Along U.S. Highway 67: Part 3

As we headed southwest on U.S. Highway 67, Paul Austin commented just past Gum Springs that he was able to see parts of the old road to his right. It reminded him of a similar stretch of 67 between Newport and Walnut Ridge in northeast Arkansas where the old road is visible.

Indeed, we passed a former rest area between Gum Springs and Curtis that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

At the bottom of a wooded embankment is a fieldstone retaining wall and a concrete bench. A plaque reads: “Built by National Youth Administration in cooperation with Arkansas State Highway Department 1936.”

Old Highway 67 was the main automobile route in this part of the state from the time of its paving in 1931 until the current highway as built adjacent to it in 1965.

Here’s how the official nomination form submitted for the National Register recounts the history of the road: “The route of U.S. 67 was a natural corridor through Arkansas due to the state’s geography, and its history goes back many centuries. Current U.S. 67 roughly divides Arkansas into two triangles with the Ozarks to the northwest and the Delta with its associated swampland to the southeast. The ease of travel in this corridor was first taken advantage of by the Native Americans, who picked out a route that avoided the hills and swamps, and crossed the many rivers at their easiest fording locations.

“At the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Southwest Trail was developed along the route. It predated the Memphis to Little Rock Road of 1826 and was the earliest land route into Arkansas. The route entered Arkansas at Hix’s Ferry, a community northeast of Pocahontas in Randoph County, proceeded through Little Rock and ended at the Red River in Fulton in Arkansas’ southwest corner.

“The development of the Southwest Trail through Arkansas opened up settlement in the areas along its route. Pioneers came into the state from the northeast bringing their cattle, wagon trains and occasionally slaves with them. All along the route, the settlers selected tracts of bottomland and made clearings in the wilderness. The importance of the Southwest Trail was also recognized by Andrew Jackson, who signed an appropriations bill in 1831 that earmarked $15,000 for the improvement of the trail and also designated it a National Road. The importance of this military road also was proven during the war with Mexico in the 1840s.

“As the construction of railroad lines began in earnest in Arkansas after the Civil War, the railroad line also utilized the same approximate corridor that the military road had used in Clark County. Historic railroad maps of the area show that a railroad line was in the planning stages in 1864 and 1872. The railroad line, which would become the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern in 1874, was completed by 1873. The arrival of the railroad further increased settlement in that part of Clark County, and the towns of Curtis and Gum Springs came into existence by 1895.

“When the Arkansas State Highway System was formed in 1923, U.S. 67 was one of the original highways included. It was also one of the first nine Arkansas highways to become part of the U.S. highway system two years later in 1925. The creation of the state highway system was the most important aspect of the Harrelson Road Law of 1923, and it brought all construction and maintenance activities under the jurisdiction of the Highway Commission.

“However, the section of highway between Curtis and Gum Springs did not become a part of U.S. 67 until the paving was finished in 1931. Prior to 1931, it was designated Arkansas 51. The route of U.S. 67 went northwest through the town of Burtsell before turning northeast at Okolona, proceeding on to Arkadelphia. The old route of U.S. 67 through Okolona is now designated Arkansas 51.

“Rerouting U.S. 67 to proceed northeast through Curtis and Gum Springs once the paving of Arkansas 51 was completed made sense since the route was more direct and shorter in distance. By Dec. 31, 1932, the section of Arkansas 51 between Gurdon and Arkadelphia had been designated U.S. 67. In addition, the original route of U.S. 67, which went through Okolona, was designated Arkansas 51 and remains so today.

“Once this section of U.S. 67 was paved, it quickly became the main highway in that part of Clark County. Since U.S. 67 was a heavily traveled road, facilities were needed to provide goods and services to travelers on the highway. In 1936, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department teamed up with the NYA to construct a small rest area for travelers. … The rest area had a well that provided water for travelers and their cars and a bench to rest on. A stone retaining wall completed the facility.

“The fact that this portion of U.S. 67 was the main route between Little Rock and Texarkana meant that it was also a highly traveled road for both automobile and truck traffic. As a result, this rest area was a popular place for travelers on U.S. 67 beginning in the 1930s. The amount of traffic using U.S. 67 ultimately led to the construction of the current U.S. 67 immediately to the east of the 1931 alignment in 1965. It is likely that once the current highway was built in 1965, the usage of the U.S. 67 rest area declined dramatically.”

After leaving Gurdon, we came upon another National Register property, the bridge over the Little Missouri River as we crossed from Clark County into Nevada County.

The bridge consists of three steel Parker pony truss spans. The Parker truss was developed by C.H. Parker through designs he submitted for patents from 1868-71. The bridge was built in 1931.

Here’s the history that was included in the National Register application: “The area that’s now Clark County became a part of the United States with the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Hunters and trappers constituted the earliest white arrivals in the region, but because of their transient lifestyle it remained largely undeveloped. Farmers arrived, though, and the rich bottomlands of the Ouachita River became increasingly settled.

“One of the these early settlers was Adam Blakely, a blacksmith who arrived on the banks of the Ouachita in 1808. There he constructed his shop, and the town that sprang up around him soon became known as Blakelytown. A boat landing was constructed near the settlement, and an economic and industrial boom ensued. In the 1840s, the citizens of the growing town changed its name to Arkadelphia, and the county seat was moved there in 1842.

“The settlement that’s now Nevada County came as early as 1812. The settlement of the county was very slow until the Iron Mountain Railway came. … Nevada County was organized in accordance with an act of the Arkansas General Assembly, approved March 20, 1871. In 1877, the county seat was moved from Rosston to Prescott.

“Growth in the area increased as Arkadelphia transitioned from a river economy to a railroad economy. In 1873, the Cairo & Fulton Railroad was completed through Clark County. The emerging lumber industry benefited most from this development, and a number of lumber mills were constructed throughout the county. The relative success in the county’s agricultural and timber economies boosted Arkadelphia’s importance as a center of commerce.

“Arkadelphia’s continuing influence was seen when the state began to build highways. The city was a hub for a number of early roads. The first real efforts to develop tourism began in the 1930s. U.S. Highway 67 was reconstructed through Clark County in 1931. Since the highway crossed the Little Missouri River, a bridge had to be built. During the 1930s, this highway linked Davenport, Iowa, and Dallas, greatly increasing motor travel through Clark and Nevada counties. The bridge was built by the Vincennes Bridge Co. of Vincennes, Ind., and was a part of a large contract for six bridges along U.S. 67. It took 225 days to complete them, and they cost $153,415.22.”

The final stop before getting off Highway 67 was Prescott. It began as a railroad town and has seen its population fall from 4,103 residents in the 1980 census to 3,296 residents in the 2010 census.

Steve Teske describes the growth of Prescott for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The Cairo & Fulton railroad line crossed the north end of Nevada County in 1873. Robert Burns moved from Little Rock to the town of Moscow in Nevada County, two miles south of the tracks, and he persuaded the railroad surveyors to plant a town on the line near Moscow. In August of that year, four surveyors, including W.H. Prescott, laid out 24 blocks on each side of the rails. Within two weeks, Burns had constructed a frame storehouse in the incipient city. A second store, a restaurant and a hotel followed. The railroad had established a depot in the city by November.

“On Nov. 24 of the same year, Prescott received a post office — Burns was named postmaster — and was said by later writers to resemble an oil boom town in the speed of its growth. Controversy exists surrounding the name of the town. Most historians assumed that it was named for the surveyor, but others note that railroad executives Thomas Allen and Henry Marquand had a friend of the same name for whom the city might have been named.”

The first church, a Cumberland Presbyterian church, was built in 1875. The first newspaper also was published that year. The first mayor was elected in 1876, and a school district was established in 1877. The first bank opened in 1880.

“Prescott continued to grow and thrive as the 20th century approached,” Teske writes. “Ozan Lumber was established in Prescott in 1891 to harvest the lumber of southwest Arkansas. The Reader Railroad was created to link lumber operations to the Cairo & Fulton line. Various crops, including peaches, were raised in the Prescott area. Icehouses in the city helped to preserve the fruit while it awaited shipping. Hines Trucking, an early transportation company, was established in Prescott in 1936. Because of the jobs in agriculture, timber and the railroads, many African-Americans lived in Prescott. Future congressman and governor Thomas McRae donated money to build schools for the city’s African-American community. Those schools continued to be used until desegregation took place in the second half of the 1960s.”

Potlatch Corp. acquired what had been Ozan Lumber and operated a mill until 2008. The closing of the mill was a major blow to the city.

When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, friends would make trips to Prescott to see the body of Old Mike, the traveling salesman who died there in 1911. No one knew his full name or where he was from. The body was embalmed and available for viewing for more than 60 years. No one ever claimed it.

David Sesser picks up the story for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Mike visited Prescott about once a month to sell pens, paper and thread to homes and businesses near the railroad tracks in the center of town. He would arrive on the southbound 3 p.m. train and stay overnight. The next day, he would board the 3 p.m. train and continue his journey. On April 11, 1911, Mike probably attended an outdoor revival in the city park. The next day, his body was found underneath a tree in the park, where he apparently had died of a heart attack or stroke.

“The body was taken to the Cornish Funeral Home, where it was embalmed. A search of Mike’s belongings did not turn up any identification. What was known about Mike was that he was 40 to 45 years old, spoke English with little accent, was probably Italian, had suffered some type of injury to his right arm and left leg (possibly the effects of a stroke) and had had very elaborate dental work done. The body was placed on display at the funeral home in hopes of someone identifying it. No one came forward to identify or claim the body.

“As the years passed, it became more and more unlikely that Mike would ever be identified. The body turned into somewhat of a tourist attraction, and people traveled from surrounding areas to view the remains. In 1975, the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office asked Cornish Funeral Home to bury the body. On May 12, 1975, a quiet ceremony was held at the DeAnn Cemetery, and Old Mike was put to rest.”

It was time to leave Highway 67 and travel south to Emerson.

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