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Can you help locate original photographs or postcards of this structure? If you know of any pre-1950 photographs showing all or part of this building, please contact the Choctaw Terminal Webmaster.


The
Choctaw Terminal
2001, 2011 by Bill Pollard
Choctaw & Memphis Railroad
Little Rock, Arkansas

Illustration by Richard DeSpain


Opened April 9, 1900 - - Destroyed November 21, 2001

For half a century, an architectural and historic gem existed in relative obscurity on the east side of downtown Little Rock. Concealed by layers of newer construction, this vintage structure sat unnoticed, even by specialists in architectural design, historic preservation, and railroad history. This is the story of that building - the 1899 Choctaw freight station - a companion structure to Little Rock's highly acclaimed Choctaw Route passenger station.

The Choctaw Terminal website offers a "virtual tour" of this unique building that was deemed expendable in the name of progress. Begin your tour of the freight station by reading the history of this building, or skip directly to the photographs to see one of Little Rock's best kept secrets. Marvel at the engineering ingenuity and talents of many skilled craftsmen who built this structure with the expectation that it would be an important part of Little Rock commerce for years to come. Learn how this building survived against all odds, until November 21, 2001, as a last example of the railroad freight stations that were once the center of commerce in many Arkansas cities.

Unfortunately, by the time the Choctaw freight terminal was "rediscovered," its future was bleak. As preservationists and historians became aware of the importance of the freight station, efforts were made to have this unique structure incorporated into the Clinton Presidential Library. It was argued that this building was significant to the history of Arkansans and the history of Arkansas railroading, because it was the "flagship" freight station for the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad, an important regional railroad headquartered in Little Rock. Historians stressed that this building was the last example of a two-story brick freight station in the state of Arkansas, and that it was extremely rare to have adjacent surviving examples of both passenger and freight stations from the same era. The brick architectural details were unlike those found anywhere else in Little Rock, from finely tapered brick set precisely in detailed arches, to classic granite quoins still showing the chisel marks of craftsmen from a century ago. It was argued that much of the fine brickwork and stonemasonery had been crafted by "freed men," skilled tradesmen who had been born in slavery, but who were renowned in 1900 for their quality workmanship. George W. Donaghey, a railroad contractor and later Governor of Arkansas, was involved in the design of the roof trusses which used massive timbers in a style usually reserved for railroad truss bridges.

None of these arguments fazed those who were obsessed with only one project, the Clinton Presidential Library. The idea of suggesting any change to the library blueprints at this late date was viewed as preposterous. Even though the Choctaw station was on the periphery of the Library complex, it was deemed "totally impossible" to make any changes to slightly reposition the library's underground archival bunker so that the library and the station could coexist. Others feared that if the City of Little Rock requested these changes, the library foundation would simply move the site to another city. Preservationists found it ludicrous to be told that the Clinton library might prefer a massive change -- starting over in a new city -- rather than agreeing to the minor changes needed to accommodate the Choctaw freight station.

This drama was brought to an inevitable conclusion on Wednesday morning, November 21, 2001, the day before Thanksgiving. Heavy equipment was quickly moved onto the site, less than 12 hours after the Little Rock city board approved the demolition contract. The obvious instructions were to quickly take out the old depot, ignoring most of the various modern additions which shielded the station. By 3pm the deed was done; the Choctaw freight station had been bulldozed into oblivion. The demolition crews were thorough and the destruction was complete, the fine brickwork shattered, the granite trim chipped and buried in rubble, and thousands of dollars worth of highly prized old timbers reduced to pulpwood. Little effort was made to salvage anything in advance, despite misleading promises from the office of City Manager Cy Carney. Instead, the Clinton Library Foundation and the City of Little Rock could be satisfied that the contentious issue of preserving this landmark had been resolved. At the end of the day, the only problem remaining was to remove the evidence by hauling the debris to another overburdened landfill.

Photo by Bill Pollard

Photo by Bill Pollard

Additional demolition photographs (use "BACK" button to return to this site.)


Who is to blame when a historic landmark is lost? Part of the blame belongs to a throw-away society that places little premium on historical structures. Some of the blame must accrue to preservationists and historians who failed to recognize the significance of this structure hidden within May Supply Company. Most of the blame, however, must go to the Clinton Library Foundation and the City of Little Rock, neither of whom showed any evidence of a good faith effort to evaluate various options for keeping the station or moving a smaller representative section to a nearby site. One must also wonder why Clinton library site engineers failed to call attention to this historical building during the early stages of the library design. Site engineers had conducted exhaustive surveys of the area, surveys which had given them access to this building while it was cocooned within other structures and effectively hidden from the public. Were the survey engineers incapable of recognizing an unquestionably historic structure, or was their silence a deliberate calculated effort to conceal details of a landmark which they considered expendible?

Assessing blame won't bring back the building, and the end result is that Little Rock has unnecessarily lost another part of its heritage. Together, the Choctaw passenger and freight stations could have provided a fascinating glimpse into the past, while serving the future in their new role as components of the Presidential Library. They could have provided a focal point, the universal appreciation for historic preservation being common ground for those that adore Bill Clinton and those that despise him. Instead, the Clinton Library is permanently and irrevocably tainted by the actions of those responsible for this decision. Everyone lost as a result of this foolish rush which overlooked what was right and what was best, while pandering to the dictates of a few who had little appreciation for Arkansas' heritage.

When the effort to save the Choctaw Terminal was underway, Little Rock had just recently witnessed the renovation and reopening of the Cox Machinery warehouse in conjunction with the Central Arkansas Library's downtown branch. The Cox building is of the same vintage as the Choctaw freight station, though smaller and with none of the elaborate architectural details. Even so, the Cox restoration continues to be acclaimed as an outstanding example of adaptive reuse of a historic building. Visit the Cox building at 121 Commerce to marvel at this classic old building with a new purpose, and imagine the even greater potential that was squandered with the loss of the Choctaw freight station.


From November 20 through November 26, 2001, the National Trust for Historic Preservation featured the Choctaw freight station in Preservation 911, a section of Preservation Online magazine which deals with "preservation emergencies." Unfortunately, this recognition came literally hours before demolition crews leveled the building.




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