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Station History

In September 1898, the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad leased and later purchased the Little Rock & Memphis Railroad, a company which held the distinction of operating over the first railroad trackage in Arkansas. The LR&M had been in and out of receivership since the late 1870s, a precarious financial condition brought about by Jay Gould's diversion of through traffic to his own lines. The CO&G, owned by Philadelphia investors and coal mine financiers, sought entry into Memphis to expand their market for coal produced by company mines in Indian Territory (eastern Oklahoma). The Choctaw & Memphis Railroad was created as a CO&G subsidiary to operate the LR&M, while also constructing approximately 140 miles of new track from North Little Rock to Howe, I.T. When the new trackage was in place, CO&G would possess a direct route from Weatherford and Oklahoma City to Little Rock and Memphis. The St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern, a Gould road, bitterly opposed the CO&G entry into Little Rock because it threatened Gould's near monopoly in the area. One of the Gould tactics to discourage CO&G expansion was a refusal to allow CO&G operation over either of the existing Arkansas river rail crossings (Baring Cross and Junction bridges) at Little Rock.

In the face of continued opposition from the Gould management, the CO&G made a decision to build a third railroad bridge across the Arkansas River at Little Rock, along with a belt line surrounding the city on a route which eliminated the need to share stations or other facilities with the Iron Mountain. The Choctaw bridge would cross the river near the existing LR&M shops in Argenta, entering Little Rock east of downtown. Belt line trackage would circle south of the city before curving back north, crossing the Iron Mountain tracks just west of Union Station, then continuing westward along the Arkansas River toward Perry County.

The City of Little Rock welcomed the impending arrival of the Choctaw, closing McLean street to provide right of way easements in the vicinity of East Second, East Third, and East Fourth streets. This area opened the southern approach to the Choctaw & Memphis bridge, and the contract for bridge construction was let on March 21, 1899. In September 1899, the C&M purchased the old Little Rock Infirmary property on Second Street, between McLean and Byrd, soon converting that structure into the general offices for the railroad. Additional land was secured for freight and passenger stations, and for railroad yards and servicing facilities needed to complete the terminal.

Freight Depot
On August 25, 1899, the Arkansas Gazette reported that "Engineer Holt and his assistants are hard at work on plans and specifications for the imposing passenger and freight depots to be erected on Second and McLean streets, and also the terminal station at Memphis." Little Rock was to be the system headquarters of the CO&G, and both passenger and freight stations were of a design befitting the main terminal of the railroad. The job of constructing the freight station was awarded to local contractor C.W. Clark on October 28th. Charles W. Clark was well versed in brick building construction by virtue of his ownership of Clark Pressed Brick Company, one of the largest businesses in Malvern, with a production capacity of 100,000 bricks per day. Station construction was initially delayed by a shortage of freight cars to transport building materials, and winter weather caused additional delays.

In the meantime, the C&M moved into their new headquarters (1007 East Second Street) in early November, and the river bridge was completed several weeks later. On December 10, 1899, the Choctaw began operating through trains between Memphis, Little Rock, Booneville, McAlester, Oklahoma City and Weatherford, still without benefit of formal freight or passenger stations in Little Rock. A temporary wooden depot had been hastily erected on a site just south of the Choctaw passenger station to serve Little Rock passengers, and freight traffic was handled at the former LR&M yards in North Little Rock. Site preparation for the new freight and passenger stations continued, along with construction of the East Second Street overpass.

By mid-December 1899, the foundation of the freight depot had been completed, and work was underway on the building itself. Construction of the passenger station lagged behind, with the basement area still being excavated in early January 1900. The Choctaw's freight agent and clerical staff moved into the office portion of the freight station in early March, and freight deliveries to and from the new station began on April 9, 1900, after the structure had been completed. When the freight station opened, the first floor of the Choctaw passenger station had not yet been completed; the passenger station would not be ready for occupancy until August.

Function and Design
In an era when virtually all commerce, both passenger and freight, occurred via rail, freight stations served multiple purposes. The station was a transfer point from railroad car to wagons, and a site where local freight could be briefly warehoused after arrival until it was picked up by the recipient. Industries without their own rail siding used the freight station as a loading point to transfer from wagons or trucks to boxcars. Much freight handled in this manner was LCL - less than carload - and the railroads customarily grouped this freight from several shippers into one car to a common destination. In this manner, the freight station functioned as the hub of local freight activity in a city, coordinating arrivals and departures, storage, transfers between routes, and local pick up and delivery. An office area within the station typically housed the railroad's freight agent and numerous waybill clerks who prepared the extensive paper trail which documented each shipment. Follow an actual shipment to Little Rock.

The Choctaw freight station was constructed of pressed red brick, highlighted by intricate arched brickwork and stonework around doors and windows. The overall building dimensions are 40 feet wide by 215 feet long, with the front 40 x 40 section being two-story to accommodate offices on both floors. A door, located on the west side of the second floor, provided access to an elevated walkway leading to East Second Street. East Second Street was elevated on a stone retaining wall in front of the station as part of the overpass crossing the Choctaw mainline. A 15 foot loading platform surrounded the building, shielded from the elements by a substantial roof overhang which was supported by wooden brackets set into the brickwork. An adjacent covered platform extended south approximately 100 feet behind the station.

The rear 40 x 175 section of the building served as the actual freight warehouse, with a series of vertical sliding doors allowing ready access to the loading platform on both the wagon (east) and rail (west) sides of the building. Windows on the south exposure of the building were barred for security, a common practice to make the freight storage area more secure. The interior construction of this portion is quite unique, featuring long wooden roof trusses with iron rods bolted through the woodwork to stabilize the trusses, in a manner similar to that used for railroad truss bridges. It appears that 40-foot one-piece timbers were used for the ceiling joist component of the truss, with other timbers carefully fitted as rafters. The entire arrangement allowed the roof to be supported only on the exterior walls, with no interior vertical supports which would have impeded the flow of freight carts inside the building. Despite supporting a heavy slate roof for many years, there is no sign of sagging in the 40-foot cross timbers, even 102 years after their placement -- a testament to the engineering design of the era.

The freight station was initially separated from the Choctaw passenger station by 12 tracks. Six tracks, adjacent and just west of the freight station, were used to primarily hold cars destined for loading or unloading at the station or other nearby industries. The next four tracks were utilized for switching both freight and passenger trains, and the westernmost two tracks were mainline tracks, located adjacent to the Choctaw passenger station in direct alignment with the river bridge.

Subsequent Usage
After all construction was completed, the subsidiary Choctaw & Memphis was dissolved back into the parent company, the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad, on July 1, 1900. Unfortunately for the CO&G, the railroad's prosperity, its vast coal operations in Oklahoma, and its westward expansion efforts made it a desirable property for acquisition. In mid-1902, a financial syndicate controlling the Rock Island Railroad began buying CO&G stock and bonds, acquiring a majority interest later in the year. In what was a decidedly hostile takeover, the existing CO&G management was ousted and the railroad became a component of the Rock Island System. The CO&G name disappeared in 1904, but until the Rock Island's untimely demise in 1980, the Memphis-Little Rock-Oklahoma City route continued to be known as the "Choctaw Route" as proclaimed in the brickwork of the Choctaw passenger station.

Rock Island ownership brought some advantages, including greater traffic growth because the larger carrier was better able to compete with the Missouri Pacific/Iron Mountain - the other railroad serving most of Arkansas. Within a few years, increased freight traffic made the Choctaw freight station too small, and in 1911 the Rock Island opened a new, substantially larger freight station on the northeast corner of East Fourth & Rector. It was initially reported that the Choctaw freight station would be torn down to make way for additional tracks, once the new freight station was in operation.

In actuality, the Choctaw freight station remained intact, and by 1913 had been leased to Reaves Transfer Company for use as a storage warehouse. Reaves Transfer, successor to Polk Transfer Company, operated a drayage and transfer service utilizing 50 wagons and 75 men. The proliferation of trucks forced most transfer companies to evolve into moving companies or disappear, and the reduced need for warehouse facilities caused the former Choctaw station to again change tenants.

By 1939, the building had been leased to Fisher Cement & Roofing Company. Fisher occupied the second-floor offices and stocked building materials in the former freight area, while the Rock Island used the first floor office for equipment storage. May Supply Company, a wholesale building supply business, leased the freight station from the Rock Island in 1944. A long term lease was signed March 1, 1947, and soon thereafter an annex area was constructed on the east side of the station to house the May Supply offices. In January 1961, "Mayco Warehouse Company" purchased the freight station and an adjacent garage (probably the open air shed south of the station). May Supply began to make numerous external additions to the west side and front of the building soon thereafter, essentially cocooning the original structure. This process obscured most of the building from public view by the mid-1960s, but also helped preserve the structure by protecting it from the elements. The entire complex was occupied by the May Supply Company into the late 1990s.

Historical Significance
The Choctaw freight station is historically significant from several perspectives. Most notably, it is a companion structure to Little Rock's Choctaw passenger station, both having been constructed at the same time to serve the two components of railroad traffic - passenger service and freight service. The two companion structures provide a study and comparison of the railroad's view of what was necessary in terms of facilities to attract passenger and freight traffic in the city that they expected to be the permanent headquarters of the railroad. The passenger station exhibits a much more ornate design calculated to impress the traveling public, while the freight station is a simple, no-nonsense style designed for utility and the efficient movement of freight. It is remarkable to have two companion structures, built by the same company in the same era, survive for 102 years in restorable condition.

The railroad freight station was a center of commerce in larger cities, much as the rural flagstop depot was a transportation and communication hub in smaller communities. During the peak years of railroad service, four large brick freight stations served Little Rock, and a fifth freight station was located nearby in North Little Rock. In addition to the Choctaw freight station on the south side of East Second, the Missouri Pacific-Iron Mountain's inbound freight station was located on the north side of East Second Street, across the street from the Choctaw, and the MP-Iron Mountain outbound freight station was located nearby, at East Markham & Byrd. The close proximity of these stations resulted in more or less constant wagon and truck congestion on East Second Street, contributing to the Rock Island's decision to relocate to East Fourth & Rector in 1911, rather than enlarge the Choctaw station. A fifth station, operated by the Cotton Belt, was located just west of the Main Street bridge in North Little Rock. Both Missouri Pacific freight stations were razed in the late 1960s, the Cotton Belt station was razed in the early 1970s, and the Rock Island's "newer" 1911 station was razed in March 2001.

The significance of the Choctaw station is more than just the last surviving freight station in Little Rock; it is the last surviving example of the brick, multi-story freight station in Arkansas. In addition to the freight stations in Little Rock, similar structures were once located in Pine Bluff, Fort Smith, Texarkana, Newport and several other important rail junctions. By the late 1950s, railroads were exiting the less than carload freight business, turning smaller volume shipments over to truck transport. Little effort was made to adapt the large, rambling freight stations to other uses, and they were usually razed by the railroad to eliminate the expenses of maintenance and property taxes. Had the Choctaw freight station not been leased to a private business, it would have likely suffered the same fate.

In terms of specific railroad history for both Choctaw and Rock Island railroads, these companion structures represent the only surviving terminal facilities of the Choctaw from Memphis into Oklahoma, and they represent the last significant structures of the once extensive Rock Island System in Arkansas. Several smaller Rock Island depots survive, most notably Argenta (North Little Rock) and Lonoke, but nothing of the magnitude or architectural design of the two Choctaw stations in Little Rock.

November 21, 2001 - Postscript
On the day before Thanksgiving, demolition crews moved onto the former May Supply Company site, quickly demolishing the old Choctaw freight station in the center of the complex at the same time that the Friends of the Choctaw Terminal were in court attempting to secure a restraining order to block the demolition.