History of the Railroad
in Cotter, Arkansas

Cotter, Arkansas

     The railroad was built in the early part of the 20th century across the Ozarks. Due to this railroad a number of towns such as Cotter came into existence. This railroad was responsible for the early economic development of a large part of the Ozarks. Freight and local passenger service was very important as there were very few paved roads in the region prior to the 1930s. Building of this railroad was one of the most important events to occur in this part of the Ozarks not only for development and taxes but for bringing settlers to the area.

Also, see "Some Reminiscences Connected with the Construction of the White River Railroad Division" by Owen G. (Happy) Kendrick and "William Cotter," the man who gave his name to Cotter.


Also, see Maps of the White River Division and the Missouri-Pacific System.

     The line was incorporated in early 1901 and chartered as the White River Railway. It was organized and financed by the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway Company, at that time, the Iron Mountain and Missouri Pacific were operated as one line but were two different corporations. George Gould inherited the companies from his father, the famous railroad magnate Jay Gould, who had obtained control of both railroads by the late 1870s and early 1880s.

     The railroad was built across the Ozarks in the northwest-southeast direction from the town of Batesville in eastern Arkansas. It continued northwest along the White River Valley on the north side of the river to present day Cotter. At this location, it left the river valley by crossing White River and connected to a tunnel on the Marion County side. It continued into southwest Missouri to the town of Carthage near Joplin. Originally, it was to tie together two major north-south existing railroads and shorten the route from the west to the Memphis-Mississippi gateway. The Division was to include some 27 miles between Batesville and Diaz, Arkansas, that was built in 1883. Although not part of the Division, trains were to tie up and depart at Newport some 2 miles south of Diaz.

     The company established a town at this site, which was originally called Lake's Ferry. The new town was named Cotter after one of their officials. A Division point (crew change) and an engine terminal were located at the site, which included a turntable roundhouse, depot, machine shop, several side tracks and other facilities. Thus, the railroad boomtown of Cotter was in the making during early 1903 as housing would be needed for some 400 to 500 employees by 1906.

     Construction of the line was started on May 27, 1901, at Batesville and completed on December 29, 1905. In mid August of 1903, the track was completed from Batesville to Cotter, and daily passenger service from Newport to Batesville to Cotter was operational by the fall of 1903. The line from Batesville to Carthage was completed on December 29, 1905, and a construction train was operational from Carthage to Cotter on January 1, 1906. The first timetable for railroad service from Joplin, Missouri, to Newport, Arkansas, was on January 21, 1906.

     The line was some 239 miles long and took nearly 5 years to complete. It was estimated that some 5,000 men were employed in building the line. It included 284 bridges ranging in height from a few feet to 130 feet, 5 tunnels from 600 to 1455 feet in length and removal of tons of rocks. Materials were hauled by mule teams, barges and steamboats or by work trains as the line progressed.

     During September of 1905, there was a general reorganization of the Missouri Pacific and Iron Mountain companies; it was decided that Missouri Pacific would become the official name of the two railroads. However, this line was identified as the Missouri Pacific-Iron Mountain Railway until 1917.

     Railway mail service was instituted between Joplin and Newport, which lasted until the end of passenger service in 1960. On June 1, 1917, the Iron Mountain and Missouri Pacific emerged from receivership as the Missouri Pacific Railroad Company and became a single corporation. At that time, the White River Railway became the famous White River Division of Missouri Pacific for more than fifty years.

     During 1949 and early 1950 steam engines were being replaced by diesels and were completely replaced by October of 1950. Also, the Cotter roundhouse was closed during 1951. Passenger service declined steadily after the introduction of, but not because of, diesel power. The last passenger service was in 1960. By 1972, the old White River Division no longer existed in name as it was divided up into other divisions. Time schedules were speeded up with the use of diesels and lack of passenger trains. Eventually the town of Cotter and other towns along the line lost their railroad importance except for local freight and crew changes.

     During 1982, Missouri Pacific merged with Union Pacific and Western Pacific Railroad Companies under the holding company Union Pacific Corporation. However, Missouri Pacific was to maintain its own corporation and commercial identity until its corporate bonds were paid off in fifteen years. In 1989, Union Pacific rerouted the Newark coal train service, which had been in existence for several years, to another line. In April 1990, through service from other lines was discontinued leaving only local service between Carthage and Diaz.

     The line is now the property of the Missouri and Northern Arkansas Railroad Company of RailAmerica, Inc. M&NA purchased the line during December of 1992 and became operational during January of 1993. They presently handle local freight and transport Union Pacific's northwest bound empty coal cars.

     A railroad manpower reduction that started in the early 1950s resulted in numerous layoffs and transfers which caused many families to leave Cotter and numerous other small Ozark towns to seek employment elsewhere. This is turn resulted in the closing of many businesses of towns that were located along the line. The replacement of steam engines by diesels resulted in the closing of two roundhouses, machine shops, several stations and depots and eliminated the transporting of coal to local stations. Other factors, such as the use of radio telephone, elimination of the firemen, cutting out coal train service and restricting the line to local service added to a manpower reduction. Thus, from 1950 to present day, the number of Cotter businesses and railroad families has greatly declined and the town's railroad cultural history is slowly fading away.

Jerry Stude-2003

For further information, see:
The White River Railway : being a history of the
White River Division of the
Missouri Pacific Railroad Company,
1901-1951 / Walter M. Adams.


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