Blame it on the train: Tourism economy due to railroad
Story by: Tammy Curtis, Managing Editor for Areawide Media
When most people think of trains, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the nuisance of having to stop for them to pass. While this can be annoying, few stop to think of the importance trains have played in our local economy for over 125 years. Railroad history in the United States is nearly as old as the country itself, dating back to the mid-1820s. Without the railroads the nation would have never prospered and grew as quickly. As a faster way to move people and products the “Golden Age” of railroading lasted from the 1880s to the 1920s before other modes of transportation became more desirable for transportation. Railroads faced their toughest adversity during the 1960s and 1970s when they lost market share and many railroad companies were either purchased by stronger ones or simply went bankrupt. After the industry was deregulated in 1980, it began to make a comeback and today is seeing a renaissance. The railroad is solely responsible for the creation of small towns all across the nation, Hardy and Mammoth Spring are no exceptions.
While tourism is the major industry in the area, due to the Spring River and its many outdoor sporting and relaxation opportunities, the reason the river began to draw visitors as early as the 1900s was because of that same railroad we often think of as a nuisance. In fact, the city of Hardy, which was established in 1883, was the result of a railroad camp. The camp continued to grow and in 1867, when the Arkansas General Assembly gave railroads a healthy incentive of $10,000 per mile of track they laid, railway construction boomed. It eventually connected larger cities from Kansas City to Memphis, with routes through Sharp and Fulton Counties by the Kansas City, Springfield and Memphis Railroad. Hardy was named for railroad contractor James A. Hardy of Batesville. The town was developed on 600 acres of land by early settler Walker Clayton in 1883 to service the needs of travelers. Residents wanted to name the town Forty Islands after a nearby creek, but the U.S. Post Office insisted on Hardy because that designation was used to deliver mail to railroad workers in the area.
Visitors from Memphis began to ride the train through Hardy and the scenic beauty of the river soon became common knowledge to Memphians and their family and friends who also made their way to the small town as it continued to grow. In 1908, Memphis physician George Gillespie Buford and his wife were temporarily stranded in Hardy when their train experienced a mechanical failure. The couple climbed Wahpeton Hill on the south bank of the Spring River and were instantly taken with the beauty. In 1909, the Bufords purchased fifty acres on Wahpeton, where they built a summer cottage. As Buford continued to purchase land by 1912, 10 summer cottages were built for summer visitors and the tourist industry got its first real start. Family of Buford still live in the home on Wahpeton Hill, which has been rebuilt after a fire many years ago. The cabins are still rented during the summer to church and other groups.
In 1932, a second resort was opened by L.L. Ward, from Blyethville, as well as several youth and scout camps being established by various Memphis youth groups. The camps too have a long history in the area, including Girl Scout Camp Kiwani, which was established in 1920; Miramichee was built by the YWCA in 1916 and the Boy Scouts constructed Kia Kima in 1916. In fact, this year Kia Kima will be holding a 100 year anniversary as the camp has been remodeled and updated and still accommodates campers from churches, and other organization. In addition to the railroad, bus service also connected Hardy to the rest of the world.
The huge growth in tourism spawned by the resorts and camps led to rapid economic growth in the area. By 1920, two blocks of Main Street were filled with several businesses, including a bank, two cafés, two drug stores, a Ford automobile dealership and a grocery. According to Encylopedia of Arkansas, drugstore-owner William Johnston, tirelessly promoted Hardy as a place where city dwellers could find relaxation. In an interview with a Memphis Press-Scimitar reporter, Johnston boasted that Hardy had the “finest fishing in the world….” Although most residents welcomed tourists, some townspeople found it difficult to adjust as the average population increased by thousands during the summer months. In 1935, café owner Tennie Meeker exclaimed: “You take a big trainload of people and dump them down suddenly in a small town like Hardy, and it nearly works everybody to death.”
As the twentieth century progressed, those who typically rode the train to the area, began instead to rely on automobiles. After road construction in the 1950s, many began to look for weekend getaways in the area. With a well established tourism industry, developer John Cooper began the construction of retirement homes and founding the city of Cherokee Village, which only further promoted tourism industry in the area. In 1968, the Arkansaw Traveller Folk Theater was established in Hardy to preserve the culture of the Ozarks. The railroad depot eventually closed in the 1970s and with its closure came Main Street businesses, who relocated. After the great flood of 1982, even more businesses relocated, and a few years later the business owners in Hardy began to open specialty shops such as those containing crafts and antiques, adding even more attraction to the area and helping the city remain a popular tourist destination.
Railroads today would likely be very different if it wasn’t for the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, which was proposed by Harley Staggers of West Virginia that the railroad industry was able to regain its footing. The bill allowed railroads to be deregulated and to more freely set their own freight rates and abandon unprofitable rail lines. Before this time, railroads had been mostly left for dead as an outdated mode of transportation that should go the way of the stagecoach. The 1990s saw a continued trend of mergers with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway disappearing into the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway system when it merged with the Burlington Northern in 1995.
The first decade of the 21st century continued to see a railroad revival as freight has poured so heavily onto the rails that the industry is running out of capacity. Hardy is currently served by the BNSF Railway. Formerly, the railroad through Hardy was part of the Frisco Railway, which had about 5,000 miles of trackage, In 1980, the much larger Burlington Northern acquired the Frisco and integrated it into its own system.
The Mammoth Spring State Park has also realized the important economic impact the railroad had on the area and has a restored caboose and train depot on its grounds to allow visitors an opportunity to view the way life used to be in the area on the railroad.
So next time you stop and wait for a train to cross, remember, it is because of these trains and the important job they do in transporting goods, that our local economy continues to grow. And it is all because of a train.