Conway when... the railroad shaped the city's landscape

Originally published: April 11, 2015 in the Log Cabin Democrat | Link to article

To some in Conway, the railroad that passes through downtown would seem to be simply a blip on the city’s map. But, to others, the railroad represents much more – the birth of the Conway residents and passersby see today.

In fact, Jimmy Bryant, director of the University of Central Arkansas Archives, says that Conway would be virtually nothing without the passenger trains that once stopped in the city.

“Conway owes its existence to the railroad,” he said. “That’s how important it has been…The first [passenger] schedule for the Little Rock and Fort Smith railroad that had Conway on it was November of 1870.” At that time, Conway’s population was a fraction of the size it is today. The city had also not yet been officially named Conway.

Conway Station, the name of the town at the time, came about as a result of chief railroad engineer Asa P. Robinson’s deed of a one-square-mile tract of land. Towns along railroad routes at that time opted for the addition of “Station” to their identity to signify a stop.

“Those places that had railway service grew quickly as a rule and those that didn’t just didn’t,” Bryant said. “If you could imagine the railroad not coming here, but going 20 miles further east, that would have been where the growth would have been as opposed to here.”

Long before Simon Park and the creation of Toad Suck Daze downtown, a train depot in that general area of Conway would allow travelers to stop in the city in the late 1800s. That form of transportation, Bryant said, set the foundation for economic and population growth at a time when trains were the main and most effective form of travel.

Bryant said the railroad has been beneficial to Conway for several reasons. “First of all, it did provide passenger service and freight service to this place,” he said. “Where the railroad goes through, it’s very important because you’re talking about the days before automobiles, the days before busses and the days before 18-wheelers.”

Bryant said that concept is often unimaginable for individuals who never experienced such a lifestyle.

“They see the railroad and they stop at a railroad crossing and they have to wait for one of these coal trains to pass, but they don’t realize that it was a railroad that built this place,” he said. “The first engines were small engines. They weighed 25 to 27 tons apiece but they could pull 800 tons, and that’s a lot of lumber or a lot of material or goods to be sold in stores.”

In addition to downtown growth, Bryant said one could argue that UCA would not exist without the railroad, given the institution’s backstory.

“In 1907, Arkansas passed Act 317 and created the Arkansas State Normal School (now UCA),” he said. “Now the act never stipulated where the Arkansas State Normal School would be built. It just said it needed to be built and appointed a board of directors to build in a town that offered the best inducements – inducements being in the form of money and land.”

Five towns wanted the “The Normal” at that time – Conway, Fort Smith, Russellville, Benton and Quitman.

Conway won out by inching up its original $50,000 bid by $1,753 after a female train passenger overheard a conversation about the bids.

“When she got back to Conway, she went to see George Donaghey,” Bryant said. “He was leading the fundraising efforts to raise money for the Arkansas State Normal School... So, what he did was he got a brass band together and a team of horses and a wagon and put the band in the wagon. He drove around the town making all the noise he possibly could to bring to everyone’s attention that we’ve got to raise some more money.”

Passenger trains were deemed no longer necessary in the mid-20th century, and March 28, 1960, signaled the end of the service in Conway. A few years later, the city looked into the possibility of purchasing the former train depot, and by 1972 a price of $185,000 was set for the property.

After becoming a city-owned property, the question of whether to raze the passenger depot was soon at the forefront of public discussion.

According to Faulkner County: Its Land and People, published by the Faulkner County Historical Society, a 1974 general election resulted in a fairly tightly contested race in which 2,030 residents voted against preserving the train station, with 1,765 in favor.

Numerous letters to the Log Cabin Democrat also appeared in the newspaper at the time representing both sides of the discussion.

“The depot itself had kind of outlived its usefulness in regard to the train situation, but the Faulkner County Historical Society and other county historical societies in Arkansas viewed train depots as something that was an important part of the culture,” Bryant said. “It was a somewhat acrimonious affair... Some people think that was the most divisive affair that we’ve experienced in quite some time in this town.”

Outside of the railroad’s impact on downtown Conway, a train tunnel on the north side of Conway was built in the early 1900s to lower the grade in that area, with help from laborers from the Arkansas prison system.

Bryant said several convicts died during the construction and were reportedly buried at the site.

Postal workers at the time also worked on “rolling post offices,” allowing them to sort mail while traveling to a destination.

Bryant said he wishes Conway still had passenger service, and that a route to Little Rock could greatly alleviate traffic issues. “Trains can move hundreds of people, and fairly quickly, too,” he said.

For more information about the history of the railroad industry in Conway, visit faulknerhistory.com or take a trip to the Faulkner County Museum.