Sunday, October 24, 2010

Artifacts Anonymous

My name is Luke Jones, and I'm an artifactaholic. And I have no plans to change! HA!

Today's artifact is still the M&NA railroad. We previously discussed the sad shape of Pangburn's rail center. I found an archival photograph of the same building:

This was taken in 1921, still a good 28 or so years before the railroad's ultimate demise. Apparently the M&NA wasn't exactly the world's most favorite railroad. To many, the letters more accurately stood for "May Never Arrive," but if you had to get to Pangburn or Letona or one of those other little burgs you had to grit your teeth and take it.

I read an account (from the White County Historical Society) where a man remembered the wood stove on his passenger car running out of kindle and some brave or crazy men jumped out of the car and tore some boards right off of the depot.

But when M&NA engines broke down too much, oftentimes they would end up in Kensett. Yes, the little hamlet called Kensett was a major intersection for M&NA trains back in its day. It's a sad place now. A man who grew up there told me the other day, "Wal-Mart killed this town."

But the M&NA had packed up and left probably before Sam Walton had been kicked out of Newport. So the rail ruins of the M&NA have had a long time to become part of the scenery. The same man who dictated Kensett's death showed me these:

On the edge of someone's property on a back road in Kensett are these unusual concrete ruts. I was absolutely delighted to learn that they are the ruins of the M&NA locomotive shop! There may have been a complete structure built over these ruts at one point but now the concrete structures poking through the ground are all we have.

The "teeth" on the edges of the trenches once held cross ties between them (a few are left). Locomotives would roll over the pit and workers could slide under there and make repairs. This must have been a major stop for the M&NA, because there are two more bays:

Across from the bays are some more ruinous bits that are impossible to identify:

I find it amusing that the roadbed leads right up to the ruins of an old barn, which in turn doesn't seem to be used for its original purpose. The discarded farming equipment along the repair bays leads me to believe that prosperity hasn't been seen in this part of Kensett for a long, long time.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Derelict depot

There's a certain amount of pleasure in finding a town's old train station in an odd place. Many of the smaller towns in Arkansas were served by the Missouri & North Arkansas line, an up-and-coming railroad that had a depot in Searcy in its day.

Unfortunately it made the mistake of following the Mississippi River instead of going to Little Rock. A man who's studied the rise and fall of the line told me that if they had gone to Little Rock, they might still be around today.

But they aren't. Their thinking was if they followed the might Mississip, they would get all of the commerce along the way. But commerce along the river died halfway through the 20th century, and so did the M&NA.

The M&NA literally created some towns, including Pangburn. This little burg lives right at the border of White County and had its heyday with the railroad. The old commercial sector is mostly gone now, just one single block of 19th and 20th century brick buildings left.

And the old depot...well, see for yourself.

Actually it's fairly rare that a small town has been able to keep its depot at all. Most tiny towns like Kensett, Judsonia, McRae and Garner all had depots at one point but they were sacrificed for various reasons. This one, though, managed to tough it out.

It has been a private residence for many years and the other side of the building is still covered in dismal vinyl siding and is barely recognizable as a train station. But the owners recently peeled the siding off on this side and the beautiful Italianate style has come through once again. It's still in pretty hideous shape, though.

I've heard there are plans to restore the building, but I never hold my breath for this type of thing. I hope, I hope, I hope, but we'll see. In the meantime, enjoy it while it lasts.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

10 things to do in Searcy on 10/10/1910

The last time we had a 10/10/10 was 100 years ago, and it will be 100 years until we have another one. So let's celebrate this exceptional decimal by looking back at the last time we had it.

A man recently gave me some .pdf copies of vintage Searcy maps, and one dates from 1908, so much of my information is coming from there. Searcy was still a pretty small town at that time, boasting 3,500 people. In fact in those days it was actually competing with Beebe, Kensett, Bald Knob and Judsonia, all of which had better access to the railroad than Searcy. So this little town had to struggle to survive with its better-accessed brethren.

Funny how things work out, isn't it?

Anyway, let's go.

10. Have a drink
And I'm not talking about Coca-Cola, although even in 1910 that would be possible. White County was very much wet right up until about 1957 when a bartender in Bald Knob shot a guy for saying something to his wife. Or so the story goes. But the point is, in 1910, any of those many, many groceries around the court square wouldn't have blinked twice if you asked for a bottle of whiskey. But no longer. In fact, try to find a grocery near a courthouse square in any town in this country. Let me know. I'll just wait here.

9. Get tailored

Take a stroll down Spring Street in 1910 and just across from the Gentry Baptist Church (approximately where the First Baptist Church is today) you will find a tailor. Pop in, get measured and leave with a suit that's made exactly to your proportions.

8. Enjoy residential Race Street
It may be hard to believe, but the part of Race Street leading into downtown was once a shady residential avenue. Before Sexton's, Walgreen's, Mi Ranchito, Lazercade or any of that business popped up, there were large, beautiful houses and stately oak trees. Chances are, you would know who lived in each and every house. By the late 1950s, a man named Oran Vaughan built a hardware store across from the famous Black House (now the Searcy Art Gallery) and the Rodgers house. Feeling scandalized by the rude brick building, the Rodgers built a person-high wall along the front of their property so they wouldn't have to look at the Vaughan store. The Rodgers house was bulldozed in the early 2000s. The Vaughan store still stands.

7. Watch the new bank being built
There were at least a couple of different banks in Searcy in 1910, but the one that still stands to this day is on the corner of Spruce and Arch. After 100 years, it's not a bank anymore, but instead holds some offices. Regions bought out these bank at some point. The plaque on the side of the building labels it, "Searcy Bank: 1905." However, in 1908, the map labels this area as "Ruins of Fire." So it must have been rebuilt after that fire in its present form. On this day in 1910, you might be able to stop by and ask the construction workers what the new building will look like.

6. Walk to the city limits

I mention this simply because it was very, very easy to do in 1910. Nowadays, Searcy has sprawled right up to Highway 67, and even sprawls a little bit past there. Back then, the part of Race Street that we consider the "business district" was just wilderness, possibly farmland and most likely unpaved. Essentially, the town ended right around where Harding University is now. So you could walk there and to the other end of the town in just a few hours. But watch out for horse poop!

5. Check out the shooting gallery

This raises a lot of questions. Just west of the court house, in a building that I believe today holds the Toy Box, is labeled "Shooting Gallery." Was this like the typical carnival game where you fire at mechanical moving targets with a toy gun? Or did you actually fire a real gun? Who knows! All I know is I want to go to then and there.

4. Sneak into Galloway's natatorium

Harding University had its early years in the town of Morrilton, Arkansas. But even in 1910 it hadn't started yet, and the prestigious woman's school known as Galloway was in its place. A couple of Harding's modern buildings were used by Galloway before Mr. Armstrong got there. In 1910, the school had just a few buildings. What came to be known as Godden Hall (razed in the 1950s) was the main building, and just west of that was a business department and dormitory (now known as Pattie Cobb Hall). A short distance southeast was a laundry and heating plant, just along the railroad. South of the dorm was a natatorium. But wait, what the heck is a natatorium?
It's an indoor swimming pool. I think you know what to do.

3. Ride a train to Little Rock
This is probably the first thing I would do after walking around the town for a while. Searcy had a few different railroad depots in those days, and most of them had to transfer to other towns (like Kensett or Bald Knob) to get to bigger cities. The trip to Little Rock, to me, would be more than just visiting a big city. It would be a chance for me to see all of the struggling small towns in their heydays, living on the blood of the railroad. I wouldn't care if the trip took three hours (or maybe more). It would all be worth it. So let's go.

2. Watch some vaudeville
In the place where we can find the still-in-business Rialto Theater today was labeled in 1908 simply, "theatre." By 1910 there wasn't much in the way of film to watch, so I have to assume that what went on in the Searcy theatre was either drama or vaudeville. I see enough drama as it is, so I would definitely elect vaudeville in this case. By the way, next door to the theatre is a place called "Searcy News," and then down from there is a marble works and a bottle works. Times sure have changed, eh?

1. Visit Sulphur Springs Park

Would you believe that in Searcy's earlier days, people came from all over to visit Spring Park? Yeah, I know! But it's true. In those days, Spring Park was a healing mecca. The park is named for its white sulphur spring, which folks would bathe in to heal various ailments. The water contained sulphur, chalybeate and alum. Apparently, it both smelled and tasted terrible. The railroad once terminated right at the entrance of the park, allowing visitors to step right off the train and into Searcy's greatest resort.
In 1910 there were still a number of hotels around the park, including the popular Gill House, an institution that eventually changed into the Mayfair Hotel, a building that still stands. Searcy's resort days were over around the time that Harding rolled into town, but 100 years ago, it was like the Disneyworld of White County.

And that's the list! Depending on when you read this, I hope you have a good 10/10/10, but if you missed it, you'll have to wait another 100 years. Maybe by then we'll have those flying cars and all? Yeah, probably not.