Building a Railroad: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

Many remember the story in those American History textbooks about the building of the transcontinental railroad across our great country. Others may have even visited points of interest in that story, like Promontory Point, Utah where the Golden Spike was ceremonially driven in by Leland Stanford to join the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads in 1869.

The building of the railroad from Little Rock to Ft. Smith may not be as familiar but it is literally what put Conway on the map. Here is the story of how that railroad was built.

On August 5, 1869, ground was officially broken at Huntersville (later Argenta, and now North Little Rock) and 75 men were put to work clearing and grading the right of way. The following month, Asa Peter Robinson was appointed as chief engineer of the railroad with authority over all phases of the construction effort.

Robinson, a 47-year-old civil engineer, was a native of Connecticut and a Yale graduate. His previous railroad experience included work with the Erie Railroad in New York and Pennsylvania before the Civil War, and work with the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad in Kansas following the war.

After his appointment, Robinson worked diligently to keep expenses to a minimum, in order to stretch the railroad’s limited funds as far as possible. The cost of manpower was one of the most substantial expenses, since the size of the already large work crew was being increased with the arrival of several hundred additional workers each month. At Robinson’s direction, the pay for construction workers was standardized, and a deduction of $2 per week was made for the meals supplied by the company.

After almost five months of clearing the right of way and grading the roadbed, actual tracklaying began in early January 1870. A locomotive, named Pulaski—nine flatcars and two boxcars—arrived at Huntersville in early March. On March 25, the Pulaski made its maiden trip out 3 ½ miles to the end of track, with an Arkansas Gazette reporter perched on the cowcatcher. The trip required 15 minutes going out, but only 10 minutes coming back. A second locomotive, named Conway, was unloaded from a railroad barge at Huntersville at the end of April along with 23 box and flat cars.

Each of the first seven locomotives ordered by the Little Rock & Ft. Smith during 1869-1870 was named sequentially for the counties through which the railroad would pass. Locomotive #1 was Pulaski, then Conway, Pope, Johnson. Franklin, and Crawford with Sebastian as Locomotive #7.

At the time that these locomotives were delivered, Conway and Pulaski counties were adjacent. Faulkner County would not be carved out of sections of these two counties until 1873, so no locomotives in the series were named Faulkner.

The third locomotive, Pope, and several passenger cars were already in transit by the time that the Conway arrived at Huntersville.

The original legislation had specified that the first 20 miles of railroad must be open by mid-May 1867, but subsequent legislation extended this deadline three years. That deadline was met but progress slowed while the crew waited on a shipment of more rails. Only three miles of track were laid during this time. Meanwhile Asa Robinson reassessed the original survey and made changes to the route.

Beginning at a point three miles north of Palarm, the original survey of the Little Rock & Ft. Smith projected an almost straight-line route to a crossing of Cadron Ridge near the mouth of Cadron Creek. This survey would have placed the railroad approximately four to five miles west of its present location in the City of Conway. Because the original survey would have required a very steep climb over Cadron Ridge, it was discarded by Asa Robinson in favor of an alternate route located farther east and utilizing Cadron Gap.

By rerouting the line through this natural gap, the climb was reduced by one-third, but a sharp curve to the west was required just after passing through the gap. Even with the improved routing, the crossing through Cadron Gap was still quite an engineering feat.

By early June 1870, the grading of roadbed from Cadron Creek to Lewisburg was completed, and the anticipated completion of the Cadron Bridge by the end of June would allow rail placement to begin from Cadron to Lewisburg. Rail-laying crews were approaching Lewisburg by November 1870, and railroad officials were completing plans for the inauguration of regular train service.

The final details of track construction were completed during the third week of November, and the railroad announced that trains would run on a regular schedule beginning Monday, November 21, 1870.

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