Fulton lies alongside US 67, Interstate 30, AR 195, and the
tracks of the Union Pacific, yet it's still a ghost town. It
boggles my mind.
Fulton and its history is the inspiration
for my book, The Red River Valley in Arkansas: Gateway
to the Southwest." Click on the book to buy!
From the very beginning, Fulton - named after the first successful American
investor in steam locomotion, Robert 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.
The remains of erosion control, steamboat landings and loading platforms line
the Red River along Fulton's levee.
The Gateway: Fulton
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 grew up along the
Great Bend, and it became a happening place in the 19th
century.
An old alignment of the Bankhead
Highway (US 67) west of Fulton.
Sidewalk along Little River Street
The lone remnant of old
downtown Fulton was
destroyed in 2015.
Read
more about this tragedy
in my Blog.
Fulton sits directly along
the Red River and is
protected by levees;
still, floods are not
uncommon in Fulton.
(Arkansas Historical
Commission)
Along the Red River in
Fulton in the early 20th
century
: a steam
locomotive on the Iron
Mountain Railway, an
excursion steam ship,
and the levy road
(Arkansas Historical
Society).
The ferry across the Red
River at the Great Bend,
below Allen's Ferry and
the Little River, operated
until a toll bridge was
erected in the 1920s.
Photograph from Bruce
McNab Collection,
Arkansas Historical
Society, Encyclopedia of
Arkansas.