Indians, who were the first residents of what is now Crittenden County, primarily used the rivers, bayous, and lakes as a means of transportation. The major routes were provided by the Mississippi, St. Francis, Tyronza, and Little Rivers. Ten-Mile, Fifteen-Mile, Wapanocca, Brushy, and Blackfish Bayous fed off the major rivers. Meander belts of the Mississippi River, which were later cut-off from the river, formed what became Horseshoe, Marion, Porter and Wapanocca Lakes.Early settlers, as well as the Indians, used canoes, pirogues, and rafts for moving by water, rather than attempting to push through the swampy land. By the late 1700’s, steamboats and flatboats were moving up and down the rivers, and the steamboats’ demands for fuel began to provide a source of income to early residents with forests harvested to meet the needs.
Marion and nearby residents witnessed great tragedy in April, 1865 when the steamboat, Sultana, exploded into a fiery inferno as it carried, among others, ex-POW Union soldiers back up north after the end of the Civil War. An estimated 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers died when three of the four ship’s boilers exploded, resulting in the greatest maritime disaster in American history. The heyday of steamboat travel came in 1877-90. The construction of the St. Francis Levee, prior to 1905, cut most streams off from the flood waters of the Mississippi River, forever changing the waterways of Crittenden County.The Mississippi was both a friend and foe. While the flood water filled Marion Lake to allow boats to dock in Marion prior to construction of the St. Francis Levee, the town was covered by flood waters during late 1912 and early 1913 after the levee broke at St. Clair.
Those not traveling by water either walked or rode horseback, usually following Indian trails on high ground. As early as 1820, the Territorial Legislature petitioned for a road from Tennessee to Little Rock through Crittenden County. The U.S. Congress appropriated $19,000 in 1821, and work began on what is now known as the Military Road – the first federal highway in Arkansas. The ground was so swampy, the entire original appropriation was used before the road builders were out of Crittenden County.The Military Road became a stage coach mail route in 1831, and stage coach services were provided until the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Choctaw Indians from eastern areas were moved along the Military Road to the Indian Territory, part of what became known as the “Trail of Tears” because so many lives were lost. Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett were among the soldiers transported along the Military Road during the Mexican War of 1845-48. During the War Between the States, men and material for both sides moved along this same roadway.
Many early roads were called corduroy roads because they had nine-foot planks, 2.5 inches thick, placed 1.5 feet apart to make them passable. After the war, a road classification system was adopted. It provided that all roads up and down the Mississippi and east-west passing through the county seat be Class 1 roads and at least 25 feet wide. Others were rated as Class 2 with a 20-foot width, and a third group as Class 3 with a 15-foot width.
Road districts to improve routes were begun in 1859, and by 1903, there were 90 in the county, each collecting taxes for road work and improvements.
Crittenden County was the starting point for the first railroad in Arkansas; the Memphis & Little Rock opened from Hopefield to Devall’s Bluff in 1862. It was incorporated under the act of the General Assembly of the State of Arkansas, approved January 11, 1853. The Memphis & Little Rock experienced serious financial difficulties caused in part to construction costs. Indians in the area called the trains “iron horse on sticks” due to the number of trestles required to carry the rails through the swampy lands. Many of the Chinese settlers in Crittenden County originally came to work on the railroad construction.
Rail transportation developments brought the construction of two rail bridges connecting Arkansas and Tennessee – the Frisco, opened May 12, 1892, and the Harahan, opened July 16, 1916. Later wagonways were added to the Harahan, making it available to other vehicles. Before the construction of the rail bridges, ferries at Hopefield carried passengers across the river.
Other major rail routes were operated by Missouri Pacific, St. Louis Southwestern Railway (Cotton Belt), Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific, Union Pacific, Burlington Northern, and the St. Louis and San Francisco (Frisco) which provided service through Marion. Rail passenger services were ended in 1958 and mail service by trains in 1960.