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Aux Arcs

Northwest Rim Panorama at Mt Magazine SP in Russellville Arkansas

By Luke Carothers

Now home to several Fortune 500 companies like Walmart and JB Hunt, Northwest Arkansas is an expanding metropolitan area that has grown into a vastly important economic hub for the region.  This stands in stark contrast to what the area has been for much of its history.  Part of the Ozarks, Northwest Arkansas sits within the Boston Mountains–a unique geological area consisting of peaks and valleys following a East-West orientation rather than the much more common North-South.  From the time settlers began arriving in the area in the 19th century, infrastructure projects faced challenges from the region’s high peaks, low valleys, and soft limestone rock formations.

The first settlers came to Northwest Arkansas in the 1820s when Arkansas was still a territory.  These settlers hewed a network of trails and primitive roads that afforded some level of mobility, but the first major infrastructure project wasn’t completed until 1858 when the Butterfield Overland Mail Company established a stagecoach route through the area.  Operating for only 3 years before the outbreak of the Civil War, the Butterfield Trail was the longest stagecoach line in history–stretching approximately 2,812 miles with its two major routes connecting in Fort Smith, Arkansas.  This trail provided an essential economic stimulus for the area and towns like Fayetteville and Rogers with its two trails–originating in Memphis and St. Louis–connecting in Fort Smith.  As a result, these towns began to grow, but, after the Civil War began and the trail ceased operation, the area lacked much of the infrastructure to support further growth.  

In the absence of the Butterfield Trail, railroads began speculating to build new lines into this economic diamond in the rough.  The area’s first railroad wasn’t built for nearly two decades after the Civil War until the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad (Frisco) reached Fayetteville in 1881.  This new railroad line was part of a plan to connect the Frisco rail network to Texas–joining another line under construction west of Fort Smith.  However, looming between this plan and its completion was the Boston Mountains.  The distance between the two lines was a mere 55 miles, but construction was complicated by the area’s terrain and geology.  

As a result of both the terrain of the Boston Mountains and congressional prohibitions on building in Native American territory, plans were soon drawn up to carve out a tunnel at Summit Home (now Winslow, AR).  The plan was to build a roughly 1,600 foot long tunnel at an elevation of about 1,700 feet.  Dubbed the “Boston Mountain Tunnel”, construction began in 1881 when workers on either side of the tunnel began removing dirt and rock from the proposed entrances.  While this project proved to be an economic catalyst for the region after the railroad began service, it came at the cost of hundreds of unnamed laborers–many of them being Black or recent immigrants.  Using pneumatic tools, these workers carved out the rock of the Boston Mountains at a rate of 75 feet per week on average.  Adding to the dangers of using pneumatic tools in poorly ventilated spaces, these workers faced outbreaks of smallpox and malaria, which were only exacerbated by the lack of medical services in the remote mountain region.  Representative of the racial tensions that plagued the project, workers who died were segregated into graveyards by race.

The Boston Mountain Tunnel was ultimately completed in less than a year, completing work in July of 1882 and opening for passenger service just a few months later.  With its completion, this once remote region became an economic powerhouse, developing robust industries such as canning, timber, and produce.  In turn, the railroad began buying up valuable land along the railroad and reselling it back to farmers and developers, which led to eager transplants establishing towns throughout the Boston Mountains.

Over the remaining two decades of the 19th century, Northwest Arkansas grew into an economic powerhouse for the region.  The timber industry was bolstered by further railroad expansion and the ability to move materials easily led to burgeoning factories and workshops producing barrel staves, wood shingles, and mine props.  At the same time, Northwest Arkansas’ natural beauty also proved to be a defining economic advantage as numerous small resort towns sprung up to service tourists from the surrounding regions.  Towns like Winslow (home of the Boston Mountain Tunnel) and Eureka Springs developed into thriving resort communities for the wealthy citizens of Fort Smith and Little Rock.  It was during this time that another industry formed in Northwest Arkansas, one that still dominates many parts of the region to this day–poultry.  The first large-scale poultry operation was established along the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad in 1893, and by the 1920s, chicken houses dotted the landscape throughout the region.

As the 20th century progressed, much of the freight traffic moved by train had been replaced by trucks, and the region adapted, constructing highway 71 in 1926.  With this shift from rail to truck shipping, industries such as timber slowly began to dwindle.  However, other industries– such as poultry, recreation, and shipping–continued to expand.  This shift is largely representative of the area’s current economic landscape.  The shift away from moving freight by rail meant that new roads had to be developed as well as new companies to facilitate the transportation of goods.  In addition, this now meant that Northwest Arkansas was a central place for goods moving between economic regions, making it fertile ground for expanding retail operations towards the middle and end of the 20th century.

While Northwest Arkansas was an important economic factor for the surrounding regions throughout the latter half of the 20th century, this influence has expanded astronomically in the last four decades.  Today, Northwest Arkansas is a powerhouse, housing massive companies–Walmart, Tyson Foods, Simmons Foods, J.B. Hunt Transport Services, and PAM Transportation Services among others–that play a significant role in shaping not just the region’s economic future, but the entire nation’s.  And, despite its falling out of favor, the Arkansas-Missouri Railroad line between Monett and Fort Smith still operates, servicing primarily the poultry and gravel industries and running a few passenger lines.  While this relatively short stretch of track is no longer as vital, you can still ride along its rails.  Along this line you can see the remnants of the communities, farms, towns, and homes that now lie deserted.  Like the molted skin of some animal that has outgrown it, many of these structures are succumbing to the passing of time.  As the region continues to assert itself on a national and even global stage, these towns serve as a reminder of the wide ranging impact of the built environment and the engineering profession.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.