Hibblen aids effort to save historic railroad depot

Michael Hibblen. Photo by Ben Krain.

When Michael Hibblen learned that the century-old Rock Island Railroad Depot in Perry, Arkansas, had been saved from demolition, he was thrilled that a unique piece of history would be preserved for future generations. 

“It feels great,” said Hibblen, news director for UA Little Rock Public Radio. “We thought it was a long shot from the beginning to save the depot, but it really does feel great to know that it will be preserved. It really is an important relic from a different era in life.”

Hibblen developed a fascination for the Rock Island Railroad when he was in second grade. The railroad ran directly in front of his school in North Little Rock, and he took note when the trains stopped rolling by in March 1980. In high school, he began researching the Rock Island and recorded the first of many interviews he would conduct over the years with former employees of the Rock Island.

He loved the railroad so much that in 2017 he wrote a book called “Rock Island Railroad in Arkansas,” which was published by Arcadia Publishing. The book covered the railroad’s nearly 80-year history as a major railroad providing passenger and freight services in Arkansas.

The line was built by the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad in about 1899, primarily to move coal from what was then Indian Territory (today Oklahoma) through Arkansas to the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee. A decline in rail travel after World War II and an increase in trucks hauling freight over government-subsidized interstates were among factors in the railroad’s demise.

Most of the tracks that traversed the state were taken up, but a few relics, like the Little Rock passenger station, which is now the Clinton School of Public Service, and the Arkansas River bridge, remain as monuments to this once great railroad.

An effort has been underway for the last year and a half to save the depot in Perry. The current owner, the shortline Little Rock & Western Railway, had planned to tear down the building to make way for a new locomotive servicing facility. The railroad, which operates a stretch of former Rock Island tracks west of Little Rock, recently gave its approval for the Perry County Historical & Genealogical Society to move the building about 150 feet down the railroad tracks to a piece of land owned by the city of Perry. 

Michael Hibblen aided an effort to save the century-old Rock Island Railroad Depot in Perry, Arkansas. Photo by Michael Hibblen.
Michael Hibblen aided an effort to save the century-old Rock Island Railroad Depot in Perry, Arkansas. Photo by Michael Hibblen.

The agreement calls for Perry, which has a population of 314, to purchase the depot for $10. Since the depot will remain near the railroad tracks, it has a better chance of being named to the National Register of Historic Places, Hibblen said. Such a designation would make the building, which the city is planning to turn into a museum, eligible for grants to fund its restoration. Typically a building that has been moved is not eligible for the national designation, but an exception is allowed if the building is in imminent danger of destruction.

The effort to save the depot has been a collaborative effort by the county historical group, the city of Perry, and Preserve Arkansas, which is a nonprofit organization that strives to save historic buildings. Last year, Rachel Patton, executive director of Preserve Arkansas, asked Hibblen to speak to the Perry County Historical and Genealogical Society.

Since then, Hibblen found himself serving in an unexpected role as a liaison between the railroad and the groups fighting to preserve the depot. Hibblen has detailed the experience on his personal blog, hibblenradio.com, and set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for the cost of relocating the depot. Moving it will cost between $7,000 and $8,000, which the group is still raising, as well as $6,200 that has already been paid to cover the cost of insurance. So far, the online campaign has raised $5,505 of its $9,000 goal.

The Perry depot is significant as the last wood frame depot of the Rock Island that is still standing in Arkansas. It’s believed that the depot, which provided passenger and freight service, was built in 1918. It was along a line that ran from Memphis, Tennessee, through Little Rock, west into Oklahoma, and as far west of Amarillo, Texas. From there, passengers could get connecting service through another railroad to Los Angeles, California.

Passenger trains stopped running along the line in 1967, but the depot continued to be used by employees until the Rock Island Railroad was shut down in 1980. The same year, the shortline Little Rock & Western Railway was created using a 79-mile stretch of former Rock Island tracks between Little Rock and Danville. It initially used the Perry depot for its headquarters until a more modern building office was constructed nearby in 1984. Since then the old depot has only been used for storage.

According to Hibblen, the fact that the depot was never abandoned was a factor in it still being in relatively good shape. Even though the building will need quite a bit of work to restore it to its former glory, Hibblen looks forward to the day when it will preserve the history of the area and the Rock Island Railroad.

“The depot was so important for the country,” Hibblen said. “Before the interstate system, railroads were the main way people got around, how the mail arrived, and where the telegram office was. The depot was the lifeline to the outside world.”  

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