Historic Road Segments
SINCE THE EARLIEST DAYS OF ARKANSAS, the people of the state have struggled to create an effective road system, a challenge still evident today in the miles of orange barrels that line highways across the state. While this construction certainly creates inconveniences for Arkansas commuters, these modern projects pale in relation to the state's earliest road-building efforts. Those efforts, covering a century of road construction history, are recognized in several properties that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
One of the greatest challenges faced by territorial Arkansas was creating an overland route across the desolate swamps of the state's eastern half to connect Memphis and Little Rock. The epic began with the January 31, 1824 congressional authorization of construction and the hiring of a team of surveyors to determine the best route. U.S. Army lieutenant Frederick L. Griffith was appointed superintendent of the Memphis to Little Rock road in January 1826 and began contracting construction of sections that spring.
Griffith's orders were to make a twenty-four-foot-wide road flanked by ditches four feet wide and three feet deep, while all marshes and swamps were to be "causewayed with poles or split timber."1 A year later, his replacement, Lt. Charles Thomas, reported to his superiors in Washington that good progress had been made on the sixty-four-mile segment from the Mississippi to west of the L'Anguille River. Thomas had little good to say about the surveyors' report on the best route, however. "They 'positively aver' after crossing the Saint Francis," the subaltern complained, '"that the road will no where be subject to inundation from any river & c' when they were informed by persons well acquainted with the country & it is also evident from the water marks on the trees that the country is subject to be overflowed in some places as much as eight feet and by the Mississippi & St. Francis Rivers."2 Thomas ultimately altered the route to a less-obstructed path leading to the vital crossing of the White River at present-day Clarendon.
Yet a third lieutenant, Alexander H. Bowman, who took over the project in June 1834, was ordered to concentrate on improving the road between the Mississippi and William Strong's house on the St. Francis River. After Arkansas became a state two years later, Bowman moved on to other duties, and maintenance of the Memphis to Little Rock road became a state, rather than federal, concern. Congress had spent $267,000 of the total $660,000 appropriated for Arkansas's transportation needs during the territorial period on this road. Though maintenance would be an ongoing ordeal, the road was for all intents and purposes completed by 1836.
While opening the state to westward migration, the Memphis to Little Rock road also witnessed great suffering, as it was a route followed by detachments of Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, and Cherokee Indians between 1832 and 1839, when they were forced from their ancestral lands in the southeastern United States into what is now Oklahoma. It is for their association with federal Indian removal policy that several surviving segments of the Memphis to Little Rock road have been listed on the National Register.
The most dramatic section by far is the 1.5-mile segment that slices through the loess soil of Crowley's Ridge in what is now Village Creek State Park in Cross County, northwest of Forrest City. This segment, much of which has been incorporated into a hiking trail, features cuts as deep as thirty feet and may be the finest surviving section of historic roadbed traversed by the Bell detachment of the Cherokee Trail of Tears in 1838. It was listed on the National Register on April 11, 2003. Another section has been incorporated into an active county road, Henard Cemetery Road, at Zent in Monroe County, and was listed on the National Register on May 30, 2003. A third segment of the Memphis to Little Rock road, located on private property near Lonoke, was listed on September 27, 2003. …