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Fulton in Hempstead County, Arkansas: An Original River Town

Updated: Oct 17, 2023


Abandoned general store
The last of Fulton's original downtown buildings was demolished in 2015.

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 Red River town, having grown up along the Great Bend, which allowed it to become a happening place in the 19th century.


Not to brag or anything, but Fulton was mentioned already by 1819. From its very beginning, Fulton had a very specific destiny, and that was commerce. Investors (among them Edward Cross and Roswell Beebe, both leaders in southwestern Arkansas before and after the Civil War) platted the hamlet in 1819 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.


Fulton served as a border crossing between the United States and New Spain, then the United States and Mexico, and then, the United States and the Republic of Texas. The crossings here were haphazard and clandestine at best because Spain and Mexico wanted a closed border. The road that linked Washington (Hempstead County) and Fulton wasn't even sanctioned because of the border, which was supposed to be off-limits to American immigrants in the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819. Instead, a rough path, known as Trammel's Trace, was one of the routes to this border town. That didn't stop Texas-bound Americans: 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. Sam Houston, Ben Milam, Davy Crockett, and other notorious and note-worthy people entered Texas at Fulton.


It wasn't until 1836, when Arkansas became a U.S. state and Texas a separate republic, that Fulton finally received an "official" permission to operate a ferry. This ferry allowed Mexicans and Americans to develop a trade route through Texas. Christened as the Chihuahua Trail, it was not a very successful route owing to bad roads.


Full Steam Ahead

With its close proximity to the Red River, Fulton flooded often. But that didn't stop the little town from bounding back. It became a steam boat port, levees were built, and it was supposed to be the transcontinental railroad route for the Cairo and Fulton Railroad in the 1850s. 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 1874 as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad. Interestingly, both Cairo (Illinois) and Fulton are practically ghost towns, now.


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.


Like most towns in the Red River Valley, the Great Depression was not kind to Fulton. Population decline led to the closure of Fulton's schools at this point, barely a century after the town's founding.


However, what initiated Fulton's decline was not the steamboats, railroad, the floods, or even the Great Depression; it was the interstate. The convenience of Interstate 30 led travelers to bypass the town, and as a result, its businesses began to shutter. By 2015, the last remaining commercial building from its old downtown had been destroyed.


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 levees hold back the Red's waters that make up this now-sleepy little village. I wonder how many people drive over the Red River by Fulton on that infernal interstate and don't even realize that they are crossing a former international border.


Abandoned road section.
The Bankhead Highway travled through Fulton and now continues as US 67 and Interstate 30.
Wooden buttresses along Red River bank.
Erosion control placed along the banks at Fulton were placed in th e1930s and reapppear at low water. Check out the deck that was built to move the equipment!
Train crossing truss bridge with steam boat in background at Red River in Fulton.
Fulton was truly a crossroads: railroads, steamboats, and the Bankhead Highway. Yet, it's still a ghost town (1890s, AHS).
Platform ferry with two cars.
The ferry at Fulton crossed where the Red River and Little River met, which sometimes created a lake (1920s, AHS).
Red River at Flood stage at Fulton.
Flooding at Fulton, with men using cotton to stave off inundation (AHS).

Newspaper ad "Town of Fulton."
Fulton advertises itself in the Arkansas Gazette, December 18, 1819.
Map of Fulton Great Bend region in 1850.
Fulton was slated to be on the proposed transcontinental railroad line in the 1850s, as is shown in this 1850 map (LOC).
Map
A Sanborn map of downtown Fulton in 1919 (LOC).

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