Narrow Gauge Railroads
Arkansas was home to nine narrow gauge railroads that offered freight and passenger service to the public. The three-foot gauge was most common; a pair of 3½’ gauge railroads later converted to the yard-wide gauge. Arkansas’s narrow gauge mileage peaked at more than 550 miles in the mid-1880s but declined rapidly thereafter.
Narrow gauge railroads required less capital because they used narrower right-of-way and followed the terrain closely to minimize the cost of moving earth for cuts and fills. Passenger and freight cars were smaller, lighter, and supposedly more efficient than standard gauge equipment. Narrow gauge steam engines required lighter track and less-expensive bridges. The disadvantage of narrow gauge was a lack of easy freight interchange with the standard gauge (4’8½”) railroads that blanketed the United States after the Civil War. Narrow gauge cars could ride on standard gauge trucks, but standard gauge car bodies encountered dangerous clearance and overhang problems when on narrow gauge trucks. The lack of interchange proved to be a fatal flaw that soon relegated narrow gauge lines to a minor role.
The Arkansas Midland Railroad, the state’s first narrow gauge line, was projected as a 115-mile line that would link Helena (Phillips County) to Little Rock (Pulaski County). The line was graded from Helena to the Little Rock area prior to the Civil War. Service on the 3½’ line, under the corporate title Arkansas Central Railway, did not start until 1872. The railroad boasted forty miles of track including the Helena to Duncan (Monroe County) main line and a branch from Duncan to Clarendon (Monroe County). The Arkansas Central Railway was a financial failure and was later sold to investors who renamed it the Arkansas Midland. Because the line connected to the Texas and St. Louis at Clarendon, it converted to a three-foot gauge in 1883. Conversion to standard gauge took place in 1887. Three years later, the Arkansas Midland acquired the three-foot-gauge Brinkley, Helena and Indian Bay Railroad, whose twenty-four-mile main line ran from Pine City (Monroe County), on the Arkansas Midland, to Brinkley (Monroe County). The railroad served logging interests and had a five-mile branch elsewhere in the county. Conversion to standard gauge occurred in September 1900. The two lines came into the hands of the interests of the late financier Jay Gould in 1901 and later became branches of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern (Missouri Pacific).
The year 1879 was an active one for narrow gauge construction in Arkansas. The Hot Springs Branch Railroad began service between Malvern (Hot Spring County)—on the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern—and the spa resort of Hot Springs (Garland County) that year. The twenty-one-mile, three-foot-gauge line converted to standard gauge in 1889. Known as the “Diamond Joe,” it enjoyed financial success, a rare commodity among Arkansas narrow gauge carriers, due to spa traffic and high rates. An affiliate of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway purchased the line in July 1901. The line is now a Union Pacific Railroad branch.
The Batesville and Brinkley, the second-longest narrow gauge in Arkansas, began life in 1879 as the Cotton Plant Railroad, whose 3½’ gauge tracks extended eleven miles between Cotton Plant (Woodruff County) and Brinkley. The line converted to three-foot gauge two years later when it built sixty miles of track north from Cotton Plant to Jacksonport (Jackson County) in northeast Arkansas. The railroad had two miles of trackage rights on the Texas and St. Louis near Brinkley. When the Texas and St. Louis converted to standard gauge in 1886, the seventy-one-mile Batesville and Brinkley had little choice but to convert two years later.
The Washington and Hope Railway linked Washington (Hempstead County) to Hope (Hempstead County) on the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern. The nine-mile line began operations in 1879 as a three-foot-gauge wood rail tramway using horses and mule power. Conversion to iron rails and steam locomotive power followed in 1880. A successor railroad planned to build an additional 200 miles, but only an eighteen-mile extension to Nashville (Howard County) took place after conversion to standard gauge in 1882. The line later became the Nashville branch of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern (Missouri Pacific).
The Iron Mountain and Helena, planned as a 140-mile line that would link Helena to the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern at Peach Orchard (Clay County), built eighteen miles of 3½’ track between Barton (Phillips County) and Marianna (Lee County) in 1879. The railroad opted for the 3½’ track because it entered Helena on ten miles of trackage rights of the 3½’ Arkansas Midland. Conversion to standard gauge took place in 1881. The railroad later became part of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern (Missouri Pacific).
The longest Arkansas narrow gauge line was the Texas and St. Louis Railway (T&SL), which opened for business in August 1883. It stretched from Gatesville, Texas, to Bird’s Point, Missouri, including more than 340 miles of Arkansas track. The T&SL entered the state at Texarkana (Miller County), went east to Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), and then headed northwest to Brinkley and Jonesboro (Craighead County). The line was the creation of James W. Paramore, a railroader and cotton merchant, who wanted St. Louis, Missouri, to be the center for the marketing of cotton from Texas and Arkansas. Paramore believed that compressed light bales of cotton were ideally suited for narrow gauge. Samuel W. Fordyce, a Civil War colleague of Paramore, supervised the location and construction of the Arkansas portion. The project was challenging because it required an expensive Arkansas River bridge and bridges over the Red, White, and Ouachita rivers. Receivership followed in December 1883 because of a lack of freight equipment, combined with heavy rains that destroyed roadbed. The receivership lasted until May 1886, when the newly formed St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas assumed control. The new owners converted 419 miles of Arkansas and Missouri track to standard gauge in one day on October 18, 1886. The company entered receivership in 1889 and reorganized as the St. Louis Southwestern Railway, nicknamed the Cotton Belt. Today, it is a Union Pacific Railroad subsidiary that is a major route for freight traffic between Texas and St. Louis.
The ambitiously named Southwest Arkansas and Indian Territory Railway, an affiliate of the Smithton Lumber Company, initiated operations with fifteen miles of track from Smithton (Clark County) to Okolona (Clark County) in September 1885. The three-foot line opened a ten-mile extension between Smithton and Hebron (Cleveland County) in July 1887. The line adopted standard gauge in 1891.
The Pine Bluff, Monroe and New Orleans Railway, under a bewildering series of corporate names, first emerged as a project to link the north bank of the Arkansas River near Little Rock with a point near the confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers. The three-foot-gauge line linked Rob Roy (Jefferson County) to English (Jefferson County) via nineteen miles of track built between 1884 and 1886. The heavily indebted railroad underwent several financial reorganizations. It converted to standard gauge in January 1898 and became a St. Louis Southwestern Railway (Cotton Belt) branch in 1918.
The Paragould and Buffalo Island Railway was a three-foot-gauge lumber line that, in 1888, spanned ten miles between Paragould (Greene County) and Bertig (Greene County) near the Missouri bootheel. It became the Paragould Southeastern in 1893 and converted to standard gauge in October 1894. It reached Blytheville (Mississippi County), thirty-eight miles from Paragould, in January 1907. It later became a branch of the St. Louis Southwestern (Cotton Belt).
Many private narrow gauge railroads served the logging, mining, and quarrying industries of Arkansas. The private carriers, more than twenty-four, were associated with lumber companies and employed many different track gauges. Most private narrow gauge carriers were defunct by World War I owing to the exhaustion of virgin timber lands. Western Arkansas coal-mining companies used narrow gauge lines until the decline of the coal industry in the 1950s. The Arkansas Lime Company at Batesville (Independence County) operated two and a half miles of three-foot-gauge railroad that did not convert to standard gauge until October 2000.
For additional information:
Anderson, Jacob E. 80 Years of Transportation Progress: A History of the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. Tyler, TX: Story-Wright, 1957.
Dew, Lee A., and Lewis Koeppe. “Narrow Gauge Railroads in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 31 (1972): 276–293.
Hilton, George W. American Narrow Gauge Railroads. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.
Hull, Clifton E. Shortline Railroads of Arkansas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.
Saillard, Louis R. “Arkansas’ Unsung Narrow Gauge.” Railfan & Railroad Magazine 20 (September 2001): 6–9.
Last Updated: 09/01/2022