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The Cotton Belt Railroad’s journey through Pine Bluff

In its heyday, the Cotton Belt Railroad ran 712 miles across Arkansas, stopping at its Pine Bluff machine shops where many of its locomotives, freight trains, and passenger cars were built and repaired.

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Image Credit:

In 1875, the St. Louis Southwestern Railway began in Tyler, Texas. James W. Paramore, who led a group of investors that later owned the company, saw this railroad as a way to establish St. Louis as the primary gateway for selling cotton from the southwestern in eastern markets. Thus the St. Louis Southwestern Railway became better known as the Cotton Belt.

In extending his railroad from Texas to St. Louis, Paramore chose his Civil War acquaintance Samuel W. Fordyce to survey the route across Arkansas. In 1881, Fordyce finished his survey, and construction in Arkansas began. By 1883, the completed railroad ran diagonally across the state, entering Arkansas at St. Francis. It traveled through the towns of Piggott, Paragould, Jonesboro, Brinkley, Pine Bluff, Rison, Fordyce, Camden, Lewisville, and Texarkana. The Cotton Belt Machine Shops in Pine Bluff were the railroad's primary repair and construction facility for many of its freight cars, passenger cars, and locomotives.

In the early 1930s, the Cotton Belt operated 712 miles of track in Arkansas. Unfortunately, during the mid to late 1930s, the Great Depression and the rise of the automobile caused a decline in passenger revenue which caused the railroad to close many of its branch lines and subsidiary companies. By the late 1990s, the Cotton Belt closed its machine shop facility in Pine Bluff.

In 1942, the Class L1, 4-8-4 steam locomotive 819 was the last engine built in the Cotton Belt Machine Shops in Pine Bluff. It ran for 12 years until it was replaced by a diesel engine and donated to the city. In 1953, Engine 819 was displayed in Oakland Park and exposed to the everchanging Arkansas weather for the next 25 years until a group of railroad employees asked the city to move the engine to the old machine shop for repairs.

In 1983, a group of volunteers formed the Cotton Belt Historical Society, a non-profit organization, to raise funds for those renovations. Three years later, Engine 819 was again railroad ready. Over the next seven years, Engine 819 ran excursions, drawing train aficionados from all across the state. In 1993, Engine 819 made its last round trip to Tyler, Texas.

Arkansas citizens donated railroad memorabilia that transformed the Engine 819 restoration project into a full-blown museum. The Arkansas Railroad Museum has operated inside the former machine shop since 1986. Today the museum is over 70,000 square feet, housing nearly 20 engines, a full steam wrecker train, a snowplow, three cabooses, a passenger car, a guard car, a mail cart, along with thousands of square feet of museum displays and historical memorabilia.

Many of the museum’s volunteers are retired railroad workers, who are more than happy to explain the history and functions of the engines, cars, equipment, and other memorabilia on display. Unlike many other museums in the state, visitors can touch, climb inside, as well as operate many of the displays at the Arkansas Railroad Museum, making it a delight for both children and adults.

The Arkansas Railroad Museum is located at 1700 Port Road, right off Martha Mitchell Expressway in Pine Bluff. It is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. from Thursdays to Saturdays. Admission is free, but the Cotton Belt Historical Society welcomes donations.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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