Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
Union Station
Union Station

UNION STATION, PINE BLUFF, JEFFERSON COUNTY

ELABORATION

The old Union Station at East Fourth Avenue and State Streets in Pine Bluff was the result of a running fight between the city and the railroads for a period of 26 years.  It is also a part of the railroad history of southeast Arkansas.  The first railroad into Pine Bluff was the Little Rock, Pine Bluff and New Orleans Railroad which reached the city in December, 1873.[1]  The L.R., P.B. and N.O. was consolidated with the Mississippi, Ouachita and Red River Railroad and renamed the Texas, Mississippi River and North-Western Railroad.  In 1875 this line was sold to a group of New England capitalists and renamed the Little Rock, Mississippi River and Texas Railway.[2]

The first depot built by the railroad was a small frame building located in the vicinity of State and East Fourth Avenue.  Due to financial difficulties the construction of the line was stopped when it reached Pine Bluff although the original plans were to build it into Little Rock.  The purpose was to offer service from Little Rock to a point on the Mississippi River (first, to Chicot Point and later to Arkansas City).  Thus, the problems with low water on the Arkansas River which frequently interrupted steamboat traffic would be eliminated.

In December, 1879, Colonel Zeb Ward of Little Rock was given a contract to grade a road bed between Pine Bluff and Little Rock.[3]  A controversy arose in the community over the extension of the railroad west on Fourth Avenue to Little Rock.  A number of property owners objected to the use of the street as a right-of-way for the line.  After wrangling for three months an ordinance was passed on March 23, 1880, granting the right-of-way and specifying that the railroad build an adequate depot on the northeast corner of South Common (now East Fourth Avenue) and Fugate (State) Street.[4]  Apparently the depot the L.R., M.R. and T. constructed was a cheap frame building which soon became an eyesore.  The Cotton Belt Railroad had constructed a similar building on the southeast corner of Alabama and East Third Avenue.  The L.R., M.R. & T. was purchased by the Jay Gould interests and became a part of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway Company.

As early as 1891 the Pine Bluff community leaders were interested in building a union depot for the Cotton Belt and Iron Mountain passenger trains.  When W.B. Dodddridge, Cotton Belt general manager, conferred with Superintendent Harry Flanders of the Iron Mountain in Pine Bluff in July, 1891, the Pine Bluff Commercial carried a headline reading, "Was it a Union Depot?"[5]  It was not.

In 1902 the Iron Mountain began serious negotiations for property on which to build a depot.  The company wanted all of South Common for the depot, but this street (about 126 feet wide) had been deeded to the city with the stipulation it would be used for a city hall, a civic institution or park, or the land would revert back to the (James and Yell) heirs.  If South Common was not available, the railroad was considering a plan to divert its tracks south of the old (Harding) Lake and build a depot at Main and Lake (Tenth Avenue).  The arguments for this plan were (1) relieve traffic congestion in the downtown area, (2) give the city an opportunity to lay a drainage sewer system before the land was filled in and (3) result in new buildings being constructed on vacant property in the old lake area.[6]  Apparently this plan was not pursued and it was two years before the depot subject was considered again.

“Hopes of Citizens for Last 25 Years - a New Iron Mountain Depot” was a headline in the Pine Bluff Weekly Graphic on July 14, 1904.  Russell Harding, general Manager of the railroad, had stopped in the city the previous Saturday morning and had met with a committee from the Board of Trade (predecessor of the Chamber of Commerce).[7]  Harding asked the city to donate South Common Street, between State and Alabama, as a site for a new passenger station.  Mayor H. King White suggested that the new depot be a union station and offered to discuss the matter with the Cotton Belt Railroad.[8]

Apparently the railroad did not take any action on the matter and the condition of the old station worsened.  A fire broke out at the depot March 26, 1905, and the Graphic said the fire department brought “condemnation and execration on itself by saving the old Valley depot.”  One of the problems was the railroad stored cotton on the platform designated for use by passengers in violation of its agreement with the city.  Sparks from a passing train ignited the cotton.  “This is the second time in the past few days that a blaze has broken out at the old ‘shack’,” the Graphic said.[9]

The Iron Mountain's lease on the depot property had expired in March, 1905, and Harding had requested the railroad's architect draw up plans and specifications for a depot building, but the company did not ask the city council for a new lease.  The council discussed the matter at several meetings in the spring of 1905 and finally voted on July 3, 1905, to sue the railroad.[10]  City Attorney W.F. Coleman filed suit against the Iron Mountain from the property and asking $5,000 damages due to the company’s failure to act in the matter.[11]

The city’s suit had its desired effect on the railroad when Superintendent W.T. Tyler informed the City Council he would be in Pine Bluff on July 11, 1905, to meet with the board.  At the meeting the Council and Tyler went over the plans and specifications for a new depot.[12]  Tyler met with the Council again on July l3, 1905, and the plans were “practically accepted,” the Graphic said.  The railroad asked for double tracks on Fourth Avenue and agreed to furnish stone to pave the street if the city would put it down.  The Iron Mountain proposed to build a station 35 feet wide and 240 feet long using “stock” brick and Bedford sandstone trim.  The building was to have a slate roof, concrete floor and steam heat.  The exterior walls were to be of “No. 5 best St. Louis brick of the Hydraulic Brick Company’s make.”  The company also proposed to build a freight depot facing Fourth Avenue between Texas and Georgia Streets, 40 feet by 212 feet, two stories high with upstairs offices for railway officials.  Tyler said further the Cotton Belt had agreed to use the Station.[13]

On July 17, 1905, the City Council instructed the city attorney to draw a contract for the depot which specified the Iron Mountain was to receive a 50-year lease on South Common in exchange for building the new station.[14]  The depot ordinance was passed by the council on July 31, 1905.[15]

To protect the city's interest in the new station, the Council employed the architectural firm of Gibbs and Sanders of Little Rock as consultants on the plans for the new depot.[16]  Gibbs attended the Council meeting of August 16, 1905, to discuss the plans, but said he had not received any plans or specifications from the railroad.  Apparently the plans were received the next day as the Graphic reported on August 18, 1905, that Gibbs did not approve of the plans as they were drawn.  He made several suggestions for revising them which were forwarded to the Iron Mountain.[17]  At a conference in St. Louis on September 11, with the representatives of the City of Pine Bluff, the Iron Mountain and the Cotton Belt in attendance the Cotton Belt agreed to use the new depot.[18]

The Iron Mountain delayed construction when the company asked a 30-day extension before beginning construction.  The City Council, the Iron Mountain and the Cotton Belt signed an agreement to build the station on October 30, 1905.  Architect Gibbs was asked by the Council to draw plans for a shed 239 feet long to extend almost to Main Street to protect the passengers from the rain and sun.[19]  E.H. Steininger, a railroad contractor of St. Louis, was awarded the contract to build the Union Station on November 30, 1905.[20]

Construction on the station moved slowly, but was something of a community attraction.  The Weekly Graphic of January 31, 1906, said:  “hundreds of spectators were attracted to the site of the new depot.”  By Saturday, January 27, 1906, the enameled brick wainscoting (on the interior of the building) had been completed.  The Graphic said “mottled” brick would be used for the construction of the remainder of the walls and that the building would be ready for occupancy in two months.[21]

The features of the new station were described as:  (1) a big car shed running from Main Street 540 feet east to protect passengers from sun and heat and (2) a feature ordered in to the contract by Mayor H. King White and the City Council consisting of a smoking room “set apart for gentlemen.”[22]

The Weekly Graphic quoted Mayor White as saying for forty years he had been forced to go outside of waiting rooms to smoke.  The Graphic said further that the brick work was proceeding with the upper walls of' lighter colored bricks than the lower walls.  Foundations for the freight house were practically finished and paving of East Fourth Avenue “progressing nicely.”  Spectators continued to “constantly throng the scene of operations.”[23]

The construction of the depot moved slowly during the spring of 1906 and Frank Phieleckle, Superintendent of construction for the Steininger firm, said the station would probably be ready on May 7.[24]  Iron Mountain Passenger Agent Atwood finally received authorization from the railroad's headquarters to move into the station on May 23, 1906, and trains began stopping there the next day.[25]  The Cotton Belt did not begin using the station for several weeks as the track connecting the two lines was incomplete.

The Union Depot reverted to Pine Bluff when the Missouri Pacific’s franchise with the city expired July 31, 1955.[26]  The railroad continued to use an office in the building for several years as headquarters for the division’s freight agent.  The Railway Express maintained its facility in the depot until the company went out of business.

In recent years the building has been used by government agencies and last year a Farmers’ market was opened under the old passenger shed.  The city is now attempting to develop plans which will assure the preservation of the structure for future generations.



[1] Pine Bluff Weekly Press, January 15, 1874, p. 1.

[2] Press, December 25, 1879, p. 1.

[3] Press, December 18, 1879, p. 1.

[4] Pine Bluff City Council Minutes, March 23, 1880, pp. 181-182.

[5] Pine Bluff Weekly Commercial, July 19, 1891,  p. 3.

[6] Weekly Commercial, April 12, 1902, p. 5.

[7] Pine Bluff Weekly Graphic, July 16, 1904, p. 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, March 27, 1905, p. 1.

[10] Graphic, July 6, 1905, p. 1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Graphic, July 11, 1905, p. 1.

[13] Graphic, July 14, 1905, p. 1.

[14] Graphic, July 18, 1905, p. 1.

[15] Graphic, August 1, 1905, p. 1.

[16] Graphic, August 8, 1905, p. 1.

[17] Graphic, August 17, 1905, p. 1.

[18] Graphic, September 13, 1905, p. 1.

[19] Graphic, October 3, 1905, p. 1.

[20] Graphic, November 2, 1905, p. 1.

[21] Graphic, December 1, 1905, p. 1.

[22] Weekly Graphic, February 3, 1906, p. 1.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Graphic, April 28, 1906, p. 1.

[25] Graphic, May 24, 1906, p. 1.

[26] Commercial, August 13, 1955, p. 1.