Former employees of the Rock Island Railroad joined officials from the Clinton Foundation and Clinton School of Public Service Monday, August 29, to unveil a vintage sign attached to the brick facade of what was the railroad’s longtime Little Rock passenger station. Today the two organizations, aligned with Bill Clinton’s neighboring presidential library, have offices in the restored building.
The structure was built in 1899 by the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad, which was absorbed by the Rock Island during a hostile takeover in 1904. From the time of the building’s opening until the railroad stopped passenger service in 1967, "hundreds of thousands, millions of people I would imagine have come through this station," said Skip Rutherford, dean of the school, which is part of the University of Arkansas System.
Former employee Guy Winters acquired the brass sign when the railroad, which operated in the central part of the United States, shut down in March 1980. It had hung at a depot in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and he offered to donate the sign if it would be featured prominently out front. The goal, he says, was for the many who visit the Clinton Presidential Center from around the world to know that it sits on the grounds of what was once a busy railroad complex. The tracks that ran behind the station were long ago taken up.
"This was the southern division headquarters when I went to work here," said Jerry Oates, president of the Rock Island Club, which is made up of former employees in Arkansas who meet to catch up with one another every other month. "All of these people that are here today, this was where they were employed and it really means a lot to us."
Ray Johnson spent 23 years with the railroad, part of that in the station.
"I had worked in the ticket office in here selling tickets and I worked up in the dispatcher’s office, a car distributor, and its just got tons and tons of memories for me and I’m so proud they have kept it and restored it," Johnson said.
For a couple of decades the future of the building looked uncertain after the railroad, which was struggling financially, consolidated offices that had been in the station over to its nearby yard and boarded up the building in the mid-1970s. Several acres of property, which included the passenger station, was bought by the Arkansas Gazette which built its printing plant nearby. Trains continued to roll by the abandoned building a few more years until the Rock Island was shut down in 1980.
The railroad had been impacted by a decline in passenger rail travel after World War II and an increase in the trucking of freight on government-subsidized interstates. It filed for bankruptcy in 1975 and attempted a reorganization, but creditors wanted the assets liquidated and in 1980 a judge ordered the shutdown.
After years of being unused, the train station was bought in the early 1990s by the Spaghetti Warehouse chain, which oversaw an extensive renovation to turn it into a restaurant. When revenue didn't meet expectations, the building later became a nightclub until the property was chosen as where Bill Clinton's presidential library would be constructed along the Arkansas River.
Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, noted during the unveiling ceremony that the two biggest events in Little Rock's history in terms of drawing out-of-town visitors had a connection with the Rock Island station.
One was in 1911 when a 50th reunion of Confederate soldiers was held in Little Rock, with Rutherford saying about 90,000 people came through the rail station above the regular passenger load. 108 special trains were added to transport participants before and after the reunion. The other major event was the 2004 grand opening ceremony of the Clinton Presidential Center next door.
"The events in 1911 and 2004 have one common bond and that is the Rock Island depot right behind us. It is a very special place and so we are glad that you are here," Rutherford said.
Former employees of the Rock Island periodically stop by to see the place where they once worked.
"Over the years in working in this building I've had the opportunity to meet with and escort many of the Rock Islanders through the building. Clearly there are some great memories," Rutherford said.
A large Rock Island sign had been in place on the roof of the station during its last several decades of use by the railroad and even after the shutdown. Oates, president of the group of former employees, said it contained neon tubing that could be illuminated at night.
"The porters would turn the light on at night when they came to work. At that time we had round-the-clock ticket agents here. We ran the passenger trains east and west, two each day, and there was a porter here that turned the light on every night and they would have to turn it off in the mornings," Oates said.
It's believed that sign may have been blown off and damaged during a storm in the late 1990s, leaving the building without any mention of the Rock Island. In large letters on the roof facing the front and back it says "The Choctaw Route," which was placed by the railroad that built it, the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf. A key goal for backers of that railroad was to link to coal resources in what was then Indian territory with Memphis.
Former employees of the Rock Island were pleased to see another sign attached, paying homage to the nearly 80 years the railroad operated in Arkansas. It took some discussions with Clinton officials about donating the sign and getting it attached.
"We're glad to see it finally come to a conclusion. Its been several months ongoing," Oates said. "The Clinton Foundation has been very, very cooperative. Its taken a lot of phone calls and a lot of correspondence, but we finally made it happen. Today is the conclusion."
Before being attached to the building, the names of many people who were once associated with the Rock Island were placed on the back of the sign.
"We sent out letters for everyone that we had addresses for that would like their name engraved on the back of this sign," Oates told the crowd. "There's 146 names on the back of the sign along with a little history of the railroad itself which will never be seen until 50 years, or 60 years, or 100 years when this comes down and someone looks on there and says 'well that was my great, great, great grandpa."
KUAR's Michael Hibblen is preparing a book for Arcadia Publishing called The Rock Island Railroad in Arkansas, which is a collection of photos from the railroad's history in the state. It's scheduled to be released April 3, 2017.