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From Marion west

Updated: Jan 10


In recent decades, Marion has been known as the place where Toyota almost built automobile assembly plants twice before deciding on locations in Texas and Mississippi. There’s still an excellent site adjacent to a Union Pacific Railroad Co. intermodal terminal. Five Class One railroads operate in the area, which Southern Business & Development magazine once designated as the best place in the South for an automobile assembly plant.

Like so many other river towns, Marion once had a reputation as an unruly place.

“The ferry landing at Hopefield was known as a haven for drinking halls, gambling, horse racing and robbery,” Ralph Hardin writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “However, the traffic of local inns and rooming houses was indicative of a steady rate of growth. … The railroad later became important to the continued growth of Marion.”

As the Marion School District became more of an attraction for families, the city’s population soared from just 881 in the 1960 census to 12,345 in the 2010 census. During the next 10 years, Marion grew another 11.4 percent to 13,752 in the 2020 census. During that same 10-year period, nearby West Memphis’ population fell 6.6 percent to 24,520.

Marion became the county seat of Crittenden County in 1836 because it was easier to reach in this swampy area of the state than the original county seat of Greenock. The current Crittenden County Courthouse was completed in 1911.

“Marion’s history can be traced back to its settlement by Native American tribes, including the Quapaw,” Hardin writes. “Spanish exploration of the region occurred in the 1500s, and Spanish land grants in the area that’s now Marion were later granted to Francis Gragen and Justo Mecham. Fort Esperanza, established in 1797, was commanded by Augustine Grandee.

“The French government controlled the area for a short time until the Louisiana Purchase added the land to the United States. Grandee remained in the area and settled near Marion Lake, then known as Alligator Lake or Cypress Lake. Marion Lake was a lifeline for the area, which then included Mound City and Hopefield. In 1918, the lake was drained, creating between 600 and 800 acres of farmland. All that remains of the lake is a drainage ditch.”

It’s not clear how the town became known as Marion. When postal service began there in 1829, the name was already being used.

The Military Road southwest of Marion Lake was considered the center of town. Marion was first incorporated on April 19, 1851. A St. Louis land speculator named William Russell promoted settlement in the area, and Robertson Tally became the first mayor in 1851.

Early settlers included the Burgett, Cherry, Fooy and Welch families.

“On the southern edge of the New Madrid Fault zone, the area was rocked by earthquakes in 1811-12 with further significant seismic activity occurring in 1847, 1895 and other occasions,” Hardin writes. “Marion developed a reputation for unruliness like its neighbor across the Mississippi River. Marion’s population rose throughout the 1800s. Prominent families at this time included the Fogleman, Hodges and Pirani clans.

“Some of the businesses in operation at this time included L.D. Rhodes’ livery stable and Samuel Gilbert’s tavern. … The first levees to protect the city were three-foot earthworks erected during the 1850s. They were washed away by floods in 1858-59.”

As in the rest of Arkansas, the Civil War led to the widespread disruption of economic activity. Reconstruction wasn’t much easier.

“When the newly liberated African-American population gained a majority of elected positions in the town and county, there was outrage and disdain,” Hardin writes. “Ku Klux Klan-led terrorism and racial antagonism led to martial law being in place in Marion for a few months in 1869. In 1888, city and county governments were overturned by threats and violence, and African-American leaders who didn’t flee voluntarily were forcibly deported to Memphis.”

Beginning in 1853, two railroads were built in the area. By the 1880s, there was also a major effort in place to improve roads.

“With the advent of automobile use in the early 1900s, state and federal highways were built,” Hardin writes. “U.S. Highways 61 and 63 brought northbound and southbound traffic through the area while U.S. 70 (known as the Broadway of America) was a major east-west thoroughfare. These were largely supplanted by two of the nation’s busiest interstates, Interstate 40 and Interstate 55, which intersect two miles south of Marion.”

Major floods occurred in 1912, 1927, 1937, 1964 and 1987. There also was a series of major fires.

“Following World War II, Marion’s population grew steadily, nearly doubling from 758 in 1940 to 1,431 in 1970,” Hardin writes. “The primary focus remained on agriculture with many residents commuting to Memphis to work. … Marion’s first real attempt to stimulate commercial development began in the 1970s with the building of a shopping center, a new post office, law offices, a dentist’s office and several banks.

“A wave of commercial development beginning in the 1990s brought national chains to Marion as well as auto parts manufacturer Hino and a distribution hub for Family Dollar Stores.”

Crittenden County was named for Robert Crittenden, the first secretary of the Arkansas Territory. It was created in October 1825 and was the 12th Arkansas county. One of the county’s early and most promising settlements was Greenock, which was near the banks of the Mississippi River and was the first county seat.

“Alexander Ferguson, his wife and three sons (William, Horatio and Allen) arrived in the Arkansas Territory in 1820 and settled in present-day Crittenden County near the river,” writes Arkansas historian Mike Polston. “During the next few years, the family established its homestead and began plans for the founding of a town. Horatio Ferguson provided 50 acres for the sum of $1 with John Fooy supplying an additional five acres.

“In 1827, William Ferguson, who was serving as justice of the peace and county sheriff, surveyed the townsite, which was about 900 feet from the banks of the river. Ferguson also served in the Territorial Legislature and first state General Assembly. The town plat provided for streets with a width of about 50 feet enclosing a town square measuring 300 square feet. The name Greenock was chosen to commemorate Alexander Ferguson’s hometown in Scotland. Hopes ran high for the new town when in 1826 it was named as the first Crittenden County seat.”

A post office was established there the next year. But the town’s founders were disappointed by the lack of growth.

“Despite expectations that the town would become an important port on the Mississippi River, Greenock never grew to any substantial size,” Polston writes. “When the Military Road was built out of Memphis in the 1830s, it bypassed Greenock, isolating the town from a major transportation route. An even more severe blow occurred in 1836 when the seat of government was moved to Marion. Once the county seat moved, Horatio Ferguson regained title to most of the land he had donated.”

The post office at Greenock closed in 1846. It was briefly re-established in 1851. The railroad bypassed the town in the 1880s. The only reminder of the town these days is the Grenock Cemetery.

There’s one story about Greenock that may or may not be true.

Polston writes: “In 1831, a young man of 22 traveled up the Mississippi River on a return trip from delivering cargo to New Orleans. Sometime during the trip north, he was robbed of his money and was near destitute. When the boat docked at Greenock, the Ferguson family gave the young man a job cutting wood and a place to stay in their house for a short time. The story of Abraham Lincoln’s brief stay at Greenock is poorly documented and may be no more than local legend. However, it’s documented that Lincoln made such a trip to New Orleans in 1831 and would have passed by the Arkansas town.”

Hopefield was another town on the river that no longer exists. It served as both a railroad terminal and river landing.

Adam Miller writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas that Hopefield was “pivotal in the development of transportation and commerce between Tennessee and Arkansas during the 19th century. But devastation from war, disease, commercial setbacks and the power of the Mississippi River ultimately destroyed Hopefield in the early 20th century.”

Dutch immigrant Benjamin Fooy established an encampment known as Foy’s Point in the area in 1795. He was appointed by the Spanish governor of Louisiana as an agent to Native Americans and was in charge of tariff collections from river traffic.

“Fooy and several family members had also received generous land grants from the Spanish,” Miller writes. “The settlement was renamed Campo de la Esperanza in 1797 and was renamed Hopefield in 1803 after what’s now Arkansas was acquired by the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. Fooy remained at Hopefield after the land acquisition and served as a justice of the peace and U.S. magistrate. He was respected as a businessman and judge, and this reputation boosted the status of Hopefield until Fooy’s death in 1823. After that, Hopefield gained repute as a location for dueling and a rendezvous for gamblers seeking refuge from prosecution across the river in Memphis.”

In 1824, there were congressional appropriations made to construct the Military Road from Memphis to Little Rock. The road was completed by 1831, but it was often flooded in the Hopefield area. Flooding also prevented a railroad line to Little Rock from being completed until well after the Civil War.

“Before large-scale construction of railroads in Arkansas began, factions within the state argued about the geographical distribution of the lines and fought for federal dollars and land grants to implement their visions,” Miller writes. “In 1853, the Cairo & Fulton Railroad received a federal grant to develop a railroad that ran northeast to southwest across Arkansas, terminating at the Red River near Fulton. Implementation of this new railroad eventually shifted more toward Memphis and St. Louis. That benefited Hopefield.

“Efforts to connect the Memphis & Little Rock line to the Cairo & Fulton line began in 1854, but the work was slow due to the cost of constructing lines on embankments that would be safe from floods. A machine shop, rail depot and railroad support services boosted employment and growth, which led to the establishment of the Hopefield post office in 1858.”

The railroad shops at Hopefield were used as a Confederate armory during the Civil War.

“Its facilities were abandoned when Union forces seized Memphis in June 1862,” Miller writes. “Confederate guerrillas went on to sabotage the partially completed Memphis & Little Rock line and harassed Union operations. By February 1863, even the ferry service between Memphis and Hopefield was disrupted, which prompted the Union commanders in Memphis to give orders that Hopefield be burned to counteract the insurgency. The town was peacefully evacuated on Feb. 19, and Hopefield was burned.

“Following the Civil War, Hopefield was rebuilt to accommodate renewed construction of the railroad. Ferry operations across the river to Memphis flourished. The Memphis & Little Rock line was completed in 1871, but growth at Hopefield was stunted with an outbreak of yellow fever that ravaged Memphis beginning in 1873. Quarantine in Hopefield was effective at first, but another epidemic in 1878 decimated the town’s population. Continuous erosion from the flooding Mississippi did little to help matters. In 1887-88, several hundred feet of Hopefield shoreline were swallowed by the river, which necessitated the relocation of buildings and railroad tracks.”

The Kansas, Fort Scott & Memphis and Iron Mountain, St. Lous & Southern railroad lines established terminals and ferry inclines downriver from Hopefield. The first railroad bridge to Memphis was completed in 1892.

“Its high usage tolls compelled other lines to continue using the Hopefield ferry until another railroad bridge was completed in 1916,” Miller writes. “Levee construction in eastern Arkansas had been ongoing for several decades and was largely completed by the 20th century. Protective levees in Crittenden County had been erected back from the Mississippi, which left Hopefield defenseless against floods. The town was eradicated by a severe flood in 1912. After this flood, all railroad freight was transferred over the Frisco bridge (the one built in 1892). The opening of the Harahan bridge in 1916 eliminated demand for ferry services at Hopefield.

“Hopefield remained abandoned. The supporting piers of the Interstate 40 bridge rest atop the location. Several markers placed by a Boy Scout troop once detailed significant events and locations in town history, but years of neglect took their toll. Some building foundations and the railroad embankment remain. When the Mississippi is low, the submerged vessels then visible attest to the traffic that once flowed through the town.

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