No aspect of life changed as much since the 19th century as travel. Like the Native Americans and the French before them, early English-speaking settlers used the rivers to gain access to what would become Arkansas Territory in 1819. The arrival of the first steamboat in 1820 ushered in a new era of transportation.
The lack of a good road system did not deter businessmen from creating stagecoach routes all over Arkansas. The railroad did not arrive here until just before the Civil War, but its impact would eventually transform travel. Perhaps more importantly, rail transport brought Arkansas into the national economy.
A journey from Little Rock to Memphis in September 1869, which took an estimated 19 hours and was hailed as a quick trip, involved stagecoaches, steamboats and the state's tiny railroad system, as well as not a few mishaps and delays.
The occasion for this particular 1869 journey was the inauguration of a new route by Camden-based Chidester, Searle & Co., among the oldest and largest stagecoach businesses operating in Arkansas at that time. While John T. Chidester coaches and mail wagons transported passengers and the U.S. mails throughout much of mid-1800s America, Chidester is probably best known in Arkansas history for the major role his company played in the famed Butterfield Overland Mail service from Memphis to Fort Smith.
Chidester invited the Little Rock press to make the inaugural trip, and the Arkansas Gazette's city editor as well as a representative of the Little Rock Republican took him up on the offer.
The first leg of the trip involved taking the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad from Huntersville -- what is today North Little Rock -- to DeValls Bluff, the county seat of Prairie County and the terminus of the western portion of the railroad.
Heavy rains had transformed DeValls Bluff into a muddy quagmire by the time the train reached the depot. "DeValls Bluff presented rather an uninviting appearance at this time" the Gazette editor wrote. "To say it was muddy would convey but a faint idea of the truth -- it was disgustingly muddy and disagreeable, and we left as soon as possible."
Leaving involved taking the Chidester-owned Fairy Queen steamboat down the White River to Clarendon, the seat of Monroe County and an old riverboat town, where they would once again board a stagecoach. The Gazette editor was pleased with the comforts of the Fairy Queen, "a beautiful little steamer," where the party had lunch in a rather elegant dining room.
Upon reaching Clarendon, the passengers were immediately transferred to another Chidester stagecoach bound for the small town of Madison on the St. Francis River near modern Forrest City. Part of the trip was over a federal military road built in the 1820s, but part of it "took a new road, just chopped out and over which no vehicle had yet passed. Steady rainfall, growing darkness, and the rough new road compelled us to go slowly."
Noting that "two or three times we got out of the road," the editor was speaking to the difficulty of following a new trackway at night during a downpour. Amazingly, stagecoaches traveled at night routinely, often at surprising rates of speed. The coaches were fitted with small lamps, but they did nothing to penetrate the darkness.
Indeed, it was on this leg of the trip that the stage met at 1 a.m. with John Chidester as he was slowly walking with a lantern ahead of two stagecoaches "crowded with passengers" headed to Little Rock.
One of the most uncomfortable and dangerous parts of the journey involved ferrying the stage across the L'Anguille River about five miles west of Forrest City. Rain continued as the passengers had to walk down a muddy bank in darkness to the ferry. Not surprisingly, several of the passengers "got mired up, and had to call for lights to see their way out."
No doubt the travelers had dried mud on their boots by the time the stage stopped at the railroad terminus just west of the embryonic town of Forrest City, named for the Confederate commander and founder of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Having breakfast in Forrest City provided a brief opportunity for the passengers to walk about. "It is situated on the western slope of Crowleys ridge," the Gazette editor wrote of the new village of 150 people, and "the buildings are all substantial and present a handsome appearance."
Leaving Forrest City, the train made its way through a deep cut in Crowley's ridge and into the village of Madison.
The train crossed the St. Francis River at Madison using the largest manmade structure in Arkansas at that time, the railroad bridge at Madison. The bridge superstructure was almost 700 feet in length, consisting of three spans. Six large brick piers supported it, with the center span of 200 feet being a bridge which revolved on a large circular pier in the center to permit the passage of steamboats.
I suspect building this bridge was possibly the most extensive engineering project in Arkansas during the antebellum period, although federal military installations in Fort Smith and Little Rock were extensive.
The trip to Hopefield, the eastern terminus of the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad, was held up by six hours when the train's engine "broke down." The Chidester company kept a ferry at Hopefield to transport passengers across the Mississippi River to Memphis. The Gazette editor stated matter-of-factly that once in Memphis, "of course we registered at the Peabody Hotel."
The same writer also promised readers that "arrangements are now in progress by which the staging will be done in the day time ..." This statement would have interested me had I been around then, given that the prospect of hurtling along in a stagecoach in the middle of the night in besodden eastern Arkansas is truly frightening.
Tom Dillard is a historian and the founding director of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock. He lives in retirement in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]