A River's Town
The Red River is a west-to-east stream. After it begins trickling in Palo Duro Canyon, it slithers eastward across the Caprock, prairies, and Cross Timbers until it gets to a little town called Fulton, where it meets up with the Little River. Suddenly, its tortured route bends southward towards the Mississippi River. Fulton in Hempstead County, Arkansas is an original river town, having grown up along the Great Bend, and it became a happening place in the 19th century.
From the very beginning, Fulton had a very specific destiny, and that was commerce. Around 1819, investors (among them Edward Cross and Roswell Beebe, both leaders in southwestern Arkansas before and after the Civil War) platted the hamlet with the intention of it becoming the "go-to" place for border crossings between the United States and Spanish Texas and as a northern-most shipping point on the Red River. Ferries - one over Little River and one over Fulton - were chartered, hotels and taverns built, town lots sold, and docks and warehouses erected. Fulton thrived immediately, with its economy centering on cotton, corn, and whiskey shipments. Located at the southern-most tip of the Chihuahua Trail before it entered into Texas and across the stream from a branch of the busy Trammel Trace, Fulton hosted many Texas-bound migrants. Stephen F. Austin opened a temporary supply store there as some of his "original 300" gathered in Fulton to make the trek to his land grant on the lower Brazos River in Texas.
Full Steam Ahead
Things looked up for Fulton throughout the 19th century. After the removal of the Great Raft north of Natchitoches in the late 1830s, steamships were able to ply the Red River quite freely, and Fulton could boast of shipping the most tonnage along the Red River, and second only to Little Rock in Arkansas. The town's reliance on trade made the citizens stoic in times of floods and droughts, and eager to put branch out into other commercial ventures - namely, the railroad. In the 1850s, US congress debated where to place a transcontinental railroad line. It seemed very likely that the preferred route would go from Illinois to California via Arkansas and Texas, and to that end, the Cairo (Illinois) and Fulton Railroad was chartered.
However, the Civil War happened, and the US Congress - free of southern Democratic congressmen - instead voted for the northern route through non-slave holding states. Fulton did not see the railroad come through town until the 1870s.
By the turn of the 20th century, Fulton's shipping business changed from steamships to railroads, and then to roads. The Bankhead Highway (US 67) came through town by the early 1920s, necessitating the erection of a toll bridge, which opened in 1929. The toll bridge came with some controversy, as the state legislature decided to fund it with loans instead of through a bond election, and a private company sued for its purported exclusive right to operate a ferry/toll bridge at Fulton. The state prevailed in the lawsuit, and by 1927, Arkansas declared eminent domain on all privately owned toll bridges.
And yet... a Ghost Town
Strangely, despite Fulton's ability to change its commercial traffic from steamboats to railroads to roads, the town simply withered. Today, the old town is a small shadow of itself. While the post office still operates, Fulton no longer has a school, and the one lone commercial building that remains on its main street is falling in on itself. Old photos only hint at what used to be... but at least we have that.