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'Rails-to-Trails' Project Serves as Impetus for Delta Heritage Park

Article follows the photos:
  • Old railroad bridge over the Arkansas River

  • Sunset from the Delta Heritage Trail

  • Cypress trees along the Delta Heritage Trail.

December 3, 2002

'Rails-to-Trails' Project Serves as
Impetus for Delta Heritage Park

By Craig Ogilvie, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Delta Heritage Trail is the 49th state park acquired by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.

Still under construction, one of the state's newest parks has the potential to set the benchmark for "rails-to-trails" projects across the Delta, according to Arkansas Parks and Tourism Trails Coordinator Ian Hope. The Delta Heritage Trail State Park is being developed in phases along 73 miles of abandoned Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way in southeast Arkansas between Helena Junction (six miles west of Helena) and Cypress Bend (five miles northeast of McGehee).

The first trail segment has been completed from Helena Junction to Barton, one mile south of U.S. 49 on Ark. 85. Current trailheads along the four-mile stretch are located at Helena Junction and at the U.S. 49 overpass. Parking lots and bike racks are located at each end of the open section, and benches have been placed along the packed limestone pathway. Access to the trail is during daylight hours only.

"The rails-to-trails program helps preserve areas for recreation that would otherwise be lost in the abandonment of railroads," Hope said.

In early 1991, the Union Pacific Railroad officially notified the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism of the potential right-of-way abandonment. Parks and Tourism and the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department jointly informed the Federal Interstate Commerce Commission of their interest in the property.

On Dec. 23, 1992, the State Highway and Transportation Department and Parks and Tourism entered into an agreement with Union Pacific for the donation of the entire 73 miles of track right-of-way. The corridor includes about 887 acres of natural lowlands, 58 bridges -- including a 4,281-ft. concrete and steel trestle over the White River and a 6,020-ft. concrete and steel bridge over the Arkansas River.

The trail agreement was made possible by the railbanking provisions of the National Trails System Act. Railbanking allows railroads to transfer all rights and liabilities inherent in a rail corridor to a public agency sponsor in order to establish a condition of public use.

Should the right-of-way be needed in the future, the railroad has the right to petition the Interstate Commerce Commission for reactivation of the line. This has proven a win-win situation for opening new trails across the nation, as well as a means of preserving rail corridors.

The Delta Heritage Trail, when completed, will pass through some of the most remote and scenic regions of eastern Arkansas. In addition to crossing the White and Arkansas rivers, the trail will trace a portion of the southern boundary of the White River National Wildlife Refuge and pass through the Trusten Holder State Wildlife Management Area.

"The corridor is heavy with plant and wildlife...and the views from the river bridges are fantastic," Hope said.

A study conducted in the 1990s determined that utilization of the abandoned railway for tourism development would have a significant impact on the area economy. It was suggested that hiking and biking trails on the northern and southern sections would be complemented by the operation of an excursion train or rail ferry through the middle section. Under long-range plans, visitors would ride the rails over the largest bridge spans along the route.

"The continued development of the Delta Heritage Trail will bring a greater range of recreational diversity to the region and offer new experiences that visitors would traditionally not expect in the Delta," Hope explained.

The Delta Heritage Trail traverses a historic area of the state that includes:

* The Delta Cultural Center at Helena, which provides a study of the heritage of the old riverport and area. The town is also known for its Civil War history and restored 19th-century architecture.

* The Arkansas Post National Memorial, which marks the site of the first European settlement in the lower Mississippi River Valley (1686). The Post was also Arkansas's first territorial capital and the "jumping-off" place for westward-bound pioneers.

* The Arkansas Post Museum, which is now a state park and features five exhibit buildings filled with artifacts related to prehistoric and early frontier periods through the arrival of the automobile and farm tractors.

* The Louisiana Purchase State Park, which preserves the initial point from which all surveys of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase were initiated. The National Historic Landmark is located at the end of a boardwalk -- which is being restored in 2002 -- high above a backwater swamp. Interpretive panels along the walk reveal the history of the site.

* The Rohwer Relocation Center, which marks the site of a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. Camp residents created many of the monuments located at the National Historic Landmark, located along Ark. 1 in Desha County.

For more information about the Delta Heritage Trail State Park, call (870) 644-3474 or (501) 682-1191 or visit


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"