Photo of old crossties in LR elicits streetcar nostalgia

Posted: August 6, 2014 at 4:52 a.m.

A line of concrete-encased railroad ties that once supported Little Rock’s old streetcar system were exposed during a construction project recently in the 200 block of Main Street

Construction crews recently uncovered part of downtown Little Rock's old streetcar line that dates back to the turn of the last century.

In an archived photo from 1910 (above), workers lay streetcar tracks in the 600 block of Main Street in Little Rock.

Just as quickly, though, the city's past was reburied as part of a $1.9 million project to improve stormwater quality on Main Street.

But not before Sonny Rhodes, a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, posted a photograph of the exposed crossties on his Facebook account, prompting a discussion of the find and some yearning for the days when streetcars were a ubiquitous part of city life and not, as now, limited to a draw for tourists.

"I'm often fascinated to see what's beneath Little Rock streets," he wrote in a caption to accompany the photograph.

Among those seeing Rhodes' photograph was Rachel Silva, president of the Pulaski County Historical Society. That photograph, in turn, reminded her of another photograph depicting workers laying down similar ties in the 600 block of Main, just four blocks south of the location of Rhodes' shot.

"That's exactly what I thought of immediately," Silva recalled Tuesday.

A link to that earlier photograph is on the Encyclopedia of Arkansas website. The actual photograph belongs to the Arkansas History Commission.

It was taken in 1910 -- 104 years before Rhodes snapped his shot.

Silva and Jamie Collins, a civil engineer in the city Public Works Department, identified the exposed railroad ties as belonging to the Main Street line on the Little Rock Railway and Electric Co., one of the various incarnations of streetcar operators in the city. It stretched from East Markham Street south to East 23rd, according to maps they provided, including one dated 1913.

Streetcars in Little Rock date to the 1870s when they were drawn on tracks by horses or mules, Silva said. They were powered by steam engines for a time before they became electric. They disappeared from the city in the 1940s and were replaced by the buses now used for mass transit.

"The streetcar system we have today ... isn't as extensive as the streetcar system" in the early to mid-1900s, said Silva, who also is preservation outreach coordinator for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. "Many people used that as their only form of transportation."

The River Rail electric streetcar system, which runs in a loop between the Little Rock and North Little Rock downtown areas as well as a line to the Clinton Presidential Center, began service in 2004.

The city's westward expansion was aided by the streetcar system, according to Silva, who said developers of the original Pulaski Heights and Hillcrest sections of the city couldn't entice people to purchase property there without first installing a transportation system to serve it.

Collins said it is rare that street construction work unearths the city's past because it is equally rare that streets are dug out, especially in the oldest sections of the city, such as downtown. When heavy work is done, other finds include remnants of the city's original brick drainage system.

And the remnants of the streetcar system is in some places but not in other places, he said. It probably depended on how much money was available at the time the streetcar line was dismantled.

The ties remain well-preserved because they were encased in concrete and buried, which protected them from exposure to air and moisture, Collins said.

They also don't affect the integrity of the roadway because Main and other downtown streets don't carry a large volume of traffic or traffic moving at high speeds, factors that can weaken roads, according to Collins.

The project to improve storm-water quality, which is being funded by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant, will eventually encompass four blocks of Main. The 100 block is almost finished and workers are now in the 200 block. The 300 block and the 500 block also are part of the project, Collins said.

The work includes the installation of pervious pavers and curbs and, on the sidewalks, porous concrete, all of which are designed to filter roadway and vehicle contaminants from the storm-water runoff before it drains into the Arkansas River and its tributaries, such as Fourche Creek, he said.

Metro on 08/06/2014