Texarkana was a product of the railroads. The site for the town was established along the Arkansas-Texas border at the point where the Cairo & Fulton tracks met the Texas & Pacific tracks in December 1873. Texarkana is my last stop on a trip that has taken me from Mississippi to Texas on U.S. 82.
When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, we sometimes would visit Texarkana as a break from the usual "big city" trips to Little Rock. We would eat at Bryce's Cafeteria downtown, and my mother would shop. Downtown was booming back then. As a history lover from a young age, I was intrigued how this spot became a retail center serving people from parts of four states--Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
"The first lot when the settlement was established was sold to J.W. Davis and later became the site of the Hotel McCartney, across from Union Station," writes Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks. "Another sale of a town lot that day led to the opening of the town's first business, a grocery and drugstore operated by George Clark. There's evidence that the city's name existed before the city. Some say that as early as 1860, it was used by the steamboat Texarkana, which traveled the Red River. Others say a supposedly medicinal drink called Texarkana Bitters was sold in 1869 by a man who ran a general store in Bossier Parish in Louisiana.
"The most popular version credits a railroad surveyor, Col. Gus Knobel, who was surveying the right of way from Little Rock to southwest Arkansas for a railroad in the late 1860s. When Knobel came to the state line between Arkansas and Texas, and believing he was also at or near the Louisiana border, he reportedly wrote TEX-ARK-ANA on a board and nailed it to a tree with the statement 'this is the name of a town which is to be built here.'"
A group on the Texas side met in December 1873 to organize the city. A charter was granted in June 1874. In 1880, 29 people met and petitioned for Texarkana, Ark., to also be incorporated.
"Public sentiment was divided as an opposing group gathered 15 names of citizens against organizing a government on the Arkansas side," Hendricks writes. "But Texarkana, Ark., was granted a charter on Aug. 10, 1880."
Telephone service was instituted in 1883 in what was becoming a thriving railroad town. By the 1890 census, there were more people on the Arkansas side (3,528) than the Texas side (2,852). The Miller County Courthouse was built in 1893. It was demolished in 1939 so the current facility could be constructed. Growth was helped immensely by the creation of Red River Army Depot and the Lone Star Ammunition Plant during World War II. The later establishment of a federal prison spurred additional growth.
"In addition to being an important junction of railroad lines, Texarkana built a strong economy based on timber and minerals, along with crops such as corn, cotton, pecans, rice and soybeans," Hendricks writes. "By 1952, the combined population was up to 40,490, with the Arkansas side reporting almost 16,000. By 1960, the Arkansas side had reached almost 20,000, and the total population was just more than 50,000."
Texarkana, Ark., grew from 21,459 residents in the 1980 census to 29,919 people in the 2010 census. Hendricks describes the completion of Interstate 30 in the 1960s as a double-edged sword that "brought new businesses because of increased traffic and more efficient transportation of products to market. On the other hand, it took business away from Texarkana's downtown, causing merchants to create what in essence was a new town along the interstate corridor. Since 1968, downtown buildings in Texarkana have deteriorated and businesses have closed. Perhaps the most vibrant businesses are the jails, law offices and bail bondsmen's shops."
The good news is that there seems to be a renewed effort to revitalize downtown. The most prominent current development is the restoration of the Hotel Grim, which was built in 1925. The building contains 103,200 square feet. When it was built, the eight-story structure was the second tallest building in the area. The development will feature commercial space on the first floor and apartment units on the other floors.
Texarkana also has embarked on what's known as the Courthouse Square Initiative, the goal of which is to make improvements around the federal courthouse downtown. The project will feature additional green space and enhanced walkability. Texarkana business and civic leaders eventually want to make improvements all the way down State Line Avenue to Interstate 30.
Despite the pandemic and current economic recession, an announcement was made in May that the former Texarkana National Bank building at the corner of State Line Avenue and Broad Street will be renovated. The redevelopment effort is being spearheaded by Texarkana Renewal Properties, led by David Peavy. The building will be used for apartments and condominiums, as well as overnight and extended-stay units. There also will be space for retail establishments and offices.
The trip on U.S. 82 wouldn't be complete without dinner at Cattleman's Steak House, which is on the Arkansas side of State Line Avenue. It was one of just three restaurants inducted earlier this year into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. Cattleman's was founded by Roy Oliver more than half a century ago when State Line was a two-lane road. In addition to steaks, there's seafood, quail, frog legs and other specialties that have had residents from across the four-state area coming to this family restaurant for decades.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.