The construction of a railroad meant growth and prosperity for many an isolated town in the mid-19th century. Compare it today with receiving an interstate highway, telephone lines, and internet service all on the same day. Its effect was much the same: an outlet for farm produce, a means of entry and exit into the area, and a means of communication with the outside world through enhanced mail service.
The story of Bentonville’s railroad is a complicated one, intertwined with political wrangling and personal maneuvering by many a community leader. As early as December, 1853, there was a bill put forth in the House of Representatives by A. B. Greenwood to grant right-of-way… “to aid in the construction of a railroad from….Springfield Missouri to Bentonville Arkansas…” Bentonville was fortunate enough to be home to a United States Congressman, at a time when the state only merited two representatives for the whole state. But the political winds were blowing unfavorably for Bentonville and the railroad did not come to fruition until after the Civil War.
Railroads proliferated during these years. Northern capitalists were eager to tie the industrial centers with the agricultural lands in the south, and new railroad charters were issued almost weekly. The bountiful orchard lands of Northwest Arkansas were no exception. The Library of Congress has an 1872 map on file which shows the Texas and Northwestern Railroad system; a tentative line runs directly through Bentonville in a line from Missouri to Fort Smith and beyond. When reading newspapers from the era, one finds that citizens were frequently called to “railroad meetings” sponsored by the various rail lines, which were in competition to service the area. Unfortunately, the political machinery was slow moving, due to both national and local economic woes and arguments within the State government concerning the repayment of railroad bonds.
By the late 1870’s, the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway was determined to extend their tracks to Bentonville, Fayetteville, and Ft. Smith from a point on their line between Joplin and Springfield at Pierce City, Missouri. Newspaper accounts from the day follow the construction from Pierce City to the Arkansas line. Bentonville residents were so enthusiastic that they named the street that led to the north out of town “Pierce City Road.”
At this point in the story, the facts become muddled. Weekly accounts in the Fayetteville newspaper “The Sentinel” explained the construction of the railroad in detail and Bentonville was long touted as one of the towns to be included on that line. Somehow the plan changed around December 1880 and the railroad was moved to a line from Seligman Missouri south to Fayetteville, creating the new towns of Avoca, Rogers, and Lowell, avoiding Bentonville altogether.
The primary resource from the period – newspapers and court documents especially – are scarce. The Fayetteville “Sentinel” does little to explain, only that at least two meetings were held in Avoca with railroad officials prior to the change.
The story handed down by several people was that the railway officials asked Bentonville for money but were turned down. Rogers then offered the money and was rewarded with the line. J. Dickson Black, in his book History of Benton County, points to a $15,000 fee that was requested by the railway that had been denied by Bentonville officials but was put up by more savvy Rogers officials. Although this may be fact, I find it unlikely. The Bentonville townspeople had been eager to put money towards securing a rail line; in fact the line that linked Bentonville to Rogers that was built the very next year – 1882- cost $42,000 and was paid for by capital raised by a group of sixteen Bentonville businessmen.
As noted in Goodspeed’s History of Benton County, written in 1888, Rogers, at the time it was chosen as a town site along the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway, contained nothing but a dilapidated pole cabin. The money that was put up by the businessmen of what would eventually become Rogers amounted only to $600, the amount which was demanded by the company’s right-of-way agent. They did, however, provide several acres of right-of-way free of charge, including a depot site.
The loss of the railroad was more likely due to geographical reasons than any other. Once the surveyors for the railroad entered the county and investigated all of their options, the route taken would likely have been the cheapest and most direct. Looking at a 1903 topographic map of the area we can see that the railroad snaked its way through the mountains from Seligman to Fayetteville along a relatively flat plain. Some bridges were required, but it appears to have been an easier route.
Whatever the case, we may never know exactly why the railroad moved east. At the time, it was seen as devastating to the local economy, but the Bentonville businessmen did bring a branch line to town, allowing the local economy an outlet to the world.
Bentonville was once again bitten by the railroad bug in 1890 and 1891 when the Kansas City, Bentonville and Springdale Railroad was chartered. In three months of intense work, a grade was completed from Bentonville to the Missouri line. Unfortunately, the hopes of the city were dashed when it was found that the right-of-way for McDonald County had not been secured and the workers were laid off “indefinitely.” Remnants of what are reported to be this grade still exist north of Bentonville.
In 1898, Bentonville finally acquired a through road with the Arkansas, Oklahoma and Western railroad, which eventually ran from Rogers to Grove, Oklahoma. It was affectionately known locally as the “All Off and Walk” due to it’s inconsistency of adherence to a timetable.
Following the slow decline of the orchard based economy of Northwest Arkansas which really ended during the dust-bowl years of the 1930’s, the railroad industry also waned. The line from Bentonville to Grove was abandoned in 1940 and after that rail service into Bentonville was on an “as needed” basis. It indeed has served its purpose. Quoting Tom Duggan, expert on Arkansas Short Line Railroads, “The Bentonville Railroad was conceived of civic pride…The (railroad) branch…served a vital function for perhaps thirty years in the lives of the residents living along the line.”
Here is an excellent link to an article by railroad expert Tom Dugan on the Bentonville Railroad...
Also, under my historical photos there are a few more photos on the railroad subject.