By Luke Carothers
The history of railroad construction has no shortage of stunning and defining feats that can be attributed to our insatiable need to expand and conquer new frontiers. During the latter part of the 19th century, this need came to fruition in a massive expansion of railroads, particularly along the Western frontier. Although the “West” is typically portrayed culturally as a product of places like Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, the western border of the United States also represented the western border of Arkansas in 1880. The first railroad didn’t enter Northwest Arkansas until May of 1881 when the first passenger train arrived in Rogers. Part of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad (Frisco), the proposed line between Monett, Missouri and Fort Smith, Arkansas would further advance the company’s transcontinental dreams. Construction on this new line began in the last months of 1880, progressing rapidly south into Northwest Arkansas.
One month later, in June of 1881, the first train arrived in Fayetteville. It was greeted by throngs of cheering spectators–and even a brass band–at Fayetteville’s Dickson Street Station. For the spectators that day, and for countless others throughout the region, the coming of the railroad represented a new horizon of possibilities. After being devastated by frequent clashes during the American Civil War, Northwest Arkansas lagged behind adjacent regions in terms of its economic and cultural development. Thus, after failed attempts to do so prior, the coming of the Frisco Railroad to Northwest Arkansas generated a shockwave of excitement through the region. This excitement was palpable–after all, estimations were that the line connecting the region to Fort Smith would be finished before the year was out. Railroad and construction officials estimated that trains would be running through Fort Smith and into Texas before the end of 1881.
Despite the significant challenges that stood between Fayetteville and Fort Smith, construction company press releases were confident in this timeline, and, as work began on extending the roadbed south of Fayetteville, crews also began carving out a 1,600-foot tunnel beneath the Ozark divide. Challenges in the tunnel’s construction led to the first delay in the project as the end of 1881 would yield little luck for the crews. South of the Ozark divide and the town of Winslow, the Frisco line would run into another engineering challenge that increased construction costs and led to dangerous working conditions. After tunneling 1,600-feet through the Ozark divide, crews would then have to construct three trestle bridges of significant size. The first of these trestle bridges, which sits about a mile south of the Winslow tunnel, sits 117-feet above the stream below. This massive trestle bridge along with the other two, which are each shorter than the last from North to South, formed a section of railway that sits at an average incline of 113-feet per mile.
Despite predictions that the line would be completed by the end of 1881, challenges with tunnel construction and disease soon took their toll. By the last months of 1881, work was faltering on the tunnel, and a decision had to be made about the continuation of the project. In November 1881, the decision was made to double the workforce for the tunnel and construct a temporary “shoofly” railroad. This temporary zigzag railroad was a unique innovation not necessarily in concept, but in the tremendous skill in which it took to create. This treacherous section of railroad took only a few months to complete, and allowed work to continue south of the tunnel where the three massive trestle bridges were being erected. Although challenges in the tunnel’s construction extended the initial deadline, the construction of this temporary railroad minimized the overall impact.
Despite persistent challenges in tunneling, the temporary railroad meant that work could continue on the vital structures further south. While the tunnel itself posed unique challenges, the ability to adapt work meant that the three massive trestle bridges were finished at nearly the same time as the tunnel. The Frisco line through Northwest Arkansas was open and running services by August of 1882. Although initial predictions failed to account for the challenges in tunnel construction, the ability to adapt and overcome was a large reason for the continuation of construction. With the Frisco line open, Northwest Arkansas entered into an era of prosperity in which the railroad provided a crucial link in expanding industry and commerce.