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How the decline of the freight rail industry highlighted the importance of community resilience: Booneville, Arkansas

In my last post, we explored the story of the small farming town of Murdo, South Dakota after the closure of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. By establishing the 1880 Town, an attraction providing a glimpse into Murdo’s railroad heyday, the town was able to provide a means of survival. However, Murdo’s survival past the closure of its railroad lifeline is not entirely unique, nor is the means by which they did so. Whereas Murdo mainly relied on the railroad to connect it to the rest of the world, some towns built their entire economy around the railroad, making the task of survival more difficult. Despite the odds, Booneville, located in Western Arkansas, is one example of a town that did, despite their previous dependence.

Booneville 1902
Main Street in Booneville circa 1902 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With a current population of 3,900, Booneville is most notable as the birthplace of Baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean. According to Joseph Schwieterman, in his book “When the Railroad Leaves Town”, Booneville got its introduction to rail in 1899 when the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad was laid through the town on its way east. In 1902, this line was acquired by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, better known as the Rock Island Line. The success of the Rock Island line, and Booneville’s status as a divisional point in the network translated to a boom for the town. This prominence was represented by the construction of the Grier House, a restaurant that would eventually be turned into the railroad’s depot. However, apart from the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium and a robust agricultural sector, the town did little to diversify its economy away from the railroad. Though the first 30 years of the 20th century this spelled prosperity for the community, the onset of the Great Depression would expose this fragility.

Rock Island Train poster
Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Rockette circa 1950’s (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Great Depression led, as it did for many railroads, to the the bankruptcy of the Rock Island Line in 1933. This marked the beginning of a decline that would only be reprieved by the temporary uptick in railroad profits due to wartime traffic in the 40’s. The end of the Second World War saw the resumption of the decline, and, in spite of attempts by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad to introduce faster trains, services were gradually reduced. Positive developments in the 1950’s such as the opening of the Ace Comb Company factory were not enough for Booneville and in 1967, the line servicing Booneville became freight only. Mounting losses by the Rock Island Line, coupled with the completion of Interstate 40, led to the closure of many of the town’s small businesses as well as a drop in the population.

In spite of efforts by the Booneville community as well as the state governments of Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma, the railroad in Booneville closed permanently in 1980. Gradually, evidence of the railroad’s presence disappeared, with the once famous Grier House burning down in 2001. The railroad’s closure left Booneville as the largest town in Arkansas not serviced by rail or the Interstate Highway system. This isolation is reminiscent of the town’s situation between its founding and the construction of the first rail line serving the town. However, this has not spelt the death knell for the town, as evidenced by the stable population levels between 1980 and the present day.

Today, the town stands as a testament of the importance of adaptability as a component of resilience. It has managed to realign its economy to center on small manufacturing and the state-run Booneville Human Development Center. Together, these two sectors account for approximately 45% of employment. In fact, the town has continued to demonstrate its resilience in recent times, most notably after the explosion of the Cargill Inc. meat packing plant in 2008. According to CBS News, the plant was the single largest employer in the town, with a workforce of 800, or 20% of the Booneville population at the time. Following the fire, Cargill decided not to rebuild the plant, leaving many unemployed. Benefits packages quickly ran out, and sales tax revenues sharply dropped. However, 10 years later, with clothing-manufacturer Rockline Inc. replacing lost jobs and the opening of a Walmart, Booneville is now at nearly the same rate of employment as prior to the explosion.

“If I would have been able to look into the future 10 years then, I wouldn’t have thought we would be this good,” said Booneville Mayor Jerry Wilkins, in an interview with Times Record.

The residents of Booneville, like those of Murdo, continue to persevere in spite of lasting economic challenges. This is yet another example of that intangible element that binds us to our communities and enables communities to be resilient.

Sources and Further Reading

How the decline of the freight rail industry highlighted the importance of community resilience: Murdo, South Dakota – Global Resilience Institute

Through the Decades – The United States Census Bureau

When the Railroad Leaves Town: American Communities in the Age if Rail Line Abandonment – Joseph P. Schwieterman

Booneville Human Development Center – Arkansas Department of Human Services

Meat Packing Plant Explodes in Arkansas – CBS News

Booneville marks decade since Cargill fire – Times Record

Booneville Rock Island Depot – Abandoned Arkansas

I.C.C. Clears Union Pacific Bid to Merge With Chicago, Rock Island & Application Was Filed 10 Years Ago—Certain Conditions Fixed – New York Times