The Auto Age in Eureka Springs Roadside Culture from the 1920s to 1960s In and Around Eureka Springs
Eureka Springs, Arkansas was founded in 1879 as a spa town, coming to life as a boom town as word of the benefits of healing springs located within the area spread. In the 1890s the town blossomed into an elegant resort. Health-seekers both rich and poor came “to take the waters” via stagecoach, wagon, horseback, on foot and railway. This spa era continued until around 1910, when modern medical practices changed the ways in which illnesses were treated and the automobile changed the way in which people traveled.
The heart of Eureka Springs is a two-square mile area in which about 700 structures cling to hillsides held up by 55 miles of retaining walls. This part of town sat virtually undisturbed for decades, with some infill beginning after WWII. Eureka Springs is noted for an abundance of eclectic turn-of-the-century architecture. The entire town was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. A re-nomination upgrading the town to National Significance occurred in 2005.
However, the south, east and west sides of Eureka Springs are edged by U.S. Highway 62, a major artery running from Niagara Falls, New York to El Paso, Texas. Built in the 1930s, this highway is still a major thoroughfare across the U.S. In northern Arkansas much of it is still two-lane.
Early in the Auto Age, Eureka Springs had a very savvy politician, Claude A. Fuller, in various leadership roles. As mayor, he had five miles of streets paved in concrete – taking advantage of a new state law that permitted the state highway department to build highways through towns if the towns would pay half the cost. (He later found a way for the town’s share to be forgiven.) From 1928-1938 he served in the House of Representatives and was influential in routing US Highway 62 through the rocky Ozark Mountains near Eureka Springs. It was Fuller, through connections made earlier during his time in the Arkansas legislature, who arranged for the prison camp and labor in the early 1920s who hand-picked the road from limestone bluffs that would later become US Highway 62.
When first completed, this part of US Highway 62 was known as The Ozark Skyway or the Ozark Trail. Its history followed the pattern of many early roads. At the start of the twentieth century good roads were not a necessity. Automobiles were a novelty used only by the very rich. Most rural Americans traveled by foot, horse or horse and buggy. Urban dwellers used networks of subways and streetcars. Out-of-town trips were made via the extensive rail service that reached out into all areas of the United States, both urban and rural.
Henry Ford changed the status quo with assembly line techniques to produce affordable automobiles. His Model T became a common sight all over the country. In 1912 there were an estimated 12 cross-country drivers; by 1921, an estimated 20,000; by 1921, 9 million. By 1922 there were an estimated 10.8 million cars on road. Car registrations increased from 6.7 million in 1919 to 19.2 million in 1926. This increase in the number of cars was the impetus for the demand for good roads and amenities.
The Ozarks Playgrounds Association tourbook from the 1926 and newspaper ads as late as the 1940s mention The Jefferson Highway as running through Eureka Springs. This was the mid-continent north-south major artery, similar to the noted east-west Lincoln Highway, called "From Palm to Pine Vacation Route". The route seems to have shifted occasionally, but The Jefferson Highway, at least some of the time, matched what became US Highway 62 from Gateway to Eureka Springs to Harrison, then ran through Little Rock and Pine Bluff on what is now US Highway 65. There are several museums and groups collecting and exhibiting Jefferson Highway information such as the Powers Museum in Carthage, Mo.
The 1916 Federal Aid Highway Act was a response to this confusion. The 1920s were the “golden age” of road building, continuing on into the 1930s. The private and community owned roads were organized into a system of numbered U.S. Highways which includes our own Highway 62. This was the norm of new roadbuilding until the interstate highway system of the 1950s.