More than four years ago I used this space to share the ongoing efforts to preserve the Butterfield Overland Trail, a piece of Arkansas’s history that helped shape westward expansion. Now there is more to celebrate as legislation I championed to designate this landmark pathway as a national historic trail has been signed into law.
During the mid-19th century, U.S. Mail contracted the Butterfield Overland Mail Company to transport mail and passengers between St. Louis and Memphis to San Francisco on the Butterfield Overland Trail, which was more commonly referred to as the “Ox-Bow Route” due to its curved path that ran approximately 3,553 miles. It was the first overland transcontinental route by stagecoach.
The stagecoaches traveled through much of Arkansas, making stops in St. Francis, Prairie, Lonoke, Faulkner, Conway, Pope, Yell, Logan and Franklin counties. The northwestern route included stops in Benton, Washington and Crawford counties. The routes merged in Fort Smith before continuing all the way to the Pacific coast.
From 1858 through 1861, the Butterfield Overland Trail served as the connector between the East and West, providing reliable mail service, transportation of goods and a route for settlers to the western frontier. Its significance is evident today. Four segments of the trail in Arkansas have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places in addition to the Potts Inn in Pottsville and the Fitzgerald Station barn in Springdale–two of the original buildings along the trail that are still standing.
Arkansas is blessed to have been the setting for something of such historical significance and now, as a result of the Butterfield Overland Trail’s national designation, many others will learn about its important role in the growth and development of our country.
“We thought it would be a slam dunk,” advocate Marilyn Heifner with Heritage Trail Partners recently told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the idea she first brought to my office in 2004 when I was serving as the Third Congressional District’s Congressman.
It took several years due in part to a required analysis by the National Park Service (NPS), but we remained patient and persistent. When the study was completed in 2018 and NPS determined the Butterfield Overland Trail met the requirements to be a national historic trail, we pushed ahead.
With the support of groups such as the Heritage Trail Partners and Potts Inn Museum, I introduced legislation to finalize the long-overdue recognition. Just before Christmas, Congress approved this designation then early this year the president signed it into law.
I'm pleased we finally achieved the goal of formally classifying and preserving the trail since it is such an important symbol that has deep roots in Arkansas. It is a piece of history that connects us to our past and, just as importantly, opportunities for the future. Not only will this serve as a tool for educating the next generation, it will help attract tourists interested in learning more about the settlement and growth of our country and the role our state played in its development.
The Butterfield Overland National Historic Trail will continue to tell this story, only now with the distinction and visibility it deserves.