Arkansas Railroads: From 1858 Through Today

Arkansas, known for its beautiful, rugged topography and gorgeous rivers, has seen its share of trains since the mid-19th century.

Over the years the state would become home to several railroads, which operated through or within its borders, including four classic, "fallen flags". 

Sadly, abandonments have led to half of the state's rail mileage being removed.  Most was pulled up after the 1970's. 

Much of the cutbacks were branches and secondary corridors serving either agricultural interests or small towns situated at the end of the line. 

One of the most well-known corridors removed was the Rock Island's famous Choctaw Route, which began at Memphis and cut across Arkansas on its way to Tucumcari, New Mexico. 

Nevertheless, Arkansas is still home to some twenty-six different railroads; four Class Is (including Amtrak), one regional, and twenty-one short lines. Along with operating freight lines, the state is also home to several railroad museums and tourist lines.

In any event, the information listed on this page gives a general overview of Arkansas railroads, the state's history with trains, and its current operations. 

A crewman puts away Delta Valley & Southern Railway 45-ton switcher #50 (built new by General Electric in 1954) for the day at the road's small engine house in Wilson, Arkansas during May, 1972. For many years the DV&S operated about 2 miles (Delpro - Elkins) of a former St. Louis-San Francisco Railway branch that originally ran 18 miles from Elkins to Deckerville, Arkansas. Warren Calloway photo.

A Brief History Of Arkansas Railroads

Railroads here have their history dating back to January 10, 1853 when the Memphis & Little Rock chartered by the state of Arkansas.

It first completed a 38-mile line connecting Hopefield (near Memphis) and Madison (the railroad's first train also pulled six bales of cotton).

Eventually, the company would complete its 133-mile main line between its namesake cities by 1871 (it was originally built as a five-foot gauge system).

After numerous bankruptcies the M&LR route eventually was purchased by the Choctaw, Oklahoma, & Gulf Railroad (the Choctaw Route) in 1900 and this company would later become part of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad system (Rock Island).

As the years progressed so did the state's railroad mileage, which quickly surpassed 800 by 1880.

Surrounding State Histories







Classic Railroads To Serve Arkansas

Missouri Pacific, "Route Of The Eagles"

St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, "Ship It On The Frisco!" 

Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific, "Route Of The Rockets"

St. Louis Southwestern Railway (Cotton Belt)

Kansas City Southern, "Route Of The Southern Belle" 

Ashley, Drew & Northern Railway

Louisiana & North West F7A's #47 and #45 have daily road freight #15 near McNeil, Arkansas on September 21, 1983. Doug Kroll photo.

During the railroad industry's golden era the state would be home to several now-classic fallen flag railroads which include Missouri Pacific Railroad; Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad; St. Louis-San Francisco Railway (Frisco); and Kansas City Southern (still operating).

Of these railroads the Missouri Pacific by far had the most trackage in the state and the Union Pacific Railroad today operates nearly half of the state's total route mileage thanks in large part to the MP's heavy concentration in Arkansas. 

Arkansas & Missouri C420's #60, #44, #48, and #62 along with T-6 #14 have southbound freight FSTN at Rudy, Arkansas on September 18, 1992. Doug Kroll photo.

Although the state's railroads have been reduced in number through mergers and acquisitions it is still home to three systems; Union Pacific, BNSF Railway, and Kansas City Southern Railway.

Today, while UP dominates much of the state BNSF has trackage rights on UP between Texas and Memphis and two lines between St. Louis and Springfield, Missouri.

Arkansas's Abandoned Railroads

Arkansas has been hit hard by abandonments since its rail mileage peaked in the 1920's; 2,500 miles have been removed since that time.

Arkansas's rich agricultural resources, notably farming products and timber, led to numerous branch lines crisscrossing the state. 

Every large system to reach Arkansas has witnessed at least a few miles abandoned such as the Missouri Pacific (which blanketed the state), Rock Island, Cotton Belt, and Frisco.

The state's notable losses include part of the Rock Island's fabled "Choctaw Route," which once linked Memphis with the Southwest (via Tucumcari, New Mexico and Southern Pacific) as well as much of the old Ashley, Drew & Northern.

The AD&N was a classic short line that predominantly handled timber products between Monticello and Crossett.  Most of the route was abandoned by owner Georgia Pacific in 1995.

KCS's mainline also runs along Arkansas' western edge and is home to the railroad's steepest grade at Rich Mountain.

As for major yards and facilities, the notable ones all belong to Union Pacific in North Little Rock and Pine Bluff, along with a locomotive repair facility also located in North Little Rock (Downing P. Jenks shop). 

* Arkansas's first railroad was the Memphis & Little Rock to connect Hopefield (along the Mississippi River's west bank from downtown Memphis, Tennessee) with Little Rock on the Arkansas River.   It opened its first segment in July, 1857 when the locomotive "Little Rock" handled six bales of cotton and offered excursions to dignitaries.  However, according to the book, "The Governor's Of Arkansas" (edited by Timothy B. Donovan and Willard B. Gatewood, Jr.) the road's official opening occurred on November 11, 1858 when the first 40 miles to Madison, along the St. Francis River, opened for freight and passenger service.  The M&LR went on to become part of Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific's fabled "Choctaw Route."

For a more in-depth look at Arkansas's rail mileage over the years please refer to the table above.

During the state's heyday it saw a rail network that stretched more than 5,000 miles. However, today that number has fallen to just over 2,700 miles. 

At a loss of 48% of its railroad infrastructure, Arkansas's decline is not unusual as most states experienced similar decreases.  

Arkansas used to be home to several well-known passenger trains including the MoPac's Texas Eagle and KCS's Southern Belle.

Today, however, the state is home to just one through passenger train, Amtrak's continued Texas Eagle, which makes five different stops across the state.  These also include twenty-two different smaller railroads. 

Ashley, Drew & Northern GP10's are seen here with matching 50-foot boxcars at Crossett, Arkansas on October 22, 1988. Warren Calloway photo.

Current Short Lines

Along with the state's one Class II, Missouri & Northern Arkansas Railroad many of its short lines include:

  • Arkansas, Louisiana & Mississippi

  • Arkansas Midland Railroad

  • Arkansas & Missouri Railroad (home of a large fleet of Alco diesel locomotives, this line is definitely worth checking out!)

  • Arkansas Southern Railroad

  • Bauxite & Northern Railway

  • Caddo Valley Railroad

  • Dardanelle & Russellville Railroad

  • Delta Southern Railroad

  • Delta Valley & Southern Railway

  • De Queen & Eastern Railroad

  • East Camden & Highland Railroad

  • El Dorado & Wesson Railway

  • Fordyce & Princeton Railroad

  • Fort Smith Railroad

  • Kiamichi Railroad

  • Little Rock Port Authority Railroad

  • Little Rock & Western Railway,

  • Louisiana & North West Railroad

  • Ouachita Railroad

  • Prescott & Northwestern Railroad

  • Warren & Saline River Railroad

Union Pacific C36-7 #9009 and SD40-2 #3083 lead a long string of boxcars over the former Missouri Pacific in Van Buren, Arkansas in October, 1988. By this date, the UP connected here with the Burlington Northern (formerly the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway). Warren Calloway photo.

Railroad Museums And Attractions

Along with Arkansas's railroads, the state also features a number of excursion lines and museums available to see.

So, if you are either a vacationer interested in something to do or someone with a serious interest in railroads you may want to check them out.

These include the A&M listed above, Arkansas Railroad Museum and Cotton Belt Historical Society, Fort Smith Trolley Museum, Eureka Springs & North Arkansas Railway, and the Frisco Depot Museum.

With everything Arkansas railroads have to offer, from short lines to Class Is, a trip to see the Natural State is well worth it!

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Wes Barris's is simply the best web resource in the study of steam locomotives. 

The amount of information found there is quite staggering; historical backgrounds of wheel arrangements, types used by virtually every railroad, preserved and operational examples, and even those used in other countries (North America and beyond). 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website.  It is a must visit!

Researching Rights-Of-Way

A popular pastime for many is studying and/or exploring abandoned rights-of-way. 

Today, there are tens of thousands of miles scattered throughout the country.  Many were pulled up in the 1970's and 1980's although others were removed long before that. 

If you are researching active or abandoned corridors you might want to check out the United States Geological Survey's (USGS) Historical Topographic Map Explorer

It is an excellent resource with thousands of historic maps on file throughout the country.  Just type in a town or city and click on the timeline of maps at the bottom of the page!