I recently had a business trip to Little Rock in Arkansas. I was not looking forward to it -- thinking it would be a dull Southern town with lots of 'scary people.' My first surprise was when I landed at the airport and saw that it was named 'Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.' Not 'Bill Clinton' or 'Clinton' but with both of their names.
My second surprise was on the way to the hotel, when I saw an operating streetcar. I had no idea that there were streetcars in Little Rock. The driver said that they had been operational since 2004.
Needless to say, since I had a few hours free after arriving, I took advantage of the time and did a bit of sightseeing. I first went to see the State Capitol, then Union Station and walked back to the hotel area. There is a streetcar stop right across from the hotel. Rode it around downtown and North Little Rock on the way to the Clinton Presidential Library. After work the next day, I went to the Old State House which was next to the Hotel and to the Arkansas Museum which is a couple of blocks away. But the most fun was that I rented a bike and rode the Arkansas River Trail. More about all of these things to follow.
First -- the trolley. It has 3.4 miles of track in two cities: Little Rock and North Little Rock, which are separated by the Arkansas River. (for those that may not know: the state is pronounced locally as ARE can saw, while the river is pronounced are CAN zass.) The system uses two power sources for its catenary -- one on each side of the river. So if there is a power outage on one side, the entire system can still function. They have a website for the transit agency: https://rrmetro.org/about/.
The following is copied from http://www.railwaypreservation.com/vintagetrolley/littlerock.htm : "The new line provides an important circulator function between the two downtowns, linking together the area's major attractions while encouraging tourism and enhancing economic development efforts. Phase 1 cost $19.6 million, including design, construction management, three vehicles and the maintenance building. Eighty percent of the funding came from Federal sources ranging from New Starts Rail funds, flex STP funds, and High Priority funds from TEA 21. Local funds were provided by Pulaski County, Little Rock and North Little Rock. CAT is also offering to selling naming rights for the system, cars and stations. Annual operating costs are estimated at $500,000.
Phase 1 opened inNovember 2004, connecting the two Downtowns. Phase 2 opened in February 2007 and added the half-mile extension to the Clinton Presidential Library site and two more trolleys. Phase 2 cost $7.6 million dollars. Longer range plans include a possible 3 mile extension to Little Rock National Airport.
Equipment: The line is served by Gomaco replica trolleys, similar in appearance to the cars built for Tampa, Florida. The Little Rock cars are shorter by the length of two windows, and because of the geography of the Main St. Bridge over the Arkansas River, are also equipped with a magnetic track brake as an additional safety feature. Three cars were purchased for operation of the initial phase, and two additional cars provided as part of the phase 2 line extension."
Now -- some of my pictures and videos of it:
As you could see in the movie above, the streetcar crosses the river in its own lane. There is one track, so it is used in both directions. The view from the bridge was fantastic. While I was there, they were demolishing the old Broadway Bridge. The first try to bring down the bridge at 10 am (before I was there) failed. When I rode the streetcar across its bridge in late afternoon, the Broadway bridge was still standing, but by the time I returned from the Presidential Museum, the bridge had been taken down. High drama!
Union Station is really a misnomer. It was only used by one railroad -- the Missouri Pacific Railroad. While being an impressive building (built in the early 1920s), it is now serving principally as an office building. The old waiting rooms and service areas are now closed to the public. One can't even reach the AMTRAK waiting room from the main entrance of the building. AMTRAK has a small waiting area in the basement -- at track level that is reached from the back of the building. It is not open most of the time,
There were a series of panels at Union Station with the history described. They are presented here:
Perhaps the following sign to the AMTRAK area sums up the role of it in Little Rocik:
There were a few passenger stations in Little Rock over a century ago. One of the surviving buildings is the former Choctaw Station (Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad). It is located directly across from the Clinton Presidential Library. It serves as part of the University of Arkansas: the Clinton School of Public Service. On its website you can take a virtual tour of the building. http://clintonschool.uasys.edu/about/the-campus/
One of the interesting features of Little Rock is that it has transformed old railroad bridges into pedestrian bridges and park areas. One of the bridges is called Junction Bridge. At the Little Rock side of it, there is a park with a music pavilion and nice trails. This is the location of the original 'Little Rock' on the shore that the city was named after. A history of the city which includes how the city got its name is available at http://www.littlerock.com/famous/history/. Junction Bridge is where I took videos of the streetcar crossing the river on the next bridge upriver. It's a perfect vantage point. According to the state's website: "It was constructed originally in 1899 by the Choctaw and Memphis Railroad and operated by the Union Pacific Railroad. It carried trains across the Arkansas River until 1984 when its active railroad use ended."
North Little Rock's rail yard still plays an important part in the Union Pacific network. The Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department produced a document in 2013 that summarized the state of railroads in Arkansas. While Arkansas has never been central to American railroad history, there have been several companies operating in the state.
There is another former railroad bridge in the downtown area. It is located right next to the Bill Clinton Presidential Library. It has two names: the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge and informally, the Rock Island Bridge, named after the last railroad to use it. This bridge is designed so that bicyclists and pedestrians don't have to climb stairs or use an elevator. There is a suspended ramp on the bridge. This is very welcome, as I found out when I rented a bike and rode the Arkansas River Trail which crosses the river on it.
The Presidential Library is built on the grounds of a former Rock Island rail yard. It is within easy distance of downtown, and is served by the Metro streetcar. I found the presentations inside to be interesting and relevant -- particularly during this election cycle. I would recommend visitors to go and see it.
Bill Clinton was the Governor of Arkansas before becoming President. He therefore spent a lot of time at the Arkansas State Capitol. Here are some photos of it:
Bill Clinton accepted the results of the election for President from the balcony of the Old State House in downtown Little Rock. This was the original state capitol and is built in Greek Revival style.
Little Rock has a place in American history for the intense resistance to the Civil Rights Movement that occurred there. The webpage maintained by the city states:
"Little Rock was thrust into the national and international spotlight in September 1957 when Little Rock Central High School became the site of the first important test of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The ruling held racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional.
Nine black students, known as the "Little Rock Nine," made Civil Rights history when, under protection of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army by orders from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, they entered Little Rock Central High School. Eisenhower's orders came after Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, citing safety concerns, had earlier called out the National Guard to prevent the students from entering."
Another incident is recalled by a simple plaque.
If you are interested in finding out more about Arkansas, there is an interesting museum there. It's called the Historic Arkansas Museum. It is located downtown. On its grounds are several dwellings that were moved from other portions of the state, as well as an exhibit hall. It has an excellent section on the Indian culture of the area.
Talk about surprises! I had no idea that Little Rock was home to Korean Martial Arts in the US!
One last thing: As I mentioned, I rented a bike and rode on the River Trail. It was fantastic! It doesn't take long to get out of town and ride through parks and along parts of the river with no buildings visible. Most of the trail is great -- particularly on the North Little Rock side. Coming back on the Little Rock side, parts of the journey are on sidewalks or in the road. Along the way, one sees the Clinton Library, a submarine made into a museum , an abandoned quarry, beautiful riverscape, and you can ride on a pedestrian/ bicycle only bridge across the Big Dam Bridge (I did not make that name up!).
I was only in Little Rock for a day and a half -- of which I had to work for most of the full day. It's a small city (about 200,000 people). I didn't get to see the residential areas, so I have no idea about what it would be to live there. But as a tourist, it definitely has enough there to see. It's compact, which is why I was able to get so many photos and see so many things. This is another instance of me being surprised about what a city off the beaten path has to offer (see the blog CINCY!).