Effort To Save Former Rock Island Depot In Perry, Arkansas From Demolition

Unless it can be moved to a new location by the end of 2017, the former depot for the Rock Island Railroad at Perry, Arkansas will be torn down. That’s according to the current owner of the building, the shortline Little Rock and Western Railway, which operates a 79 mile stretch of former Rock Island trackage between Little Rock and Danville. The railroad was created by former employees of the Rock Island to serve industries west of Little Rock after the Rock Island was shut down in March 1980.

The former Rock Island depot at Perry, Arkansas looking ragged on August 19, 2017. All photographs are by Michael Hibblen unless otherwise noted. You can click on any photo to enlarge.

As I write this at the beginning of September 2017, preservationists and historians are in talks with the railroad and are considering options on whether they can come up with money to pay for moving the depot as well as where it could be placed. While the structure is certainly dilapidated, especially the appearance of the roof with shingles that are dangling, discolored or missing, it might not be a lost cause.

On Saturday, August 19, I was allowed inside the building to take photos, which I have posted below. I’ve also included a few older photos to show what it looked like in better days. Today the depot is used for storage and is mostly cluttered with random items or boxes of old files. I’m no expert but would say there was nothing immediately apparent showing any significant water damage that would suggest the roof is leaking in any major ways. The floor is soft in spots but not in terrible shape. The foundation has likely settled some and the structure isn’t completely level. It’s what you might expect from a century-old building that’s not being maintained.

The Little Rock and Western, which is based in Perry, added a metal locomotive servicing shop behind the depot in the 1980s, and built an office building nearby. The railroad and its parent company were bought in 2005 by the Genesee and Wyoming, which owns or operates 120 shortline railroads throughout the world. They really have no use for the depot and, as it is deteriorating, want it gone. A manager for the railroad told me he would like more space for equipment, including adding a lean-to for a forklift. While I’m disappointed they want to remove a piece of railroad history, I can understand their position. They’ve got a railroad to operate, rather than maintain an aging building just for its historical significance. I’m optimistic a plan can come together to move the depot so that it can serve some kind of future purpose, perhaps as a museum for the area.

A westbound passenger train approaches the Perry depot in 1960. This photo was taken from the cab of a Budd Rail Diesel Car by Rock Island company photographer Ed Wojtas.

For nearly 80 years, the track in front of the depot was part of a major transportation vein in this part of the country. The line was built by the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf in about 1899, primarily to move coal from what was then Indian Territory (today Oklahoma) through Arkansas to the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee.

The CO&G bought up many smaller lines in Arkansas, including what was the state’s first chartered railroad, the Memphis and Little Rock. To connect Little Rock and the Indian Territory, crews worked simultaneously from each direction, laying track between Little Rock and Arkansas’s western border, meeting in Roland, which is about 20 miles east of Perry.

I’ve heard conflicting years for when the Perry depot might have been built. Arkansas railroad historian Bill Pollard says a Rock Island profile for the area says the depot was built in 1918, as does an insurance listing of structures for the railroad. I’ve spoken with others who believe the depot was built in 1908. The town was incorporated in 1914 and is about three miles away from the similarly named Perryville, which is the county seat for Perry County. The town of Perry had a peak population of 540 in 1920 and was built around the railroad.

It’s probably not a stretch to assume that millions of passengers passed over this spot in the 68 years passenger trains ran through here. This part of the Rock Island was known as the Sunbelt Line and passenger trains were operated from Memphis to Amarillo, Texas. In the years after World War II, passenger service used the railroad’s streamlined, diesel-powered Choctaw Rocket. But as the number of passengers declined in the 1950s, the railroad replaced that with the Budd Rail Diesel Car, which was a one car train. That’s the kind of train that was pulling up to the Perry depot in the photo above.

While the U.S. Postal Service was still using railroads to transport letters and packages, passenger trains were still lucrative, even as fewer people were traveling by train. But when the federal government ended that contract, the Rock Island petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to end passenger service. The last regular passenger train ran by the Perry depot in November 1967. I won’t go into too many details about the decline of the Rock island over the following 13 years, except to say that after a proposed merger with Union Pacific fell through, the Rock Island almost immediately filed for bankruptcy protection and attempted a reorganization. At the request of Rock Island creditor Henry Crown, a judge ordered the shutdown of the Rock Island in 1980 and that all of its assets be liquidated.

Unlike many other Rock Island depots and stations in Arkansas, the Perry depot was never abandoned. It continued to be used by the railroad to coordinate the movement of freight until the end. Other depots were boarded up and quickly fell into disrepair. Some of those were saved, but many were not.

Engine number 4429, sporting The Rock logo of the railroad’s final years, parked on the track behind the Perry depot in January 1980. This was primarily used for switching cars at a nearby paper mill, but also would occasionally do local work as far as Danville. Three months later the railroad was shut down and the Little Rock and Western was created to continue serving industries in that area. Photograph by Bill Pollard.

The newly built locomotive servicing area behind the Perry depot on November 3, 1984. Photograph by Paul Strang.

One of two signs featuring the final logo for the Rock Island, as photographed on February 14, 2012.

Significant for the Perry depot is that it still retains many key remnants of the Rock Island. On both sides of the building are the final depot signs provided after the railroad was rebranded as The Rock. It’s great that the Little Rock and Western never removed these or allowed anyone to take them. It also still has the semaphore train order signals between the depot and the tracks, though part of one board is missing. If the depot is moved, these relics should go with it. If the depot does end up being torn down, hopefully they can be preserved, perhaps donated to the Arkansas Railroad Museum, which has restored a triangle-shaped train order signal that used to be located at the Rock Island’s nearby Ola depot before it was torn down in about 2004.

I’ll get into more about the efforts to save the depot, but first here are photos from a few years ago that illustrate how rapidly it seems the roof is deteriorating now. My first time going by the Perry depot was in 2004, and as you can see below, it looked to be in much better condition than today. In particular the roof looks to be very clean and solid. At this time the Little Rock and Western was owned by Rail Management Corporation, but the following year it would be acquired by Genesee and Wyoming.

The Perry depot on July 12, 2004 with Little Rock and Western locomotive 101 inside the servicing area.

Unfortunately the railroad crossing in the next photo has been replaced with a more modern crossing sign. This was about a block away from the Perry depot and featured a “stop on red signal” sign below the warning lights, which looks similar to signs I’ve seen in photos from the 1940s and ’50s. Buford Suffridge with the Perry County Historical and Genealogical Society told me the crossing was rebuilt in maybe 2011 because it had been real bumpy for cars to cross over. Perhaps that’s when the vintage signs were removed. One of the tracks was removed from the crossing, so today it only has two tracks. The road here is Arkansas Highway 9. It splits with Arkansas Highway 10 just before the crossing,

Vintage railroad crossing signs on Arkansas Highway 9 as photographed July 12, 2004. Sadly they’re now gone.

I visited the depot again in 2012, and one interesting item that was visible from one of the windows for the projecting telegrapher’s booth was the dispatcher’s phone attached to a telescoping arm. When I was allowed inside the depot five years later, this relic was gone. I looked all over the room, but it didn’t seem to be there.

The dispatcher’s telephone mounted on a telescoping arm with a microphone and headset. This photo was taken February 14, 2012, but five years later there was no sign of it inside.

In an email, Pollard told me such dispatcher’s telephones are very rare, with technology that would have been of no use after the demise of the Rock Island. He said it’s surprising it survived inside the depot when I took the photo in 2012. Pollard also explained how this device was used.

After the DS rang a bell alerting the Perry operator, Perry would answer and hear the DS say display red board west (or east). Only when the operator responded that the red board had been displayed (moving the semaphore to the most restrictive position) would the copying of train orders begin. This was to prevent a train “getting by” a station while the op was in the process of copying an order. The operator put the headset on his ear and would copy train orders, then carefully repeat the train order back to the dispatcher, including spelling out any numerals, to be certain that it had been copied correctly. The listen/talk function was controlled by a foot pedal on the floor. Normally it was in listen mode, and the operator stepped on the petal to talk.  As I understand it, it was not possible to talk and receive at the same time because these phones were installed over telegraph circuits.

The photo below shows the connection between the depot and locomotive servicing area added in the 1980s. It looks like the edge of the depot’s roof overhang may have been trimmed off for the entire length of the building when the shed was built. That’s a modification preservation purists might not like. Underneath the overhang of the roof, there is a space of maybe eight inches between the wall of the depot and the beams holding up the shed.

A Little Rock and Western train is parked on the mainline on February 14, 2012, with a switch engine just outside the locomotive servicing area.

Finally here are photos from inside and outside the depot on August 19, 2017. Thanks to Jonas Goodman with the Little Rock and Western Railway for authorizing me to go inside and Russell Benefield who was with me and made sure I had the appropriate safety equipment. Russell was patient as I worked to photograph every nuanced detail that interested me.

The east side of the Perry depot on August 19, 2017. The door closest to the camera, near the projected booth, was likely the entrance for the white waiting area. Of course Jim Crow laws were in effect in most of the years the Rock Island ran passenger trains in Arkansas which required separate accommodations inside depots and onboard trains.

I’m assuming this was the door to the colored waiting area. Neither of the doors to the waiting area are used by the Little Rock and Western and have “keep out” signs posted. Employees today access the depot through the freight door.

A close up of sagging of the roof overhang in front of the depot.

The west side of the depot. The door closest to the camera leads into what was the freight room. This door slides open and is how employees today enter if they need to get inside the depot.

Inside the white waiting room with what was the ticket booth now blocked by a board.

What was the white waiting room with a Little Rock and Western switch engine visible outside. Metal shelves line one wall holding boxes of old files.

Inside the station agent’s office with the projecting telegrapher’s booth and ticket booths to each waiting area, though they are both now covered with pieces of wood. A microwave is now where I saw the dispatcher’s phone through the window five years earlier. This room had a few wasps buzzing around menacingly.

These were the controls for the semaphore train order signals outside that would advise trains on whether they needed to stop or could proceed.

A closeup of the semaphore train order signals, with one of the blades missing. If the depot can be moved, this should definitely go with it.

Looking west down the track from one of the window in the projecting telegrapher’s booth. Trains running on this track today are limited to 10 miles per hour. At its peak, the Rock Island ran high speed trains through here.

A vintage circuit box next to the projecting telegrapher’s booth.

Pollard, who visited this depot many times when the Rock Island was still in operation and in the early years of the Little Rock and Western, offered me an explanation about what this was:

The black boxes on the wall are Western Union telegraph circuit boxes, usually manufactured by WU but used for all wire circuits. When in use, there would be wires plugged into the various boxes. Visualize telegraph wires on two or three crossarms, probably 10 wires on each crossarm (five on each side of the pole). If the wire for position 6 was broken by a tree limb between Perry and Bigelow, for example, a wire could be plugged into the hole/box corresponding to line 6 at the Perry and Bigelow circuit boxes, and shifted to another, extra, line to shunt messages around a broken line.  Back in the day, there would have been some wires for Western Union (pole line space leased from the RI for nominal cost in exchange for WUT transmitting “company” messages at no charge.) Other wires would be a variety of RR message lines assigned for various uses, some by tariff agents, some by freight agents, some for lineside stations, etc. The most important wires would be the DS wires. Most of these open line wires were copper or steel – copper was better but susceptible to theft.  In block signal territory, two of the outside crossarm positions (most distant from the pole) would have two insulated wires, usually with different color insulators (amber rather than green or white).  This was power for the trackside signals (which also had battery power), high voltage, with the potential for electrocution.

The ticket booth in the colored waiting room.

One of the especially fascinating things about this depot is that in what was the freight area are a lot of names, dates and other information written or inscribed, primarily in the ceiling. Pollard says it was standard practice for many depots to have operators or agents sign their names, “particularly when there were a lot of extra board telegraphers who filled vacancies along the route.” The dates, he says, were likely seniority dates, which is when someone was hired.

It must have taken a tall ladder to reach the ceiling. Some appear to have been made with a woodburning tool, while others with a marker. I had difficulty getting good photographs, but as Pollard noted to me, these should be be studied and documented, especially if the depot is torn down. He’s going to try to find an old roster of Arkansas Division telegraphers to see if he can locate any of these names and whether the dates did indeed correspond with their seniority dates.

Who was Thomas E. Holmes and could 1/1/1910 have been his date of seniority?

Who was H.T. Harshbarger other than, I’m assuming, a native of Plymouth, Indiana?

It’s hard to make out a lot of this from H.T. Harshbarger, but he certainly had a lot he wanted to include.

Finally, some more modern inscriptions from people who I assume worked for the Little Rock and Western and wanted to leave a little something too.

Here are some photos from inside the locomotive servicing area. There is no wall on this side of the shop, only steel beams. Tools and lights were attached directly to the back of the depot’s exterior wall. If the depot is moved and preserved, there will have to be some work done to patch holes that will be left in the wall.

Little Rock and Western employee Russell Benefield showing the locomotive servicing area.

It looks like wasps have made themselves at home in this exterior speaker. Could this have been an original speaker from the days this was still a passenger depot to make announcements about pending trains?

Another view from inside the locomotive servicing area with Arkansas Midland Railroad 414 in position. Arkansas Midland, which also operates former Rock Island tracks, is also owned by corporate parent company Genesee and Wyoming.

Is the depot solid enough to move? Jonas Goodman with the Little Rock and Western says it is. He told me a group from Paris, Texas had considered acquiring the depot and studied the structure, determining it was in good enough shape to be moved, but the distance wasn’t feasible.

Rachel Patton, executive director of the group Preserve Arkansas, says she has been providing technical assistance to members of the Perry County Historical and Genealogical Society as they consider their options. Patton’s group advocates for the preservation of historic structures and is known for its annual list of Arkansas’s ten most endangered places. But she says only having until the end of the year to get it moved is a tough deadline.

Buford Suffridge with the Perry County group says one person interested in seeing the depot saved is a retired insurance agent and lifelong resident who was instrumental in preserving a local high school gymnasium, thanks in part to a grant that came from that person’s former employer. Suffridge has been comparing the costs of moving other buildings. He said a house was moved in the area for $5,000. Patton told him that if it’s not moved far, the cost might even be as low of $2,500.

They’re checking to see if the railroad would be willing to donate an unused piece of property along the right-of-way. An ideal spot would be about a block away from the depot’s current location at the corner where Arkansas highways 9 and 10 split. Currently, Suffridge said, he only sees the area used for parking the railroad’s vehicles. If not there, they say somewhere else along the tracks would be nice, if they can agree on a place that would allow the depot to serve as some kind of museum while not interfering with the railroad’s operations. If a location can’t be found along tracks, Suffridge said they would consider anywhere rather than see it be torn down.

Suffridge grew up in nearby Perryville and says that as a kid in school he could hear the sound of the steam locomotives working in Perry. The depot represents a long-gone era for small railroad towns and he would like to see it saved so that history can be shared with future generations. If it were turned into a museum, it wouldn’t focus strictly on the railroad, but would be a broad historical museum on the history of the area.

There are a lot of discussions going on and hopefully I’ll have an update soon on the latest. I also welcome any  comments, corrections, additional photos, stories or information. You can email me at feedback@hibblenradio.com.

COMMENTS:

Jack Infield, Sept. 3, 2017, 3:35 p.m.

My Uncle Glen Infield was an engineer for the Rock Island when they ran steam locomotives. He lived in Little Rock and we lived in Ola. Many of the Ola residents worked for the Rock back in the day. I have a seniority list dated in 1924 that’s interesting. My aunt Pearl Smith had a cafe in Ola just south of the tracks and she served many of “railroadmen” as she called them. Her home faced the tracks on the north and in the late fifties, I can still remember her opening the screen door and giving the engineer a wave as it went by, they’d always give her a little toot in acknowledgment.