A trip to Delta Heritage Trail State Park in southeast Arkansas is a journey on a historic rail route that transports you through time, connects you with communities, and reveals rich Delta heritage.
Much of this rail-to-trail park is being developed from an abandoned railroad, and when complete will offer over 80 miles of trail for hiking and cycling. If you know what to look for, signs of the railroad still abound along this trail and show how it was a vital transportation artery for the communities it served.
In this article, you’ll discover how the long straightaways and nearly level grade hint at Delta Heritage Trail’s railroad legacy.
While the straight pathway and level course are the key signs of a former railroad, this legacy is actually showcased at many points. The section of trail between the Helena Junction and Lick Creek Trailheads is a treasure chest of secrets waiting to be revealed. It provides a portal into the importance of this line to people of the past.
At the very north end of the trail is the Helena Junction Trailhead at which two secrets can be found. One can see an elevated path that is adjacent to the road leading to the community of Lexa and points beyond.
Helena Junction Looking North Toward Lexa: Imagine you are standing here in 1946 at 5:42 p.m. In the distance you hear the whistle announcing the departure of the southbound Missouri Pacific Delta Eagle passenger train from the nearby town of Lexa. This is right on time according to their published timetable. A few minutes later it passes you and onboard would probably be passengers hidden from the outside by the venetian blinds and curtains featured on this train. These people are from small communities connected to Memphis by this train and perhaps returning from a fun day of shopping while riding in the comfort of air conditioning, an advertised feature of the Delta Eagle train.
A second elevated path is also visible near the Helena Junction Trailhead. Rail lines are like today’s interstate highways, in that they often have branches that divert off into downtown communities. Like an exit off an interstate, this branch line went to the nearby town of Helena and trains used it to drop off passengers and deliver timber cut from the vast forests of the region. After a train finished business off this exit, it came back on the main line where it would not be hindered by downtown traffic on the way to the next stop.
As you walk or cycle the Delta Heritage Trail today, blending into the growing trees along the trail are a few remaining telegraph poles. These poles supported lines that carried the text messages of the period in the form of electrical pulses that were decoded into readable text by station operators.
The purpose of these messages varied. Some were for business, like keeping trains on schedule. Other messages were sent to distant family and friends. Imagine all the stories that passed overhead on these lines. There was good news like the birth of a child or an announcement of marriage and bad news such as letting distant family members know about the death of a loved one.
Closer to the Lick Creek Trailhead is another former rail line that is visible as an elevated path on both sides of the trail. During some times of the year it is easier to see than others, depending on how much green foliage and underbrush has grown up in the spring and summer months.
This crossing was named Barton Junction after the nearby community of Barton. It reveals a heritage of railroad passenger service that once was widespread across the Delta. Originally constructed by the Arkansas Central Railroad connecting Helena and Clarendon, it was often referred to as “Uncle Bud’s Line” after an engineer that worked on it. Mail order catalogs were the Amazon of the period and just about everything was shipped by rail. The sound of the approaching train crossing this junction in the afternoon brought excitement to Barton as it meant the mail was about to arrive.
The section between the Helena Junction and Lick Creek Trailheads is a treasure chest of secrets waiting to be revealed. I encourage you to come hike or cycle this section and see if you can find these secrets and more along the trail. You can begin your journey by parking at the Helena Junction Trailhead and then hike or cycle to the Lick Creek Tailhead that is about 7.5 miles round trip. Parking is also available at the Lick Creek Trailhead. Another option is to access the trail from the Barton Trailhead that is roughly halfway between with the distance to Helena Junction at 4 miles round trip or Lick Creek 3.2 miles round trip.
After your trip, please stop in the park’s visitor center at Barton and let us know about your railroad legacy findings. You also can see our display of historic railroad artifacts and visit our gift shop where we sell cold drinks, snacks, and souvenirs. Restrooms and water are available 24 hours at the visitor center. Please note at the time of publication, we are experiencing the COVID-19 public health emergency. Completed trail sections remain open, but please call ahead to check operating hours and availability of the visitor center, restrooms, and other facilities.
We also schedule guided hikes and tours throughout the year. Please contact the park about these and together, we’ll discover even more secrets along the railroad.
Sources for further reading:
Bradford, Gene. “Barton.” Phillips County Historical Quarterly 11 (December 1972): 26-39.
Porter, Rusty. “Railroads of Phillips County.” Phillips County Historical Quarterly 26 (June and September 1988): 1–26.