First Train to Charleston

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By Jack James

The first passenger train on the Arkansas Central Railroad was run on March 1898, when the Commercial League was asked by the management to inspect the road and the car occupied by a large number of Fort Smith’s representative citizens. An empty coal car was also attached and it contained a number of people, who called it the “observation car.” The train left Fort Smith at 1:15pm and made the 28-mile trip to Charleston in one hour and forty minutes, although they made many stops to take on passengers.

Cotton and coal mining was a large part of the area’s economy. Therefore, the coming of the railroad was a tremendous boon the Charleston and the area. In 1898, Lavaca had two cotton gins and Charleston had three. The coming of the railroad caused an increase to the population of Charleston. By 1900, Charleston had grown to 650 residents.

They train was welcomed in Charleston by the shooting of guns, the music of a band and all of the residents turning out to greet them. Major A. S. Cabell made an opening speech, making everyone feel at home, and then the crowd marched toward the business center of the town. At Colonel J. P. Falconer’s store they were met by the hosts of the festivities, Colonel Falconer, General B. F. Armstead, Colonel Pettigrew, Dr. R. M. Southard and other prominent men of Charleston. Although they didn’t have much to say, they were so happy that they seemed to have hugged everybody that they met and, it is said, that in their excitement, “they hugged themselves.”

George Sengel gave an address in which he spoke on behalf of the Commercial League. He recalled what they had done for the railroad, calling the Arkansas Central, “Fort Smith’s $5,000 baby.” Colonel Pettigrew’s response paid a glowing tribute to Colonel Godman, the projector and builder of the road. Colonel Godman made a few remarks, after which a beautiful dinner was served by the townspeople.

The railroad was an important part of the area in both trade and as a passenger route as it connected Fort Smith and down to Paris. Depots along the line began to vanish in the 1920s but freight trains continued the route in some capacities until the tracks were removed in the 1990s

(Information references from an undated clipping from The Charleston Express and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas)

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