Memories of Arlberg – Once-booming railroad town has faded into history

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Train depot and workers at old Arlberg. James K. Mackrell Collection, University of Central Arkansas Archives.

At the bottom of Angora Mountain, two miles off Arkansas 110 in southwest Stone County, are the remains of Arlberg, a nearly forgotten settlement from a time long past.

Near the end of Angora Mountain Road, not far from where the gravel runs into the Middle Fork of the Red River, stand worn concrete piers — each one just a few feet in the air. The piers, barely visible from the road because of large trees and overgrown vines and other vegetation, once held the water tower that quenched the thirst of Missouri & North Arkansas (M&NA) Railroad locomotives. The trains stopped at Arlberg to pick up passengers, as well as drop off goods or pick up timber as they steamed through the area.

The crumbling shell of a rock building that was once the canning kitchen for an orphanage still stands. photo by Rob Moritz

A few yards down the narrow road, on the right, stands the crumbling shell of a rock building that was once the canning kitchen for an orphanage that was located in the town for a time. The roof is gone and the tops of the four walls have fallen, leaving the outline of a window in one of the walls.

Arlberg, like Lydalisk, Elba, Barnett and several other timber communities that grew up along the M&NA Railroad in north Arkansas in the first half of the 20th century, have virtually vanished, reclaimed by the dense woods.

Timber town

In the early years of the last century, according to the Boone County Historical and Railroad Society, the small community of Leslie in Searcy County was home to H.D. Williams Cooperage Co., the largest manufacturer of whiskey barrels in the world. The plant covered 68 acres and produced 3,000 to 5,000 barrels a day, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. To provide the timber needed to make the oak barrels and kegs, dozens of small settlements sprang up along the M&NA, whose tracks cut across north Arkansas connecting Joplin, Missouri, to Memphis. The railroad had a depot in Leslie.

Tommy Simmons recalls his childhood growing up in Arlberg. photo Rob Moritz

Tommy Simmons, 89, lived as a boy not far from Arlberg. Today, he recalls that the once-bustling timber settlement had about 150 residents in a half-mile radius. There was a general store, hotel, a blacksmith shop and a post office.

“It had … all the things to support the timber industry that was there,” he said, adding that, for a time, Simmons attended school in Arlberg while his father worked for the railroad.

“When I was a kid, I’d go down with my father to Arlberg and the whole bottom down there would be covered with crossties, stave bolts and pilings where people had brought their timber in,” Simmons said. “There was a spur off the railroad, an extra line … and it ran about a quarter-mile long, and they would set off cars to be loaded.”

The train was vital, Simmons said. “North, south, either way, our only transportation was the train, unless you rode in a wagon or walked.”

Simmons, who served as mayor of Mountain View in the late 1960s and was later the first director of the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, said his first memory of Arlberg is from 1934, when he got to ride into town in a wagon and his father “bought me my first pocket knife from J. B. Thompson General Mercantile. Paid 5 cents for it.”

Regular stops

Arlberg and Elba were regular stops for the M&NA Railroad, delivering goods to the community or picking up timber. In Barnett, just upriver from Arlberg, there was a grocery store, and some residents discovered coal. The coal mine only stayed open a few years, Simmons said, because the vein was on a 45-degree angle “and once they got in there 25 to 30 feet, water began to accumulate and they didn’t have the means to keep it pumped out.”

Train depot and workers at old Arlberg. James K. Mackrell Collection, University of Central Arkansas Archives.

Also, just up the tracks from Arlberg, the Ormond brothers opened a rock quarry. “During the early ’30s they sold rock to the federal government for bank stabilization along the Mississippi River,” he said. “They were rebuilding the levees after the big ’27 flood over there.”

Fire damaged Williams Cooperage in 1912, and the company declared bankruptcy three years later and was reorganized as Export Cooperage Co. In 1921, about 500 men worked for the company, according to an article on the Boone County Historical & Railroad Society website.

Then Prohibition, competition and a workers’ strike all took their toll; Export Cooperage closed in 1923 and the M&NA finally stop running through the communities in 1946.

“Once the railroad left it was just like turning the water faucet off in those little communities,” Simmons said. “Having lived through it … it’s even astonishing. It’s vaporized, evaporated, gone.”

Rob Moritz is a North Little Rock-based freelance writer.

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