One of the most iconic pictures from Faulkner County’s past is this picture of Missouri Pacific’s, “Southerner,” No. 116 enroute from Kansas City to Little Rock. The photograph was taken by Conway photographer Robert B. Clark as the train entered the north portal of the Cadron Ridge tunnel during the summer of 1931.
According to a 1993 Log Cabin article by Fred Petrucelli, Clark set his camera on a tripod and tripped the shutter with a control cable while standing outside the tunnel. No one knew what kind of camera he used but assumed it might have been a 4 x 5 box camera with slides.
The photo graced the cover of the Faulkner County Historical Society’s book, “Faulkner County: Its Land and People” in 1986 and has been published in several journals, magazines and advertisements.
The “Southerner” was initially added to the route in response to various complaints about the schedule of the “Rainbow Special.” The “Rainbow Special,” inaugurated in 1921, provided service between Little Rock and Kansas City. It initially operated on an expedited schedule that only made four stops between Little Rock and Ft. Smith with one of them being Conway. It even carried a Pullman sleeping car which was switched in Kansas City to another train bound for Denver or Omaha. A passenger could board in Conway and travel all the way to Denver or Omaha without changing cars.
By 1924, however, the “Rainbow Special” no longer stopped anywhere between Van Buren and Little Rock. The fast passage of the non-stop train almost caused a collision on June 8, 1924, when it barely missed a Conway fire truck that was responding to an alarm at the Hendrix College Administration Building. The fire truck was returning to the station for more hose when the driver crossed in front of the speeding train. The firemen bailed off the truck and the drive managed to get the truck off the tracks with only seconds to spare.
By June 1925, Missouri Pacific had restored stops to Conway and four other towns due to the numerous complaints filed with the Arkansas Railroad Commission about the “mistreatment” of these communities because the train didn’t stop at their station. It was at this time that the “Southerner” passenger train was added.
A small turntable was added at the south end of the Conway yards for the car to turn around, allowing a dozen passenger train arrivals and departures in each 24-hour period. Several extra tracks as well as the cattle loading yard were removed from downtown Conway at this time. The newly vacated land between the passenger station and Oak Street was converted into a city park.
Missouri Pacific began operating a bus system between Little Rock and Ft. Smith in 1929, stopping at Missouri Pacific train depots as well wherever they were flagged down. This alternate transportation largely replaced local passenger trains.
By June 1931, the “Rainbow Special” and the “Southerner” were operating on a reduced schedule and smaller depots were being closed. The Mayflower station was unmanned in July 1931 and passengers boarding trains there were allowed to purchase tickets directly from the conductor.
In 1937, the two trains were re-designated to provide better service for long-distance travelers. The “Rainbow Special,” re-designated as trains #117 and #124, carried a diner-lounge, coaches and a Kansas City to Hot Springs sleeper. The “Southerner,” now trains #116 and #125, carried a New Orleans to Denver sleeper as well as coaches and a diner-lounge. Southbound trains stopped in Conway at 9:57 a.m. and 9:02 p.m. while northbound trains were scheduled at 12:02 p.m. and 6:27 p.m.
On July 1, 1945, during a time of particularly heavy traffic, train #117 and train #116 had a head-on collision 1 ½ miles south of Plumerville. Each train had been running behind schedule because of heavy traffic and communications were garbled. Over 150 passengers and railway mail clerks were injured, and the engineer of the northbound train was killed. This wreck helped speed the installation of automatic block signals along the line which were placed into service later that year.
The “Southerner” was discontinued in July 1949 but the “Rainbow Special” remained in service. It was dieselized in 1951 but Pullman sleeping car service ended on the Little Rock to Kansas City route in 1954. On-board meal service was discontinued in 1959. Passenger service through Conway ended in March 1960.