Memphis to Fort Smith Operations

The operation of stagecoaches between Memphis and Fort Smith proved troublesome from the beginning. Initially, the Butterfield Overland Mail Co. intended to move mail and passengers from Memphis to Fort Smith by steamboat, but the low water levels of the Arkansas River through the summer of 1858 forced Butterfield to contract with an existing stage service — Chidester, Reeside & Co. — to provide passenger and mail service on the route.1 An early eastbound traveler described being delayed two days at Fort Smith, drenched at Dardanelle after walking a mile to find the ferry to cross the Arkansas River, and then delayed again at Des Arc for three days before being able to get a steamboat to Memphis:

The company paid our fare through. This was all right and according to agreement, but I am certain that the department at Washington never contemplated that a delay of five days would take place owing to a want of means of conveyance.2

The Butterfield company eventually took charge of the line and improved operations, also adding a spur to Little Rock after protests that the Arkansas capital had been bypassed. When the Arkansas River returned to navigable levels, passengers and mail could be taken by steamboat from Memphis to Little Rock. Often when the Arkansas River fell low, steamboats could still run up the White River to Clarendon or Des Arc, allowing passengers to connect to stages at that point. The route across Arkansas shifted as rains turned the eastern swamps into quagmire, the rivers rose or fell, and the Memphis-Little Rock Railroad slowly grew west.


  1. Lemke, W.J. and Ted R. Worley. “The Butterfield Overland Mail in Arkansas” (Little Rock, Ark.: Arkansas History Commission, 1957)
  2. San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, “Notes of Travel by the Overland Mail, From Fort Smith to Memphis” (Tuesday, January 4, 1859)