Railroads


The two railroads built across northern Arkansas were the Missouri & North Arkansas RR and the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway.

The first railroad into northwest Arkansas was completed to Eureka Springs, Arkansas in 1882. Passenger service to Harrison was started in 1903. This railroad was called the M.N.A., short for Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad Co. It was built on through to Helena, Arkansas in 1909.

At the same time another railroad line was being built about parallel with the M.N.A. but it was just a little north of it across northern Arkansas. It was called the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railway. This railway was completed from Carthage, MO to Batesville, AR in 1906, which took five years to build at a cost of ten million dollars. Railway completion from Mt. Olive to Buffalo, Arkansas was on July 3, 1903 and completion from Buffalo to Cotter was on September 1, 1903. The first passenger train to arrive in Cotter was on September 2, 1903. The building of this railroad across the Cedar Grove Community gave it a big lift. Everything was shipped in and out by railroad instead of being hauled from Springfield, MO by wagon and team. Also at the same time part of the incoming and outgoing freight was brought in by steamboat on the White River and hauled into this section by wagon from different landings near Cotter, Arkansas. With freight starting to be hauled to Cotter by rail it just about put the steamboat out of business. Freight still had to be hauled by wagon from Harrison and Cotter until the railroad was completed to Yellville on August 22, 1904.The railroad was completed from Yellville to Bergman on December 31, 1904 at the same time it was coming in from the north. Railway completion from Carthage, MO to Aurora, MO July 1, 1904, from Aurora to Reed Springs, MO December 31, 1904, from Reed Springs to Bergman, Arkansas January 1, 1906. The first through train rolled over the railroad January 2, 1906.

There were different work gangs working all along the line. The gang that did the most work through this community were Austrians from Austria. I think an Italian gang did most of the rail work around Flippin. There were also other work gangs along the line. I was told a group of Chinese worked in and around Bergman. But let me get back to this section. Some of the local men worked with the Austrians and the foremen were Americans. Mr. W.J. Waters was the foreman over the blasting crew. When this section was finished he bought a farm just west of Comal and lived the remainder of his life here. The Austrians had to have an interpreter for them. My father worked as a blacksmith helper under an old Austrian and said the Austrian had learned a lot of English. My father had also learned some of his language so they got along pretty well. Father said he was the best blacksmith he ever saw. He could make about anything that could be made out of steel. This old Austrian could make a knife, temper and sharpen it where you could get a good shave with it.

Father said there was a cave right where the railroad was to go through. He said they dug it out with picks and shovels back to where it would be about the center of the hill. He told me how many kegs of black powder they put in it but I have forgotten. When they set it off it raised the whole hill up and that was the only shot they put off. They just had to clean out the rock and dirt. Later when they had gotten this far laying the railroad track they poured the cement piers to put the bridge on. One span of the bridge had been put in place and they had finished laying the tracks on it so the second span could be put in place when the work train let a carload of rails get away from them at Summit. They were switching it on the west end of the side track and back then they didn't have air brakes on the cars and a brakeman had to put the brakes on by hand. Some way he couldn't get the brakes on and the car began to roll. It was all downhill all the way from Summit to past George's Creek and the farther the car came the faster it rolled and it was heavily loaded which made it go faster once it started down the hill. There were two men at George's Creek trestle and they said it took both of them to see the speeding car, one to say here it comes and the other to say there it goes. I guess it was moving on. It was the fastest moving thing they had ever seen. The foremen was standing at the east end of the bridge when he saw it coming. He only had time to throw a crosstie on the tracks. Father was working in the cut at the time and said it just made splinters out of the tie. There were a number of men working out on the bridge; some jumped out into the creek and some were knocked off by it. The car went off into the creek. Some of the men were killed but I have forgotten how many.

The work gangs camped in tents and shacks all along where they worked. I have seen a lot of their ovens they built out of rock to do their baking in. My oldest brother Joe was a boy at the time and he liked to go and help the cooks so he could eat some of their good bread and other things they made. They would buy a lot of things they ate from the farmers like hog meat, chickens, milk, butter, eggs and vegetables. One time they bought a fat pig that would weigh about one hundred fifty or two hundred pounds from father because they were having some kind of celebration. They cleaned it and got it all ready and ran a pole through it and cooked it over the fire, turning it over and over. My brother got in on that and said it was the best he had ever eaten. Mother said one thing you couldn't sell them was a black chicken. Someone somewhere else had killed and sold them some buzzards. Whenever they would come to our house to buy a chicken if they saw a black one they would say "No good chicken, no good chicken."

The Austrians got to killing fish in Crooked Creek with the black powder they were using to blast out rock with. They would slip a little of it out and take it to their camps. It was a violation of the law to kill fish that way. My Uncle Jasper Burleson was deputy sheriff and had warned them not to do this but one day he caught them right in the act. There were about six of them so he arrested them and was taking them to put them in jail at Yellville. He got up to my Grandfather Burleson's place with them and decided that he had better take one of them back down to their camp near where Turkey was later located to tell them where he was taking them. Uncle Jasper appointed some other deputies to help him, my father being one of them. It was a big mistake going to their camp. They all came out of their tents and ganged up around them. None of them could speak very little English to do any good and they were about to mob my uncle. Father said he never had heard as much jabbering in all of his life. They couldn't make them understand what happened. He was trying to back them off with his gun and he looked around and saw one come out of his tent with his gun aimed right at Uncle Jasper. So Father turned around and brought his gun down on him telling him to drop it but he wouldn't. So he pulled the hammer back telling him again to drop it and when he wouldn't he took his thumb off of the hammer and put his finger on the trigger and was fixing to pull it when the interpreter arrived just in the nick of time. The interpreter told him to drop his gun and he did. He didn't know what my father was saying. Dad said that was the nearest he ever came to shooting a man in his life and was glad it turned out like it did.

The railroad was built mostly by man power. They didn't have any machinery like we have today. It was built by hand with picks, shovels, wheel barrows, slips and two-wheel carts pulled by horses and mules. Black powder was used to blast through the cuts and tunnels and also off the side of hills. There is a tunnel between Comal and Pyatt. The railroad didn't operate long as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway as it was acquired by the Missouri Pacific Railroad Company. The line from Batesville, Arkansas to Carthage, MO was known as the White River Division. In about 1982 it merged with the Union Pacific Railroad Company and at this present time of 1987 it has become the Union Pacific Railroad Company. It is hauling more freight today than it has ever hauled in it's history. At the present time it is a very good railroad. It has heavy, one hundred thirty three pound ribbon rails, good ties, a good road bed and has been rebuilt about all new the past five or six years.

When the Missouri and North Arkansas RR was first built its grade and bridges weren't as good as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway. Completion through to Helena, Arkansas came a little later in 1909. It closed down a number of times for short periods because of a strike and other reasons. Closing of through service came in September 1946 and the line was taken up from the south to Harrison but the railroad continued to operate from Harrison to Seligman, Missouri. I remember them putting on a diesel unit called the "Blue Goose" to haul the mail, express and passengers. The end of this service came to these parts on May 5, 1960 when it closed for good. I just wonder if it had built a better railroad and chose to have gone to Little Rock instead of Helena the story might have been different.

At first the trains had U.S. Mail, baggage, express car all had I or 2 passenger cars. Later another car for baggage, express and a separate car for the U.S. Mail were added. The crew consisted of an engineer, fireman, two U.S. Mail clerks, one baggage man, conductor, brakeman, porter, and news butch who sold newspapers, magazines, candy and many other articles on the train and at the stations while the train was stopped.

When I was a boy in the 1920's a lot of people would gather at Turkey to see the two passenger trains run and to get their mail and groceries. Both trains would run sometime around the noon hour. I remember at one time they would meet at Comal, one would go on the switch while the other passed. Sometime in the,1930's two fast passenger trains were added. I remember it had on the back an observation or parlor car with a dining car. It only made four stops from Carthage, Missouri to Newport, Arkansas, a distance of 275 miles. All of the other trains went on the switch for it. The regular passenger train would stop at every station and most of the flagstops. I don't remember how long the two fast passenger trains operated along with the two regular passenger trains. In 1959 the U.S. Mail was taken off the train and hauled by truck and bus. The express and small freight was hauled by truck. Due to lack of passengers riding the train this service was discontinued in 1960. When the passenger train was cut out there was no more use for the depot at Turkey and it was closed. Comal had already been closed. This led to the closing of about all of the depots along the White River Division.

There were section gangs that worked on the railroad when I was a boy. The section gang for this part of the tracks was located at Summit and started a little east of the Yellville Depot, which was located in Summit, going through this community ending somewhere east of Pyatt. They took care of the tracks and switches in Summit and also at Turkey and Comal. A section house that the foreman lived in furnished by the railroad and a tool house were located in the west edge of Summit.

In the 1920's and 30's there was a gang called the scaling gang that lived in bunk cars. A water and supplies car, about three bunk cars and a kitchen car made up their camp. These cars could be moved anywhere along the line where work needed to be done. A lot of the time they would be set out on the Comal Switch. This crew would scale tunnels, cuts and bluffs. Mr. McGee was the foreman and his wife was the cook. Mother would sell them milk, butter, eggs and sometimes frier chickens. As a boy I would help carry the milk over to their camp for 20c a gallon, 10c a gallon for buttermilk, 50c a pound for butter and 10c a dozen for eggs.

With all of the good things the railroad brought to this section it also brought some tragedies. There were some men killed while the Turkey Bridge was being built whose names are unknown to me. Barney Richardson was killed while the George's Creek trestle was being filled when the shovel on a big steam shovel fell on him crushing him to death. It happened as he was helping lay the track in front of the train so it could move forward. The dirt pit was located just across the road from where the United Farm Real Estate Office is now located a short distance west of the trestle. Dallas Combs, who lived just east of Turkey, was killed on a work train that was using a steam shovel to clean out ditches and load the dirt in dump cars between Yellville and Flippin. They were hauling the dirt in to refill places in the George's Creek trestle that had settled. After unloading their dirt and started back for another load Dallas was sitting on a walkway along the side the car and had failed to secure the latch and it came loose. The car dumped and caught him crushing him to death.

In the 1927 flood on the White River at Cotter, Arkansas, the water at its highest point got up to the railroad bridge. They pulled some engines out on the spans to hold them down while men took poles and pushed down the logs and debris so it would go under the bridge and not pile up and wash it out. At one point they thought the bridge would be washed out. The water almost got up to the second floor of the depot.

When I was a small boy in the 1920's during the wheat harvest in Kansas a lot of the young men would bum a freight train and go out there. They would work through the wheat harvest and make some money as there wasn't much work around to do here at the time. The north bound train would stop for water at the Comal water tank just across the creek from where we lived. My older brothers would go off on the train. My mother would always hate to see them go. I remember when the train would pull out and as it went along it would whistle at the crossroads and everything. I would sit out on the back porch with Mother and listen and it would sound so lonesome. We could hear it after it passed Pyatt and we both would be crying.

At this time I would like to tell you about the ones who worked on the Missouri Pacific Railroad from in and around this community as I remember them. Thanks to Cecil Pierce for his help with this information.

Gus Pierce, who lived where I now live just a short distance from my father and mother's home (Charley and Flora Burleson), obtained two telegraph machines. He put one in his home and one in my parent's home so he and my brother Garland could practice sending messages to each other. This way they learned a lot about telegraphy. Gus Pierce went to work under George McVey, who was a depot agent at Yellville, as a helper in about 1915. He was called to go to Mt. Olive where he worked a short time then going to Buffalo. Both stations were just south of Cotter. Pierce asked to be sent to Pyatt if there was ever an opening. In a short time he was called to go to Pyatt where he served as depot agent until they discontinued this position at Pyatt in about 1965 and the depot was sold and moved to Bull Shoals. Pierce worked for the railroad for about fifty years.

Garland Burleson went to work as a depot agent's helper under Mr. Pierce without pay in the latter part of 1917 or early 1918. His first job was at Guion, Arkansas as a clerk in February 1918. He was promoted to telegrapher and agent at Guion on August 23, 1918. Garland also worked at a number of other places as agent. He was promoted to train dispatcher at Cotter, Arkansas in 1926. The train dispatcher's office was moved to Aurora, Missouri and he worked there about three years. He went back to Cotter and served as the agent and yard master. Due to his health he resigned on August 3, 1936 and moved to his farm at Aurora, Missouri after working for the railroad for eighteen years.

Cecil Pierce went to work as a clerk at Newark in 1924. He became a depot agent in 1927. As these were hard times he had to work on the extra board traveling to wherever they needed a replacement, but he was able to work all of the time. Cecil worked at every station on the White River Division, on the Springfield branch line and one station on the Carthage, Missouri Division (Harrisonville). But the times got better and he worked ten years at Cotter, twelve years at Bergman and twenty years at Yellville, working forty-five years in all and retiring in 1970. Cecil lives in Yellville at present.

Howard Pierce, another brother of Cecil's, started work as a clerk in 1928 and later became a depot agent. He retired in 1972 after working forty-four years.

Earl Pierce, another brother of Cecil's, started to work as a clerk in 1920. He put most all of his time in as a clerk at Springfield, Missouri and Batesville, Arkansas and retired in 1960, which would give him forty years of service.

Brice Burleson went to work as a pump man at the Comal water tank starting about 1920 and working up into the 1930's. His job was to keep the tank full of water by pumping the water out of Crooked Creek. There was also a small spring above the tank which ran into it as well. Brice farmed too as this didn't keep him busy all of the time.

Waldo Emerson at a young age went to work on the railroad on the bridge gang working there a number of years then was a mechanic for a while. He became the driver of the highrail car that the officials rode in and worked there many years until he retired.

Buell Burleson went to work on the bridge gang just before entering the armed services in World War I in April 1918 seeing action in France. Upon his arrival home on June 1, 1919 he returned to work on the bridge gang under "Old Daddy" Ross, the foreman. He worked his way up and became a bridge gang foreman. Becoming disabled in 1949 he retired that year after about thirty-one years of service.

Alvin Clem worked on the scaling gang for a number of years in the 1920's.

In about 1917 my two oldest brothers, Joe and Virgil Burleson, worked a few years on the bridge gang. At one time Joe worked as a newsbutch on the passenger train for a few years some time around 1915. Besides selling papers he also sold candy and other items.

Arthur Burleson in 1922 worked a short time on the Union Pacific Railroad on an extra gang. He returned home and went to work as a clerk and depot agent for the Missouri Pacific Railroad and worked until about 1927. As he was on the extra board he was not getting to work full time so he had to get another job and didn't work anymore for the railroad.

Everyone in my family, all of my brothers and brother-in-law and my father worked some on the railroad except for myself. I had my heart set on becoming an engineer but the timing was just not right. At that time the railroad didn't have steady employment and they were laying off men instead of hiring.

The ones that left the community to work for the railroad in other places are as follows: Frank Gilley, my brother-in-law, went to Nebraska in about 1922 and started to work on the Union Pacific Railroad and soon was promoted to a welder on the tracks. In a few years he became a section foreman and from there he went to gang foreman and then was made roadmaster over the tracks on a division in Nebraska and also in Wyoming. He worked until he became disabled in 1968 or 1969 and he and his wife made their home in Rawlins, Wyoming until he passed away in 1985.

Rex Burleson, who was another person who left Arkansas in March in 1939 to work as a laborer on Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming. After working in shops at Green River for five years he transferred into the engineering dept as a roadway machinist. He was in charge of Roadway machinist shops at Laramie, Wyo. for thirteen years. He then returned to road work until 1968. Then he was moved to Kansas City as work equipment supervisor. In 1969 returning to Laramie, Wyo. and worked as road mechanic until retiring in 1981. He and his Wife Beulah is living in Harrison, Arkansas at present.

Troy Gilley, Frank's brother, went to Nebraska in about 1920 and worked the remainder of his life for the Union Pacific Railroad as a depot agent on a branch line.

Cecil Dobbs started out as a painter on a paint gang for the Santa Fe Railroad and worked his way up to becoming the paint gang foreman.

Ernest Pierce in the spring of 1912 went to Springfield Business College and learned telegraphy. He thought he wanted to work on the railroad and was able to finish his training in about a year. His uncle Gus Pierce and him put up a line between their homes to practice before he even went to school. The first job he had was in Duncan, Iowa where he worked a year or two and then transferred for Ridgley, Missouri as a depot agent on the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad. After working there a few years he decided he had all of the railroading he wanted and went to work for the government.

George Burleson started to work on Union Pacific Railroad in Cheyenne, Wyoming on April 18, 1937 as extra gang labor and as a section laborer. The labor was hard and in the winter months the weather got awfully cold. In June 1983 he became rail inspector. Over the years he was promoted to assistant section foreman, extra gang foreman, general foreman, road master, general road master and in November 1968 he became Engineer of Track for Cheyenne, Wyoming Eastern District. On March 1, 1972 he and his wife Stella retired and moved back to his farm in Arkansas.

The three wheel car they used on the railroad was called a speeder and had to be operated by hand. The railroad also had larger, four wheel cars that were pumped by hand that the section gangs and other workers used. The speeder was used for going along and servicing the switch lights. In the 1920's a man would come by every other day riding it and filling up the lights with kerosene and clean the globes and everything they needed. My two brothers had got the speeder to come home from Cotter on. They had got the train orders knowing that they also were following a freight train from Cotter to Turkey. When they arrived at Turkey they set the car off the tracks and walked the rest of the way home. Later that afternoon they walked back and followed a freight back to Cotter. They said they made it just fine coming out but going back up the Bald Hill into Summit it really worked them.

Business didn't look too good for the Missouri Pacific Railroad as everything had dropped off and the passenger train had been discontinued. Through freight service had fallen off. But in about 1982 it merged with the Union Pacific Railroad and there was a brighter day dawning. They began to rebuild the railroad. An extra gang came through putting new ties and then they laid new, heavier ribbon rail. Another gang put about all of the ties in new and raised the track almost making a new road bed. At the present it has become known as The Union Pacific Railroad Company. Today it is hauling more through freight than it ever hauled in its history. In 1987 they average running four freight trains, four coal trains and one local on the White River Division.

The most cars I have ever counted was on October 15, 1986 when there was a 139 car train. A lot of the cars were twice as long as the regular freight cars. It was pulled by eight units. On an average there are four regular freight trains (two each way) and four coal trains each day (two loaded and two returning empty). The coal is being hauled from Wyoming to Newark to supply power to the Arkansas Power and Light Co Electric Power Plant and other places. The coal trains almost always pull about 110 carloads of coal. I am told when the electric plant is operating at full capacity it will burn the 110 carloads of coal a day. That's a lot of coal. There is one local freight train that runs every day making a total of nine trains a day. This train doesn't handle anything but carload freight. Sometimes there is an extra coal and freight train that runs.

Over the years man power has given way to machine power. There is more work done by machines. This holds true to the railroad as a lot of work is done by machines. Section gangs have all been replaced by the extra gang. In the earlier years there were section houses at Cotter, Flippin, Yellville, Pyatt and all along the White River Division. At the present time there is one section gang from Cotter, Arkansas to Galena, Missouri which is about seventy miles. This gang consists of a foreman and two hands. The rest of the work is all done by extra gangs using mostly machinery.

Before this modern machinery, the track was raised by using hand jacks, lining it up was done by eyesight, elevating the curves was done with a hand level and tamping the ties was done with a hand shovel using their feet on the shovel. This was the way it was done in the early days which is a far cry from the way they do it today. It was done this way up until just a few years ago. This section gang replaced mostly all of the ties in the early days of this railroad then they put a tie gang on just for this work, but it still was all done by hand. First the spike was pulled out with a spike bar by hand then two men would loosen the tie and then they would take two pairs of tie tongs and pull it out of the track by man power. They would clean out the place they could slip the new one in using the same pair of tongs and lifting the tie around to the place, then sliding it under the railroad tracks. After the tie plates were in place they drove the spike with a hammer. The tie was tamped by men using a square pointed shovel using their foot on the top of the shovel to tamp the tie and make it solid. It was all hard work and hard on the back. Taking out the old, used railroad ties in 1987 and replacing them with new ones was all done with mostly machines. There is one machine to pull the spikes out, one to pull the old tie out from under the railroad tracks and lay it to one side, one to pick up the new tie and shove it back under the tracks, one to tamp the tie to make it solid, one to come along and drive the spikes to hold it after the tie plates have been placed by hand between the rail and the tie. Also there is a number of hand laborers doing a number of small jobs in the operation. Then I don't want to forget there are a number of men, operating the machines replacing the old railroad ties with new ones.


Reprinted with permission from Treasured Memories of a Beautiful Place in the North Arkansas Ozark Hills by Floyd Burleson, copyright 1989.