FIRST IN A SERIES
The goal is to spend two days exploring west Arkansas as we drive north on U.S. Highway 71 from Texarkana to Fort Smith.
It’s pouring rain as I pull into Texarkana. I’m accompanied by Paul Austin, who recently retired as head of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and David Stricklin of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. These are the same two people who accompanied me a year earlier when we took Arkansas Highway 7 from the Louisiana border to where it ends on the shores of Bull Shoals Lake near the Missouri line.
We check into our hotel on the Arkansas side of the state line and then head to one of my favorite restaurants in Arkansas, the Cattleman’s Steak House. Yes, it’s in Arkansas — barely. It sits on the Arkansas side of State Line Avenue.
When Roy Oliver opened the restaurant more than 50 years ago, State Line was a two-lane road. The restaurant was surrounded by woods. The road is much wider now and the woods are gone, but this place is like stepping back in time. That’s why I like it. It looks like a steak house should look with heavy wood paneling, green chairs and a red carpet.
As far as I know, it’s also the only restaurant in the state where you can order calf fries and turkey fries as an appetizer. If you have to ask what they are, don’t bother ordering them. Paul, David and I get them, of course.
You can also order a quail here on the side with your steak. Like I said, it’s truly old school.
I grew up about halfway between Little Rock and Texarkana. We usually went to Little Rock when we wanted to visit the “big city,” but my parents occasionally took me to Texarkana as a change of pace.
Downtown Texarkana was hopping in those days. Lunch was always at Bryce’s Cafeteria when it was still downtown.
I write a lot about places in Arkansas that are revitalizing their downtowns. There are some efforts along those lines at Texarkana, but it has a long way to go.
There’s potential here — Union Station, the former Grim Hotel, etc.
“Interstate 30 was completed through the area in the early 1960s, and it was a double-edged sword,” Beverly Rowe writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “It brought many new businesses because of increased traffic and more efficient transportation of products to market. On the other hand, it took business away from Texarkana’s downtown. … Since 1968, downtown buildings in Texarkana have deteriorated and businesses have closed. Perhaps the most vibrant businesses are the jails, law offices and bail bondsmen’s shops.
“Smaller towns in Miller County such as Doddridge, Fouke, Garland and Genoa have continued to shrink while Texarkana’s city limits are pushing out on all sides. … Interstate 30 also negatively affected passenger railroad traffic. In past decades, as many as nine railway companies served the area, using Texarkana’s Union Depot as the main station. Today, freight trains provide most of the traffic.”
Union Station was built in 1928-29 by the Union Station Trust, a joint effort of the Missouri Pacific, Cotton Belt, Kansas City Southern and Texas & Pacific railroads. E.M. Tucker, the chief Missouri Pacific architect, used the same style he had used in rebuilding the Little Rock depot following a 1921 fire.
A formal dedication ceremony was held on May 12, 1930. The building straddles the state line with entrances and exits in both states. The station, which needs a lot of work, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.
Another landmark downtown is the U.S. post office and federal building, which also straddles the state line. It serves as a courthouse for the Western District of Arkansas and the Eastern District of Texas. The structure was built in 1933 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2000. The first courthouse at this location served Arkansas and Texas from 1892 until 1911. A courthouse entirely in Texas was built at that point. The Western District of Arkansas continued to use the building on the border until it was torn down in 1930.
The current structure features a base of Texas pink granite and walls of Arkansas limestone.
For years, the Hotel Grim (one of my favorite business names; it’s right up there with the old Gross Mortuary at Hot Springs) housed many of those coming in and out of Texarkana by train.
After spending the night in Texarkana, I picked up a copy of the Texarkana Gazette and was greeted by this headline on the front page: “Hotel Grim developer expects a spring start: Sale expected to close in February.”
Tom Anderson, the managing director of the Cohen-Esrey Development Group, told the newspaper that the project will convert the hotel’s upper floors into more than 90 apartments. Cohen-Esrey will be the general contractor and the building’s property manager. Developer Jim Sari brought on Cohen-Esrey as a partner this summer.
According to the news story: “Certain areas of the building have been identified as having high historical significance and will be restored to their original condition as much as possible. They include the hotel’s lobby, Palm Room ballroom and roof garden. Restoring and relighting the large Hotel Grim sign on the top of the building is also in the budget. … Sari floated several different start times for the project in recent years — at one point, renovations were forecast to be completed by the end of 2018 — only for those dates to come and go without work beginning. But Cohen-Esrey’s involvement seems to have jump-started the process.”
The hotel, which opened in 1925, was named after William Rhoads Grim. He was a banking, timber and railroad magnate.
“Construction cost almost $1 million, and the 250-room hotel was luxuriously appointed in marble and other elegant decor,” the newspaper reported. “The hotel served the many train passengers who in the course of their travels spent a night or longer in Texarkana. Through the years, many Texarkanians visited the Palm Room and roof garden — popular venues for special events — as well as the beauty parlor, barbershop, coffee shop and bookstore that were there.
“A restaurant called Sue and Carol’s Kitchen was the most recent resident of the hotel, which closed in 1990. Since then, only homeless squatters and a group of feral cats have occupied the crumbling building, now widely considered an eyesore.”
Texarkana was a product of the railroads. The Cairo & Fulton Railroad completed its tracks to the Texas border in 1873. The site for a town was established on Dec. 8, 1873, at the point where those tracks met the Texas & Pacific Railroad tracks.
“There’s evidence that the city’s name existed before the city,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Some say that as early as 1860, it was used by the steamboat Texarkana, which traveled the Red River. Others say a supposed medicinal drink called Texarkana Bitters was sold in 1869 by a man named Swindle who ran a general store in Bossier Parish in Louisiana. The most popular version credits a railroad surveyor, Col. Gus Knobel, who was surveying the right of way from Little Rock to southwest Arkansas for the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad in the late 1860s. Knobel later became chief engineer for the Texarkana & Northern Railroad. When Knobel came to the state line between Arkansas and Texas — and believing he was also at or near the Louisiana border — he reportedly wrote the words TEX-ARK-ANA on a board and nailed it to a tree with the statement that ‘this is the name of a town which is to be built here.'”
A meeting was held in December 1873 to formally organize a town on the Texas side. That town was granted a charter in June 1874.
“In 1880, 21 citizens met and petitioned to incorporate Texarkana, Ark.,” Hendricks writes. “Public sentiment was divided. An opposing group gathered 15 names of citizens who opposed organizing a government on the Arkansas side. Texarkana, Ark., was granted a charter on Aug. 10, 1880.”
By 1890, there were more people living on the Arkansas side (3,528) than the Texas side (2,852). The Miller County Courthouse was built at Texarkana in 1893. It was torn down in 1939 to make way for the current courthouse.
“Both cities grew throughout the 1890s, installing streetcar lines, gas works, an electric light plant, an ice factory and sewer lines,” Hendricks writes. “At the time, four newspapers served Texarkana.”
In a history of his family for the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr. wrote: “In 1909, my grandfather, Clyde Eber Palmer, was taking a train from Fort Worth to Florida with his new bride. They got off the train in Texarkana, Ark., to spend the night and while they were there, they decided they liked the town and decided to stay. My grandfather paid $900 for one of several newspapers in Texarkana at the time, the Texarkana Courier, which he renamed the Four States Press. He eventually prevailed against other competitors in the Texarkana market, and he ended up as publisher of the Texarkana Gazette.”
Palmer’s daughter Betty was born at Texarkana in 1911. She attended college at the University of Missouri, where she met Walter E. Hussman Sr. The couple married in 1931. After selling insurance for a time, Hussman Sr. went to work for his father-in-law in the newspaper business. After working in Texarkana for several years, he moved to Hot Springs to serve as publisher of the newspaper there.
By the early 1900s, the Texas side was growing faster than the Arkansas side. Growth on both sides of the line slowed during the Great Depression.
“The city’s economy rebounded with the coming of World War II in the 1940s, primarily because of the creation of the Red River Army Depot and the Lone Star Ammunition Plant,” Hendricks writes. “Along with being an important junction of railroad lines, Texarkana built a strong economy based on timber and minerals such as rockwool (an inorganic substance used for insulation and filtering).”
Sand and gravel were mined in area streams. Cotton, soybeans, rice, corn and pecan trees thrived in the Red River bottoms. With the ability to draw customers from four states (Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma), Texarkana became a regional retail and entertainment center. It also attracted distribution and logistics jobs.
Texarkana had more than 40,000 residents by 1952 with almost 16,000 of those living on the Arkansas side. The Arkansas side reached 20,000 population shortly after the 1960 census. In the 2010 census, the Arkansas side had 29,919 residents.
Texarkana is the county seat of Miller County, which the Arkansas Territorial Legislature created on April 1, 1820. The county was named for a territorial governor, New Hampshire native James Miller.
“At the time, it included most of present-day Miller County and parts of Bowie, Cass, Delta, Fannin, Franklin, Hopkins, Hunt, Lamar, Morris, Red River and Titus counties in Texas,” Rowe writes. “Miller County was part of the disputed Horse’s Head area of northeast Texas and southwest Arkansas, too far north for Mexico to control well and too far west for the United States to control well. While it was technically under Mexican jurisdiction, it truly wasn’t under any country’s control. … The county’s establishment was problematic because Mexico claimed much of east Texas.
“Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, and the first Miller County was abolished two years later. Gov. James Conway said the easiest solution would be to abolish the county and remove its records to a ‘more patriotic’ area — that is, the United States. Until 1874, area settlers found themselves included in Lafayette County.”
Miller County was re-established in 1874 with Texarkana as the county seat.
“From 1874 until 1900, the county’s population boomed, mainly in response to the railroad and the influx of immigrants and settlers,” Rowe writes. “By 1900, the population was 17,558, but it remained a predominantly rural county. It had 1,967 farms in 1900.”
Those of a certain age remember Texarkana for a series of murders in which five people were killed and several others were injured from February until May in 1946.
“Newspapers dubbed them the Texarkana Moonlight Murders,” Hendricks writes. “The victims were couples parked on back roads and lovers’ lanes around town. The only description of the killer was that he wore a plain pillowcase over his head with eyeholes cut out. The case was never solved, and the killing spree ended as suddenly as it began. Three decades after the crime, the murders inspired the 1977 movie ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown.’ It was directed by Charles B. Pierce of Hampton.”