty circle above the main entrance where the clock used to be. Across the street is a boarded-up hotel. The only businesses that seemed to be open were the bail bond services (there’s also a jail at the far end of the station). I walked from the station through a downtown that was entirely empty early on a Saturday morning, past vacant lots, churches and early 20th century houses that have been turned into apartments.
After dropping my stuff at my apartment for the night, I spent the rest of the day wandering around. Downtown Texarkana on a Saturday afternoon is the kind of place where you can walk down the middle of the road. Being a solo pedestrian got me an offer of a free lunch from the Salvation Army van that was making its rounds as I checked out the sights. Due to a combination of the pandemic and the decline of the area, the transportation museums I’d planned to visit were closed, so I was limited to looking at the pictures in their windows of a Texarkana in which cars were lined up outside of the train station, and there was a clock in the circle where the clock was supposed to be.
Even without the specific history of trains on display, it was still clear that the town had been shaped by the railroad. Restaurants and shops have train-themed names. Just south of town is a large city park named “Hobo Jungle Park,” in homage to hobos who used to ride the rails and camp there. Further north is “Iron Mountain Park,” named for the line that gave rise to the city. The tracks give structure to the layout of the town, and the trains that still pass through provide the background sounds.
Checkout on Sunday was at 11 a.m., and the train didn’t leave until about 9 p.m., so that gave plenty of time to sit and stare at the tracks. There’s no longer a roof over the benches, but clouds made it tolerable to sit and read. For hours, no one came by. The occasional freight train passed through. And some Union Pacific workers were moving some trains around the yard. From the outside, that seems like a labor-intensive and fairly arbitrary process. Connect cars. Engage brakes. Move a few feet. Stop everything. Do it all again.
By the afternoon, more people started to trickle into the train area. Not to catch the train, but to pose with its artifacts for pictures. Teenage girls, often with their mothers, pulled up one after another, wearing prom-type dresses to take their pictures in front of the old storage buildings, phone booths and train cars. Rather than being the entry point to the city, the tracks were now an exotic place on the fringes to commute to for a fun background.
The station finally opened around 8 p.m. Inside it was just me, an older woman who takes the train to Jefferson City, Mo., every summer to spend several months with her daughter, and a surprisingly up-to-date collection of magazines. The other passenger lived her whole life in Texarkana. It was only in retirement, once her children moved away, that she started using the train. Anyone younger drove. Even then, her trip was not an easy one. What would have been an eight-hour drive to Jefferson City would be a 22-hour train ride (not counting the waiting on either end.) She had it planned out so her insulin would stay cold for the whole trip, and she could mostly sleep.
The train arrived about 20 minutes late, which equals being on time. For the return trip, I told myself I would sleep, as I would arrive at 2 in the morning and have a four-hour drive back home. This time, I couldn’t, though. It got dark just after Hope. Besides Little Rock, not much was visible outside the window, and very few people got on or off.
We pulled back into Walnut Ridge just before 2 a.m. The attendants came through when we were about a mile out to make sure anyone getting off was up and ready so it could be a quick transition. They were good at getting passengers loaded and unloaded in a minute or so. As I was stepping off the train, John — who apparently had washed enough windows while spending three full days living at the station to buy his ticket to Indiana — was climbing on. He ran over to me and handed me a third of a sheet of paper with his important information: “John Harrison. Our 10 Dogs. Dodge Journey. My future children.” And then his phone number and a list of organizations that might be helpful in his cause, ranging from the Clinton Foundation to the Australian Labor Party. The train pulled away, and there was no one else around.
There are no hotels waiting for train passengers, so I drove for a couple of hours into the Ozarks and pulled off to sleep for a couple of hours on the ground in the national forest. After a sweaty run and cool swim in a stream, I felt like the train was cleansed from me.
Taking the train through Arkansas involves little sleep, a lot of waiting and a lot of falling-down buildings. Train travel was less important here than many other parts of the country, even at its peak, but the effects are still evident. Trains created towns, developed regions and extracted resources. The tracks are quieter, but still provide boundaries and structure, and give people something to sit near and take pictures in front of. They still bring people in and provide a subtle reminder on the edges and in the background that there’s more out there.